A review of The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett
There is so much fantastic contemporary literature out there that it can be difficult to remember also to look backwards. Thank goodness, then, for publishers like Persephone Books, whose elegant grey covers hold stories by brilliant but often forgotten female writers of the twentieth century to whom we all ought to be paying more attention. In fact, I was surprised when I picked up The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett (better known to me for her children’s novel The Secret Garden) to find just how much contemporary relevance it has. At times, it felt a bit like standing in an echo chamber. There is the outbreak of a deadly disease (typhoid fever), during which the rich do very little to help. There is the scene in which a young woman is on the verge of being murdered by a man, lost in the woods and far from home. And there is the figure of Sir Nigel Anstruthers, who does a fine line in gaslighting other characters, including but not limited to his own wife.
While the parallels with today’s headlines are astonishing, these few plot points are also where The Shuttle stops bearing any close resemblance to contemporary fiction. Written between 1900 and 1907, when it was first published, it is a novel very much of its time, almost breathless with the sense of possibility ushered in by the turning of the century. Frances Hodgson Burnett, who was herself a great traveller, takes up here the ever-tightening links between Britain and the USA, which were made possible during this period by technological advancements in both communication and shipping. As increasing numbers of people – particularly the young and wealthy – crossed the pond to seek love or fortunes in ‘a manner as epoch-making, though less war-like, than that of William the Conqueror’, the two countries wove closer and closer together; the fabric of what would later become that ‘special relationship’ created by something the author imagines to be a great invisible shuttle. There is a certain romance to this idea, as there was at the time to the notion of transatlantic travel, and from the very first pages the reader can’t help but be swept up in a giddy whirl of new possibilities and adventures.
Despite her evident approval of travel and the growing alliance between the two countries, Frances Hodgson Burnett also paints an astute portrait of the darker sides of romance. The novel centres on the marriage between impoverished English aristocrat Sir Nigel Anstruthers and young Rosalie Vanderpoel, the eldest daughter of a New York billionaire. Married before she turns twenty, Rosalie’s excitement soon turns to horror when her husband shows his true colours: he is physically and psychologically abusive, cuts her off from her family, and leaves her all but locked up in his Kent manor house while he spends her fortune and engages in affairs. After twelve years of living in this nightmare, Rosalie’s salvation comes in the form of her younger sister Bettina, now grown up and as unlike her sister as it is possible to be. Quick-witted and unafraid, she journeys to England to turn Rosalie and Nigel’s life on its head, falling in love herself in the process and proving to be the very essence of a ‘modern woman’.
The story sounds simple enough and not necessarily the kind of thing I’d go for – I’m not a fan of a neatly happy ending, it has to be said – but The Shuttle gave me more than I’d bargained for. Despite the fact that a fair amount of simpering goes on, I found myself deeply invested in the characters – particularly Betty, but also members of the well-drawn supporting cast, including the brooding Lord Mount Dunstan, the kindly clergyman Mr Penzance and Rosalie’s unusually perceptive (and wonderfully named) son Ughtred. As a result (and thanks, too, to a couple of unexpected plot twists) the story was far more compelling than I’d anticipated; it did end up reading, as the publisher boldly claims, like something of a ‘page-turner’.
My absorption in the world of The Shuttle wasn’t purely down to believable characters, but also to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ability to create a tangible sense of place. Though New York is only visited briefly, she captures all the colour and clamour of its streets, while the Kent countryside is depicted in pastoral scenes that stay on just the right side of cliché. Her words on English autumn weather, for example, hit the nail exactly on the head: ‘the rain began to fall softly, slowly, and with a suggestion of endlessness. It was a sort of mist itself, and became a damp shadow among the bare branches of trees’. And woven through it all is the sense of a world trembling on the cusp of change, touched still by a sort of innocence that the reader is all too aware will soon be shattered.
Though we aren’t given a lot of detail on the wider fate of women during this period, the twelve–year age gap between Rosalie and Bettina – and some major differences in character – are enough to create two opposing experiences of womanhood. Bettina, who has all the typical attributes of an old-fashioned heroine, is also educated and business-minded, not to mention possessed of a feisty temperament that proves more than a match for the wicked Nigel Anstruthers and his view that ‘a very clever woman is something cunning and debased’. Although she may lack some nuance, Bettina is hard not to fall for, but I was disappointed by the narrator’s often supercilious tone when it came to describing Rosalie: ‘a petted, butterfly girl, pretty and admired and surrounded by inordinate luxury’. More than this, she is often described to us as ‘stupid’ – a characterisation that seems to undermine her husband’s clearly terrible treatment of her. While it is important to read novels like this in context, the subtext of ‘she was stupid so she had it coming to her’ did rankle a bit, especially when contrasted with the otherwise supportive feminist overtones.
We didn’t always see eye to eye on the characters, but the narrative voice was one of my chief delights in reading this novel. Smart and insightful, with an edge of wry humour, it contributes much to the page-turning quality. And though the language may be of a different time and the smelling salts called for a little too often, The Shuttle is a pleasing reminder that there is more to link us to the past than we might think, and that even a novel written more than a hundred years ago can still end up offering a fresh and lively escape.