12 May 2012

Before the War with Burnett

Hardcover, 374 pages
Published 1922
Acquired March 2012

Read April 2012
The Head of the House of Coombe
by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Head of the House of Coombe was one of Burnett's last novels. It opens with a girl nicknamed "Feather," as flighty as her name implies who marries young-- and then her husband dies, leaving her with a baby she's never interacted with. Poor Robin grows up entirely separately from her mother, and indeed, from anyone, until she finally makes friends with a boy named Donal. Who is then torn away from her, of course.

What is perhaps most interesting about this novel is that it was written after the Great War, but set before. As such, there's a sense of imminent apocalypse to the whole thing. One sees this in science fiction written before the war (such as Griffith's Angel of the Revolution and Wells's The War in the Air), but it was striking in a literary novel set after the war. The apocalyptic tone makes sense given the scale of the catastrophe that was the war, but The Head of the House of Coombe also has, like much apocalyptic fiction, a vaguely utopian feeling. The world will be utterly destroyed... but something new will emerge from that. It's not what I expected-- surely that's the optimistic attitude of someone who's not yet had to live through a war? The novel ends with a great scene where Robin is finally reunited with Donal, but it's the same day that Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated. Whoops.

The other good bit is when Robin goes to take a job as a lady's companion and falls straight into a German plot! In this sequence, as in A Lady of Quality and The Shuttle, Burnett shows her mastery of the "sensation" genre. I, for one, was in a panic!

Other than those bits, this is one of Burnett's duller novels. It's certainly not as bad as That Lass o' Lowrie's, Haworth's, or Little Lord Fauntleroy, but it's not as engaging as the best of her later work, either.

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