At the beginning of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Shuttle, there is a metaphor that grows and is extended and embellished through the whole book. Two countries, the United States and England, once divided, are being woven together through ties of culture, custom, art, travel, commerce, and most of all affinity. (Even the title comes from this metaphor — the shuttle works back and forth on the loom.) This is a time when wealthy American heiresses marry debt-ridden landed gentry; a time when steamers cross the Atlantic; a time when questions begin to arise about independence and heritage and the value of money.
Burnett examines these ties in what is, after all, basically a romance novel. In the first few chapters, poor, silly, foolish (and extremely wealthy) Rosie Vanderpoel marries the absolutely vile Nigel Anstruthers, who has concealed from her that he is in debt up to his ears, with a tumbledown estate. When Rosie cannot or will not understand that in England it is the men who ought to control the fortune, Nigel coolly sets about breaking Rosie’s spirit. Skip forward twelve years, and Rosie’s sister Bettina comes from America to visit Stornham, and with characteristic intelligence, cool-headedness, strength, poise (and, of course, stunning beauty) begins to set matters right.
The plot is… plotty. It’s great storytelling. I happily raced to the finish of this book in one long plane flight. There aren’t any big surprises for anyone who knows this sort of book, from the blossoming of the ruined estate gardens (strong, strong hints of The Secret Garden here, which Burnett had not written yet) to the presence of a strong, stubborn, proud man on the estate next door, to the final righteous comeuppance of various villains at the end. But who needs surprises?
What makes this book wonderful is the way it’s told, all in a breathless rush. Burnett is such a satisfying author, as many of you will know from her children’s books. At the beginning of the novel, she works Nigel’s wickedness and cruelty — without quite making him ridiculous — so well that I wondered in agony how long it was going to go on before it got better. Later, the suspense is breathtaking as we wait for news of a favorite character’s illness, or for another’s blackmail. There is a comic character who made me laugh every time he came on the scene. There are explorations of the roles of husbands and wives that I thought were quite bold and interesting; there were frank discussions about what money can and cannot do, both for the rich and for the poor. The novel may be your basic romance novel, but — or maybe I should say “and” — it’s huge fun. Definitely recommended, and I was so delighted that I put The Making of a Marchioness on my list for next time!