Frances Hodgson Burnett is best known for her children’s novels (none of which I happen to have read). The 1907 novel The Shuttle, however, is written for adults. Its subject—an abusive marriage—is a serious one, although it’s presented in such a way that readers feel confident that things will somehow work out, largely thanks to the novel’s plucky American heroine, Bettina Vanderpoel.
As the novel begins, Betty’s sister, Rosalie, is preparing to marry Sir Nigel Anstruthers, an Englishman looking to use his title to find a bride to bring him the wealth he needs. It doesn’t take long for the marriage to go sour. Cut off from her family in a foreign country, Rosalie is on her own until, after a decade of silence, her younger sister decides to find out what happened. When Bettina arrives at the run-down estate and sees her worn-out sister, she takes over, Flora Poste-style, getting things arranged just as they should be. But what will Sir Nigel do about it?
Hodgson gives a lot of attention to the difference between Americans and the English, noting especially the can-do spirit that Betty brings to the situation. At times, Betty’s perfection seems over the top, but Betty herself is so down to earth that I had to like her. There’s a whole subplot involving a spirited American typewriter salesman that is even more impossible to believe, but everyone involved in that plot is so pleasant that I couldn’t be mad at the story.
All this cheerfulness and goodness provided an important counterbalance to the nastiness of Sir Nigel. He is a villain through and through. But there’s comfort in how good everyone else in the book is. Most people in this book are fundamentally good, but the goodness shows less easily in some than others. Even those who seem like they might be foils to Betty end up allies.
One of the more interesting strands of the novel involves the use of money. Almost all of the book’s main characters are wealthy or formerly wealthy. And the rich in this novel are responsible for taking care of others. Sir Nigel’s irresponsibility doesn’t just hurt his family. It hurts his whole community. When the estate falls to ruin, there’s no longer any work for those in the village to do. As it turns out, a massive country estate creates jobs. But a responsible estate owner doesn’t just provide jobs. He or she also gives to those who can no longer work or provides aid to the sick. Wealth can be a source of great good, and this book shows how.
I very much enjoyed reading this. It gets melodramatic, especially toward the end, but I didn’t mind. I was glad to spend time in a world where, although evil is present, goodness has the real power.