11 May 2012

Across the Atlantic with Burnett

Trade paperback, 476 pages
Published 2008 (originally 1907)
Acquired and read March 2012
The Shuttle
by Frances Hodgson Burnett

What what what!? I enjoyed Burnett's Through One Administration, but I actually loved this! Who knew that Burnett could write this well? The Shuttle begins with Rosalie Vanderpoel, an American heiress, being married off to an English lord, Nigel Anstruthers. But Lord Nigel, whose estate is rapidly deteriorating in this modern world, doesn't get the access to the Vanderpoel fortune that he anticipated. The novel, which begins with some comedy about capitalist Americans and "the good Early Victorian days when 'a nice little woman to fetch your slippers for you' figured in certain circles as domestic bliss," quickly turns dark at that point, as Lord Nigel and his mother heap verbal abuse on Rosalie and cut her off from her family. (Later, more of this time is filled in through flashback, and it is similarly emotionally harrowing.) Rosalie is a bit of a milksop, but Burnett gets you into her head such that you feel what she's feeling quite intensely.

The main action picks up many years later, when Rosalie's younger sister, Betty, comes of age and decides to go spend her time in England to find out what happened to Rosalie. She finds a sister oppressed, a son deformed, and an estate neglected. What makes The Shuttle great is Betty: she's a no-nonsense girl of a type I can't remember ever having seen in turn-of-the-century fiction before. She looks at people and sizes up their value... but the narrative doesn't portray that as a problem. She wants to increase her assets, and one of those assets is happiness. So she uses her money to make herself and everyone around her happy. Looking at an amazing garden in decay, she comments, "it is all too beautiful-- to beautiful and too valuable to be allowed to lose its value and its beauty. It is a throwing away of capital." It's a very positive depiction of capitalism, and quite entertaining. Betty is a character who knows what she wants and takes it, and isn't a villain for doing that.

There's also G. Selden, an American typewriter salesman on vacation in America, and Mount Dunstan, the sarcastic-but-reliable aristocrat who lives next door to the Anstruthers estate. Selden is fun, as he pluckily attempts to sell people typewriters-- because what can solve your problems better than a typewriter? I'd read a spin-off about "G. Selden, Roving Typewriter Salesman" in a heartbeat. Mount Dunstan isn't too bad, and I suspect he's the only male redhead portrayed as sexually attractive in all of fiction.

But it's not just all happiness, light, and forthright American competence. Betty can do all this because Lord Nigel is out of town-- and when he returns, the situation turns dark very quickly. I read most of the last third in a cafe sitting next to a friend who had already read it herself, and she experienced the full gamut of my emotional reactions: shock, tension, horror, elation. I was completely and utterly emotionally absorbed in the story, to an extent that I rarely am. I don't want to say too much about it all, because it would spoil it when you go and read it (which you obviously will be doing), but it's completely gripping. Having opened the book with the joke about certain men just wanting a wife to fetch slippers, Burnett inverts it by revealing the ultimate outcome of that attitude as completely monstrous.

My only reservation about the novel is that my edition (a very classy-looking Persephone Books edition) is abridged. I suspect this is for the best-- Burnett is often long-winded, and I'm sure many navel-gazing passages were struck in favor of the exciting stuff-- but I would have liked to have made an informed choice. It is not even indicated on the Persephone Books website that the book is abridged; I did not know it until I got the book and saw it on the copyright page. The abridgment is not mentioned in Anne Sebba's preface, either, and there is absolutely no indication of what kind of content was cut or how the decisions to cut were made. A disappointing component to an otherwise very attractive edition.

No comments:

Post a Comment