Friday, January 29, 2016

Review of The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I particularly wanted to write a review of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Shuttle” just to say to readers, please don’t be discouraged by the long shuttle metaphor that begins this book. The metaphor is a good and important one and recurs here and there within the novel. Naturally, I like the metaphor because it has to do with textiles. But I do think, to a reader anxious to get into the story, the length of the shuttle metaphor at the outset of this tale could give the impression that this book will be a slow one. I actually lost sleep at the end of this book because I had to read what happened next. So, it's definitely not slow. Like Jane Austen or Elizabeth Gaskell, Hodgson Burnett alternates fast paced, breathtaking scenes, with more contemplative exposition. She spends time drawing her characters and showing their effect on each other. The whole experience of reading this book, for me, was very absorbing, especially by the end.

As a person who spends a couple of months in Britain each year (pinch me), I found Hodgson Burnett's story about the early days of alliances between landed but cash poor British gentry and American heiresses very eye-opening. It's not a moment in the history of our American and British ties that I know much about. Viewers of Downton Abbey are sometimes reminded that Cora's fortune helped prop up Downton. In “The Shuttle,” Hodgson Burnett aims to examine the both the horrors and the happiness which can ensue as a result of such alliances. 

After reading “Emily Fox-Seton or the Making of a Marchioness” and “The Shuttle” over the last week, I am thrilled to realize that the writer of two of my favorite childhood stories – “The Secret Garden” and “A Little Princess, Sara Crewe” –also wrote novels for adults. Very often great books are just lying in wait for us to discover or remember them!

“The Shuttle” was #4 on the bestseller list in 1907 and #5 in 1908, but it’s not a book that I’ve ever seen on a course syllabus which is surprising given how top notch it is. Like Dickens or Austen, Hodgson Burnett draws her characters starkly and there’s not a tremendous amount of subtlety in delineating the nice sorts of people from the deplorable, but I didn’t mind that. I think there will be books such as those by Anita Brookner that will be about people who are drawn in shades of grey, but there will also be books where the characters move about to create a compelling story. I enjoy both kinds of books. “The Shuttle” is one of the second kind of books.

I think this story would make a wonderful film or mini-series. I would love to see Ang Lee make this book into a movie because he made such a beauty of a film with “Sense and Sensibility.” And Emma Thompson would write a superb screenplay, I’m sure. Less subtle directors would be sure to focus mainly on the lurid and sinister parts and little of the brilliance and brightness in the book. And there is quite a lot of brightness in this book despite one very dastardly character who makes the pain of others his joy. He is probably more villainous than any character in an Austen book, and equal to some of Dickens’ blackguards. If you’ve read George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda,” you will be somewhat reminded of the cruelty of Henleigh Grandcourt when reading this book.

I learned of “The Shuttle” through the excellent London bookshop Persephone Books whose mission is to bring forgotten and neglected, but worthy books, back into the public eye. Since ordering a physical book from them from abroad is a special treat for special occasions, I was delighted to find that they have an ebook page and that “The Shuttle” is one of the titles that they carry, which is also on project Gutenberg. So, if you are in Britain, I highly recommend you buy a gorgeous physical copy from Persephone with their signature dove grey cover and endpapers from a 1903 Turnbull and Stockdale design. If you are “up against it,” as the terrific character of the American typewriter salesman, G. Selden, says in “The Shuttle,” then head over to project Gutenberg and get this on your Kindle or eReader.

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