I would have said I was pretty familiar with the works of Frances Hodgson Burnett, having read not only A Little Princess and The Secret Garden but even Little Lord Fauntleroy. I would also have said I was something of an expert on novels about American heiresses marrying into the English peerage in the late 19th century (having written a book on the same topic). So I was pretty surprised to find The Shuttle, Burnett’s American heiress novel.
The English firm Persephone Books published an edition in 2007. I got my version from Amazon for the Kindle but it’s also available on Eucalyptus along with many other Burnett novels, courtesy of the Gutenberg Project. Persephone (not unlike those fabulous Virago Press books of the 1980s, with their dark green bindings) specializes in forgotten writing from the late 19th century to the inter-war era. Only problem is — yes, some books deserve to be forgotten. I’m sorry to say The Shuttle is one of them.
The “shuttle” of the title is Burnett’s metaphor for a bond woven in the late 19th century by the transatlantic travel of pretty, rich women and English aristocrats. She goes back to the shuttle that travels back and forth from one side to another of a loom, which of course is the origin of the metaphor that gives the Times Square Shuttle its name. There’s a lot of highfalutin generalization about England and American coming to understand each other over these years — but of course this commentary doesn’t make a novel. For that you need characters.
Burnett’s not bad at that part: she invents the immensely rich Vanderpoel girls. Rosalie, the elder by twelve years, is one of the first generation of American women to marry an Englishman. She gets a particularly nasty specimen who wants to control her money. Anglo-American marital commerce is new enough so that the two countries can’t read each other’s signals. Hence her family’s acceptance of Sir Nigel as a spouse. He takes her off to England and immures her in the country at his dilapidated estate, spending all her money on … Burnett mentions only a Spanish dancer but hints at other vices. I think I grasped that he became infected with syphilis, but it’s all pretty veiled.
Rosalie has a younger sister, Bettina, who is a different kind of American — a raving beauty (I thought possibly in the Jennie Jerome mold, with dark hair and a sparkling eye) full of initiative and sophistication. Betty, when she gets old enough, goes to England to see why Rosy appears to have severed her links with the Vanderpoel family.
I liked the rescue story in A Little Princess, but this all took a lot longer. The magnificent Bettina finally gets her way, and finds love (or, as Burnett puts it, LOVE) with a worthy magnificent Englishman. The dastardly Sir Nigel meets a sticky fate. Burnett does entirely too much philosophizing. This is her attempt on Henry James’ territory and next time I feel drawn to that plot line, I’ll just reread The Portrait of a Lady instead.