Not Ugly Betty

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.

17 thoughts on “Not Ugly Betty

  1. Litlove, I received a gift certificate to Barnes and Noble in the mail a couple of weeks ago. I was itching to spend it, but wanted to wait until someone suggested something that I knew I would love. And now, after reading this post, I have my answer. I can’t wait.! I love the era, I’ve always dreamed of crossing the Atlantic on a ship, and you’ve recommended it. What more can I ask?

  2. Thanks so much for this lovely, insightful review. I bought this book awhile back when Persephone had a 3-for-2 postal offer, and promptly stuck it on the TBR and forgot all about it. I actually rediscovered it on the weekend when I had a bit of a book sort, so I must get around to reading it very soon — plus the other Persephone’s I’d forgotten I had. I’m so shameful! 😉

  3. I went to a Persephone tea party in NY when this one came out, and apparently it’s based on the life of Consuela Vanderbilt who married the 8th? 9th? Duke of Marlborough, was wretchedly unhappy and managed to escape him. She, fortunately, did not need a sister to rescue her. I liked The Shuttle but not as much as I had hoped to.

  4. I am so in the mood for a good Frances Hodgson Burnett book. I love her. I even love her sickening sweet good kindly characters like Little Lord Fauntleroy…

  5. Interesting… and there were Burnett’s contemporaries (if not exactly compatriots) James and Wharton arguing for doomed American innocence & conniving European ennui. Such a complicated era.
    “Man-womanly” and “woman-manly”: I’m with you (and you know who). But will we ever get there?

  6. Your post is delightful, thanks for letting us discover this book! I only knew Burnett through The Little Princess (a favorite of mine when I was a child), but I see that The Shuttle is available online on

  7. That sounds interesting, I think Burnet is one of those favoured classic authors experiencing a blogger revival at the moment because her name seems to crop up a lot.

    Love that thought provoking tidbit you snuck in at the end. I’m not sure how much things have changed to be honest, values that are traditionally considered male do still seem to get viewed as positive values, especially strength, while kindness and all that jazz are portrayed as things to strive for that it may never be possible to attain. I’m not a big fan of people who tell women they should be kind because they are women, or suggest that women who go into business are improverishing the social care industry because their natural values and talents would make then perfect carers.

  8. I loved her children’s books when I was a kid. I have to have a go at this one. I agree that “masculine” qualities are the ones that are valued but those are culturally contingent. In European Jewish society (pre-war), ideal male qualities were studiousness and female qualities an ability to hussle in the market place in order to support him. (There is a woman’s prayer in the vernacular that says more or less, God why did you have to make me a woman and keep me from studying your holy bible, oh well I guess you had your reasons.) That changed under the influence of assimilation and integration with the broader society. In traditional China also the most successful men were the ones who did best on the civil exams.

  9. I read Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden and Little Princess when I was a kid and loved them both. I had no idea she wrote grown-up books too! This sounds marvelous. I think women through the centuries do more often than not have those male qualities strength, calculating intelligence, diplomacy, stamina, they just get called other things or channeled in a different way (into the family sphere) so as not to be threatening to the men folk. It’s when women channel those qualtities into the public sphere that they end up being called masculine which is very unfortunate.

  10. Hallo, love! I’m back on the grid, sort of. Thank you for providing me with the perfect Christmas present for my best friend (a New Yorker trapped in London, who’s run out of Edith Wharton novels – a crisis by any measure). I shall surreptitiously read the book, open at a carefully non-spine-cracking acute angle, before wrapping it and disclaiming all knowledge of anything but the endpaper. Then again, she knows me pretty well…
    As for your final cunning stiletto – well, obviously, I don’t represent society all that well, but I treasure gentleness, restraint and kindness in everyone (man, woman, terrier) and I grieve their absence. Strength, calculating intelligence, diplomacy, and stamina? Also excellent qualities, despite their glamorisation, so perhaps it’s all about judiciousness – the wisdom to make your conscious choices, to pursue your priorities and your self-concept, but to look at the space you’re in. Less calculation, more holism.
    However – does gentleness inevitably entail self-abnegation? Does restraint abjure strength? Are we so frozen in these polarities? Hmm. Don’t know. I don’t believe that the struggle for self-possession is an exclusively feminine one, but I do think men have a greater capacity to withstand others’ condemnation of their behaviour, or at least to suffer it unwaveringly. Of course, make a rule, and a dozen exceptions will leap to their feet and gently, restrainedly protest…

  11. I read this a few years ago (an older edition my library had–not the lovely Persephone edition). It is interesting how Rosy is the traditional feminine type and look how she ends up, whereas Betty has those masculine qualities and we see who succeeds and who doesn’t. Can a woman/character be both feminine and have those qualities yet also stand up for herself and be strong and succeed–or will she always be perceived as masculine and hard? I really liked this one as well and am looking forward to reading Burnett’s The Making of a Marchioness. I forgot she had lived in the US–it’s interesting to see how she used her experiences in her writing.

  12. Wonderful review, Litlove! and I loved the comment by your friend Fugitive Pieces; and ALL the comments. I was going to ask abt Consuela Vanderbilt but Becky answered – thx Becky! Did you enter this on the review pages for the Women Unbound challenge? 🙂

  13. Grad – you know, I can really see this one working for you. Betty is a heroine to root for – I laughed and cried and cheered her on. It has a touch of melodrama, but in a good way, and the writing is beautifully pure. I would love to know what you think of it if you can get hold of it! 🙂

    Kimbofo – not shameful at all! Coming across forgotten treasures is an essential pleasure of owning a lot of books! And having bloggers review books you’ve been meaning to read and haven’t got around to is one of the great pleasures of reading. I still thank you for Molly Fox’s Birthday! 🙂

    Bluestocking – I really enjoyed it! 🙂

    Becky – a Persephone tea party sounds incredibly cool! I was so in the mood for this when I read it – it was just right for me at the time, but I can see how it might not be the ticket always. It’s funny how much reading is influenced by the mood of the moment – sure there are good books and bad books out there, but I think our responses are so often coloured by the previous book we’ve read and what’s happening in our lives (certainly true for me, at least!).

    Jenny – if you love the Fauntleroy, I have no qualms about recommending this one! I did love it.

    Eva – aw that’s so nice of you! Would love to know what you think of this if you ever get hold of it.

    ds – will we ever get there? I have no idea, but I’m going to keep nagging in the meantime. 😉 And you remind me that I love Wharton and had planned to read more James this year. Just time to squeeze something short in by either or both….

    Smithereens – is it really? Wow – that’s interesting, and most helpful. I’ve never read anything from the Gutenberg project but it is an incredible resource.

  14. Jodie – I must key her name into the blog review listings and check out other reviews. I love it when other bloggers link to further reviews and often end up reading them all. I do agree with you that reinforcing the necessity of women being forced into the roles of nurses and helpmates takes us all a big step backwards. I’m interested in qualities being seen as appropriate to situations, regardless of which gender is involved, but think we are still a long way off that. 😦

    Lilian – that is a wonderful example of a different culture holding out different possibilities. Thank you for that! Such a necessary way to balance our perspectives.

    Stefanie – what a great comment. I think that is so true. And I keep meaning to go back and attend to old comments and tell you that you were spot on with the name of Josipovici’s other author recommendation. What a fab librarian you are!

    Fugitive! – well the beauty of Persephone books is that you can do that, read them without creasing the spine in any way. Love what you have to say here about gender identity. I quite agree with you, in that my interest is in seeing qualities as appropriate responses to the moment, rather than fixed gender attributes. But while compassion, kindness, respect and so on are still linked so strongly to femininity with its attendant sense of passivity and meekness, so they rarely become valuable qualities in the political arena, to take just one example, when they could actually be appropriate and worthwhile there. The question of mixed feelings is a very intriguing one – do you think novels are always the best representatives of the sheer complexity of feelings? Sometimes I think they choose coherence over a more realistic wooliness. But not always. Maybe a gauge of quality in a novel is it’s ability to suggest paradoxical emotions? Ah, you have set me thinking (always dangerous in a woman 😉 ).

    Danielle – yes, that’s exactly the sort of question that this novel made me think about. Rosy seemed doomed to be rescued, didn’t she? Although the fact it was her sister who performed the deed was delightfully unusual. I’m longing to read The Making of a Marchioness too! And I’d love to read a biography of Hodgson Burnett who had an extraordinary life by all accounts.

    Care – I have just linked them to the review page. I’ve got three more posts outstanding already for this challenge – you can tell I’ve taken to it! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s