Five years before the Titanic sank, Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote a novel based on the marvelous ease with which one could cross the Atlantic and called it The Shuttle. Being able to hop back and forth across the pond in comfort and luxury (depending on your class) brought England and America closer together once again and – most importantly for this novel – reunited wealthy American gentry with the land of their ancestors. Hodgson Burnett was the perfect person to write this book as she was one of the few, perhaps the only, woman writer to live a properly transatlantic existence, moving regularly between the two countries and knowing them with both the love of the native and the distanced perception of the traveler. Reading this novel, that takes as its cast the cream of society, the people who could and would make a difference to the worlds in which they lived, you can see why the sinking of the Titanic was not just a tragedy, and a sailing disaster, but a terrible metaphorical wound in this confident bond forged between national powers.
But that’s not really what I want to talk about. Fast forward one whole century and Hodgson Burnett’s novel is reprinted by Persephone (in a glorious edition, as ever), where it stands as a time capsule from a very different era, and what a lot has changed in a mere 100 years. In 1907, the year The Shuttle was published, the first national demonstration by the Suffragettes took place in Britain, here and there you could find the occasional woman doctor, and in 1909, Marie Curie was named the first female Nobel laureate. But for most women, emancipation wasn’t even a distant dream. Life was lived under the rule of the father and then the husband, and women were conditioned to be obedient, compliant and dependent. How very intriguing, then, to find in Hodgson Burnett’s novel the confident assertion that American women were being brought up quite differently to their English counterparts at the start of the twentieth century. Women, she insists in her novel, were cherished by their families, and respected as intelligent, spirited beings. People grew according to their own capacities, rather than being squashed into gendered templates, and of course money made just about anything possible.
The Shuttle is the story of the wealthy Vanderpoel sisters, two American beauties called Rosalie and Bettina, whose fortunes become linked to English aristocrats. Rosalie, the elder daughter, takes after her mother and is pretty, charming, sweet and gentle, a composite of all the most feminine of virtues. It is her tremendous misfortune to be married off in the early chapters of the novel to the true villain of the piece, Sir Nigel Anstruthers, or what we might call a Regular Bad Lot. Sir Nigel has taken advantage of the shuttle to find himself a rich American wife in order to prop up his family’s ailing fortunes. Little Rosy is completely unprepared for the life she will find awaiting her in England, isolated in a crumbling, dilapidated manor house, dominated by Sir Nigel’s vile temper and the cruel abetting of her mother-in-law. At first they simply bully her because she hasn’t understood that she needs to hand over her purse strings to them – her American customs dictate that she will give any money asked of her, but no polite request has been forthcoming. Finally the truth comes out in a terrible scene in which she is taunted and reviled and which ends in violence at the hand of her husband. Broken and half-mad with bewilderment and grief, Rosy succumbs to a virtual imprisonment, which we are to see as the fate of the unsuspecting English wife.
Twelve years later and her sister, Bettina, crosses the Atlantic, determined to find Rosy after so many years of unaccountable silence. Betty is a completely different character to her sister. Taking after her father (and wonderfully, intelligently supported by him), she is brave and fearless and firm. As a child she had an instant distrust of Sir Nigel, and her mission is one that she understands to be a rescue. Betty will need all her wits about her when she is reunited with a Rosy she barely recognizes, prematurely aged, permanently terrified and spending all her time with her disabled child. And from here on in, we, the readers, get to cheer Betty on as, wielding the force of her American dollars and her American can-do temperament, she brings the decimated estate to life again and transforms her sister and nephew. And then after that, it’s a question of bringing the ghastly Sir Nigel to heel…
Betty is another marvelous female heroine, but in an entirely different mould to Trollope’s Miss Mackenzie. And this is because, in a word, she acts. It’s extremely important that the action she takes is continually sanctioned by her father, even if she has to enlighten him as to its origins. At one point in the novel he suggests to her that she should have been born a boy: ‘ “You say that,” she once replied to him, “because you see I am inclined to do things, to change them, if they need changing. Well, one is either born like that, or one is not. Sometimes I think that perhaps the people who must act are of a distinct race. A kind of vigorous restlessness drives them.”’ Now it was only beginning to dawn on the consciousness of the Western world that this ‘vigorous restlessness’ could be the province of women, as well as men. And we have to understand the constraints that function even in Hodgson Burnett’s ambitious novel. Betty is permitted to act because she is remarkably beautiful. An Ugly Betty could not have achieved the same results. Furthermore, the only thing that tempers her activity, that nearly breaks her, in fact, is love. The novel becomes as much about Betty’s romance as it does about her rescue, but in love as in domestic warfare, Betty retains her integrity, her pride and her determination.
This is another book that I loved enormously for its admirable heroine and its equally admirable intent – weak, twisted men are trounced by lionhearted women, the sickly inbred power of the British aristocracy is trumped by the fresh moneyed energies of America, and the history and buildings of two nation’s ancestors are restored by the vigorous dollar. It’s true that America comes off much better than England does, but then it’s a new world that Hodgson Burnett is interested in, and one in which vitality ought by rights to belong to those who know how best to use it, regardless of tradition. But one final thought: Betty’s shining brilliance is based in essentially masculine qualities – strength, calculating intelligence, diplomacy, stamina. I wonder to what extent we can say that that has changed, one hundred years later? Is it not the case that masculine virtues are still the ones that we value most highly? That the traditionally feminine virtues of gentleness, restraint and kindness remain unprotected and uncherished, stomped under foot in a world where it’s still okay for dog to eat dog? True equality would mean, to my mind, the acknowledgement and inclusion of both, in equal measure, in a balanced world.