I’ve already said that I struggled with this book and thought it would never end. Such a shame, as The Secret Garden is still one of my favourite books and I have enjoyed others by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The Shuttle was first published in1907. It’s been reprinted as Persephone Book 71 but I got it as a free download for the Kindle. I’ve been told that the Persephone edition is abridged; possibly some of the worst passages have been cut and
people who’ve read that version won’t understand my issues with the book.
The ‘shuttle’ of the title moves between the United States and England, weaving their peoples closer together. We have vibrant New York, full of noise, bustle and phenomenal wealth (for a few) contrasted with a decaying rural England that is nevertheless very beautiful. Our American characters are the millionaire Vanderpoels: wise father, dim mother, pretty but feeble Rosy and her younger sister, the sharp child Bettina, who is the real heroine of the novel. For England, stand up Sir Nigel Anstruthers (boo! hiss!) a pantomime caricature of a Sir Jasper and Lord Mount Dunstan, equally on his uppers but thoroughly decent.
Anstruthers has squandered any money he had on dissolute behaviour and goes to the States with the cynical intention of securing a wealthy bride. Astonishingly, all but one of the Vanderpoels fail to spot that he’s a bad’un and he makes off with poor little Rosy, seeing her as a chattel. He thought Girls were educated to fetch slippers as retrievers were trained to go into the water after sticks, and terriers to bring back balls thrown for them. He’s annoyed not to get a settlement with his bride and once back in England succeeds in destroying her spirit, getting her money away from her and preventing any contact with her family.
Meanwhile, little Bettina, hereafter known as Betty, has been educated abroad and has grown up beautiful, clever and with all her father’s acumen. She hated Anstruthers from the start and has never forgotten her childhood resolution to ‘go and find Rosy’. She tells her father, “Whatsoever I find at Stornham Court, I shall neither weep nor be helpless. There is the Atlantic cable, you know. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why heroines have changed. When they could not escape from their persecutors except in a stage coach, and could not send telegrams, they were more or less in everyone's hands. It is different now. Thank you, father, you are very good to believe in me."
This is a good example of how schizophrenic this book is: in some parts a world where wicked baronets can lock up their wives and in others a place where calm common sense prevails. Betty sets off for Europe, ironically on the same ship as Mount Dunstan, who has failed to make his fortune and is returning home in a bitter frame of mind.
Betty finds a horror scene at Stornham: a sister barely recognizable and nearly out of her wits, with a crippled son and heir (shades of Colin Craven). Luckily, Anstruthers is away and Betty opens her purse and begins to put right the big house and the tumbledown estate cottages, to help the villagers and restore the gardens. This is probably the best part of the book. "One feels it so much in a garden," she said. "I have never lived in a garden of my own. This is not mine, but I have been living in it--with Kedgers (the gardener). One is so close to Life in it--the stirring in the brown earth, the piercing through of green spears, that breaking of buds and pouring forth of scent! Why shouldn't one tremble, if one thinks?” Wherever she goes, Betty astonishes everyone with her tall, upright carriage, her beauty, her lovely clothes, her kindness and head for business. Soon, the county begins calling again at Stornham.
While about this business she meets and recognizes Mount Dunstan, at first taking him to be the gamekeeper on what is in fact his own ruined estate. At this moment the shuttle intervenes. The Shuttle having in its weaving caught up the thread of G. Selden's rudimentary existence and drawn it, with the young man himself, across the sea, used curiously the thread in question, in the forming of the design of its huge web. As wool and coarse linen are sometimes interwoven with rich silk for decorative or utilitarian purposes, so perhaps was this previously unvalued material employed.. G Selden is a New Yorker, a poor typewriter salesman but full of American ‘can do’. Through him there are more meetings between Betty and Mount Dunstan. There is far too much of G. Selden, IMO, both here and when he gets back to New York.
Eventually Anstruthers returns home to find everything altered, including his meek little wife. He knows Betty is entirely responsible, hates her for it but at the same time finds her distractingly attractive. This is where the book sinks again into melodrama. "Do you know," she (Betty) inquired, "that you are talking to me as though you were the villain in the melodrama?" Too true! Here he goes: “I swear to you that if you play this game with me I will drag you two down if I drag myself with you. I have nothing much to lose. You and your sister have everything." The man carries on like Rumpelstiltskin and gets worse as the book grinds to its close. He has spotted an attraction between Betty and Mount Dunstan which he is determined to foil and goes to astonishing lengths in his attempts to do so. Betty sensibly sends for her parents, so that her father can sort everything out and get the girls out of danger.
That’s pretty much the plot but FHB wasn’t content to leave it there; she seemed to be trying to write a Great Novel on big themes like the relationship between England and America, rich and poor, good and evil. That’s why the book is padded out with tiresome passages like this one: Perhaps it is now, but it was not apparently centuries ago, which was when it all began and when 'Man' and the 'Race' had not developed to the point of asking questions, to which they demand replies, about themselves and the things which happened to them. It began in the time of Egbert and Canute, and earlier, in the days of the Druids, when they used peacefully to allow themselves to be burned by the score, enclosed in wicker idols, as natural offerings to placate the gods. The modern acceptance of things is only a somewhat attenuated remnant of the ancient idea.
The novel is full of similarly tedious and pretentious observations which should have been edited out.
The other strange thing about the book is FHB’s defence of traditional English feudal society, in which it’s the squire’s duty to look after his estate and tenants and only right that American millions should be poured back into the old country to maintain this status quo. Bettina says, "I was born in Fifth Avenue; yet since I have known this I shall be quite happy in no other place than an English village, with a Norman church tower looking down upon it and rows of little gardens with spears of white and blue lupins and Canterbury bells standing guard before cottage doors." A charming picture, as is ‘the robin who showed the way’, just like in The Secret Garden: "When you think that all of it sort of began with a robin, it's queer enough," he said. "But for that robin I shouldn't be here, sir," I know how hard Frances Hodgson Burnett had to work and this book struck me as a real pot-boiler.
Note on quotations. Did you think I’d painstakingly copied out chunks of the book? No fear. Passages highlighted while you read your Kindle are saved as My Clippings. You can then transfer the clippings to your computer for easy cutting and pasting. Love it!