Frances Hodgson Burnett

I love reading, and like many of you my favorite genre is historical fiction. Studying history and historical fashion makes me want to read about people living during these periods, experiencing events we can only read about in hindsight. Unfortunately, I have to admit that a lot of historical fiction simply doesn't work for me - what I'm looking for is an insight into how actual people of the past thought, even or especially when their thought processes and viewpoints differ from ours. I've started a lot of books that I just take back to the library because the heroine seems like she's been transplanted from our era into the past (and usually because of too many accuracy issues re: clothing. It's a gift and a curse).

But the great thing about ereaders is that they facilitate reading classic/historic lit, because so many books have been digitized and are available for free, or for only a couple of dollars. I've downloaded quite a few, and whenever I feel like shopping I end up finding many more to try out. One ebook that I've been very happy with is the collected works of Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Burnett's extremely well known as the author of The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, two hugely popular pieces of children's literature that have both been adapted for film and stage many times. Some also remember that she wrote Little Lord Fauntleroy, once a smash hit that forced hundreds of little boys into velvet suits with lacy collars. But Burnett was primarily a writer of romantic fiction (in both senses of "romance") for an adult audience, and her bibliography is full of novels about older characters in more mature situations.

(I spoil all the novels reviewed in a sort of general way, but I don't give specifics.)

The Shuttle (1907)

If you liked ... The Buccaneers

The Shuttle was the first of FHB's other works that I read - I found a very old copy at a rummage sale in a church basement, and went into it not knowing what to expect.

The book is historical fiction, set in the 1870s/1880s, when American heiresses were once again marrying into the British aristocracy. The heroine, Bettina, is the younger daughter of the fabulously wealthy Vanderpoels; her older sister, Rosalie, marries the impoverished Sir Nigel Anstruthers and is whisked off to England, where her new husband cuts her off from her family in a classic abuser move. He wants complete control of her finances, which he views as his right but which apparently was not the law at the time. None of the Vanderpoels see her again until Betty grows up and visits her, finding a sadly changed and ill woman with a hunchbacked son. After seeing the evidence of her sister's unfortunate match, Betty is determined not to marry someone who only values her dowry - and she is matched by Lord Mount Dunstan, a penniless peer who is resolved not to sell himself to a woman who can't respect him.

With all of this setup, the plot is reasonably predictable, but the book's incredibly dramatic for all of that. The depiction of an emotionally (and sometimes physically) abusive relationship, possibly flavored by FHB's own unhappy second marriage, is realistic, and while you very quickly start wanting Betty and Mount Dunstan to get over themselves and get married, their inability to communicate their feelings due to the strictures of the time is tantalizing.

Other reviews: 1, 2

Emily Fox Seton (The Making of a Marchioness/The Methods of Lady Walderhurst) (1901)

If you liked ... "Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, and Rosemary’s Baby"

The first of the books I read after downloading the ebook - in fact, I downloaded it specifically to read this one after watching The Making of a Lady, which was a phenomenally atmospheric and dark one-off period piece. I was surprised, though, at some of the huge differences between the adaptation and the original.

In the film, Emily is a delicate young creature living in near-squalor while working (mostly without pay) for the grim Lady Maria, and soon marries Lady Maria's nephew, Lord Walderhurst, to the lady's great distaste. But in the original, Emily is a 34-year-old giantess who is nearly always in beaming good humor, not smart but determined to help others and make them happy. Lady Maria is sharp but glad to see Emily do well for herself. And Lord Walderhurst is not nearly as attractive as Linus Roache. The film also left out a huge subplot about a younger woman, Lady Agatha Slade (penniless nobility), who attends the same house party as Emily and Walderhurst and is generally intended to marry the latter - but everything works out, and she gets to be with her true love instead.

The second half of the book and the adaptation turns into something of a thriller with the entrance of Alec Osbourn, Walderhurst's cousin and heir; Alec's Anglo-Indian wife, Hester; and Hester's ayah. Both, unfortunately, have strong overtones of exoticism and just plain racism, with the ayah being a seriously sinister figure who is instrumental in Alec's plan to remove Emily and her potential heir from the succession of the estate. However, Hester is also another mistreated wife, and the narrative really is harsher on Alec than on her.

Unlike The Shuttle, Emily Fox Seton goes into some detail on the subject of clothing. Early on, Emily is thinking about the "tailor-made suit" she's been wearing for a year and has no hope of replacing.
Skirts had made one of their appalling changes, and as she walked down Regent Street and Bond Street she had stopped at the windows of more than one shop bearing the sign "Ladies' Tailor and Habit-Maker," and had looked at the tautly attired, preternaturally slim models, her large, honest hazel eyes wearing an anxious expression. She was trying to discover where seams were to be placed and how gathers were to be hung; or if there were to be gathers at all; or if one had to be bereft of every seam in a style so unrelenting as to forbid the possibility of the honest and semi-penniless struggling with the problem of remodelling last season's skirt at all. "As it is only quite an ordinary brown," she had murmured to herself, "I might be able to buy a yard or so to match it, and I might be able to join the gore near the pleats at the back so that it would not be seen."
The old-fashioned dance around even the concept of pregnancy is also extremely entertaining.

Another review.

A Fair Barbarian (1881)

If you liked ... Cranford

In Harry Potter fanfiction, there is a genre in which an American exchange student comes to Hogwarts and turns out to be witty, clever, and daring, her free spirit impressing everyone who meets her. A Fair Barbarian is, I'm convinced, deliberate American-exchange-student Cranford fanfiction. Miss Matty, sorry, I mean Miss Belinda takes in a fabulously rich American niece who appears on her doorstep for a visit, and the whole of Cranford, I mean, Slowbridge is shaken up. There's some romance and drama, but really, if I haven't caught you yet you're a tough crowd.

Due to her young-Sara-Crewe-ish wardrobe, there are many opportunities to use clothing to create setting and characterization. Here's an early paragraph:
There was in Slowbridge but one dressmaking establishment. The head of the establishment - Miss Letitia Chickie - designed the costumes of every woman in Slowbridge, from Lady Theobald down. There were legends that she received her patterns from London, and modified them to suit the Slowbridge taste. Possibly this was true; but in that case her labors as modifier must have been severe indeed, since they were so far modified as to be altogether unrecognizable when they left Miss Chickie's establishment, and were borne home in triumph to the houses of her patrons. The taste of Slowbridge was quiet - upon this Slowbridge prided itself especially - and, at the same time, tended toward economy. When gores came into fashion, Slowbridge clung firmly, and with some pride, to substantial breadths, which did not cut good silk into useless strips which could not be utilized in after-time; and it was only when, after a visit to London, Lady Theobald walked into St. James's one Sunday with two gores on each side, that Miss Chickie regretfully put scissors into her first breadth. Each matronly member of good society possessed a substantial silk gown of some sober color, which gown, having done duty at two years' tea-parties, descended to the grade of "second-best," and so descended, year by year, until it disappeared into the dim distance of the past. The young ladies had their white muslins and natural flowers; which latter decorations invariably collapsed in the course of an evening, and were worn during the latter half of any festive occasion in a flabby and hopeless condition. Miss Chickie made the muslins, festooning and adorning them after designs emanating from her fertile imagination. If they were a little short in the body, and not very generously proportioned in the matter of train, there was no rival establishment to sneer, and Miss Chickie had it all her own way; and, at least, it could never be said that Slowbridge was vulgar or overdressed.
Judge, then, of Miss Belinda Bassett's condition of mind when her fair relative took her seat before her. 
What the material of her niece's dress was, Miss Belinda could not have told. It was a silken and soft fabric of a pale blue color; it clung to the slender, lissome young figure like a glove; a fan-like train of great length almost covered the hearth-rug; there were plaitings and frillings all over it, and yards of delicate satin ribbon cut into loops in the most recklessly extravagant manner. 
Miss Belinda saw all of this at the first glance, as Mary Anne had seen it, and, like Mary Anne, lost her breath; but, on her second glance, she saw something more. On the pretty, slight hands were three wonderful, sparkling rings, composed of diamonds set in clusters: there were great solitaires in the neat little ears, and the thickly-plaited lace at the throat was fastened by a diamond clasp. 
"My dear," said Miss Belinda, clutching helplessly at the teapot, "are you - surely it is a - a little dangerous to wear such - such priceless ornaments on ordinary occasions." 
Octavia stared at her for a moment uncomprehendingly. 
"Your jewels, I mean, my love," fluttered Miss Belinda. "Surely you don't wear them often. I declare, it quite frightens me to think of having such things in the house." 
"Does it?" said Octavia. "That's queer."
Burnett had some fairly strong feelings about American-British relations, as nearly all of my recommended books will show. She was born in Manchester and lived there until her family's poverty forced them to emigrate when she was sixteen; once she was a successful writer, she began to live in both countries. I wonder if some of her feelings stem from her family failing in England and her succeeding in America, but at the same time,the stereotypes of the United States as the home of innovation, slang, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and England as a class-bound and stuffy place are very old.

T. Tembarom (1913)

If you liked ... Horatio Alger, Charles Dickens

The first half of this book is the story of a poor young lad who makes a good way for himself in the world through being enterprising and nice to everyone, which makes it a bit of an antidote to the modern career world - yet also kind of frustrating. Then, in a crazy twist, the story becomes Little Lord Fauntleroy as T. Tebarom (né Temple Temple Barholm, no, really) inherits a massive English estate that he doesn't want. Meanwhile, he yearns for the maternal young lady - "Little Ann", who is straight out of Dickens - whose bitter father emigrated with her from the same area as the estate, but whose sense of social status is too keen to allow him to marry her. Don't worry, there's a happy ending that's telegraphed far in advance.

There are a few bizarre elements to the story, but one that seems really odd to me is T.'s inherited aged aunt, whom he is really nice to, as is his wont. But one of the ways he's really nice is that he buys her a whole wardrobe of mid-Victorian costume pieces. I've always been interested in the way that "Victorian" as an identity was constructed from almost the year Victoria died - they are Victorians, we are modern people. Most of the time, it goes along with exaggerations about backwardness and repression, but in this case it's quite affectionate. T. finds her so quaint, sweet, and refined that he thinks only the clothes of her early adulthood are appropriate for her to wear.

Vagabondia (originally 1873, revised and republished 1883)

If you liked ... Little Women

There is nothing else I can think of to compare Vagabondia with other than Little Women, but instead of being about moral lessons it's about carefree bohemians. There's an element of Pride & Prejudice as well, though.

The Crewe family is made up of Dolly (Dorothea), a governess to the Bilberries, the wealthier "Philistine" branch of the family; Phil, an artist; 'Toinette, his wife; Tod, their son; Aimée, the wise Beth March figure; and Mollie, the youngest of the siblings. None of them are too fussed about their lack of money - they do the bare minimum to placate the Bilberries and keep some money flowing in, but they're a carefree bunch. Then there's Dolly's suitor, Griffith Donne, who is far more anxious and stressed than the Crewes. To be fair, some of this is because Dolly is frequently admired by men and likes the flirtation, and they can't get married for years because they lack the money (which he in true romantic fashion takes as a wrong he's doing her); he also doesn't have Dolly's ability to let work problems roll off his back and takes all of them home with him. And a little later, Ralph Gowan is introduced - handsome, dashing, and well-off, he creates a lot of problems for the household and for Griffith.

Because this is a more domestic story and focuses more on young women, there's more descriptions of clothing - but unlike A Fair Barbarian, the descriptions are more based on making do and remodeling. Early on, 'Toinette brings out an old dress to be made over for Dolly to wear to a Bilberry function.
"I will be back in a minute," she called back to them, as she ran up-stairs. "I have just thought of something." 
"Girls," said Mollie, "it's her white merino." 
And so it was. In a few minutes she reappeared with it,—a heap of soft white folds in her arms, and a yard or so of the train dragging after her upon the carpet,—the one presentable relic of a once inconsistently elaborate bridal trousseau, at present in a rather tumbled and rolled-up condition, but still white and soft and thick, and open to unlimited improvement. 
"I had forgotten all about it," she said, triumphantly. "I have never needed it at all, and I knew I never should when I bought it, but it looked so nice when I saw it that I could n't help buying it. I once thought of cutting it up into things for Tod; but it seems to me, Dolly, it 's what you want exactly, and Tod can trust to Providence,—things always come somehow." 
It was quite characteristic of Vagabondia that there should be more rejoicing over this one stray sheep of good luck than there would have been over any ninety and nine in the ordinary folds of more prosperous people. And Mrs. Phil rejoiced as heartily as the rest. It was her turn now, and she was as ready to sacrifice her white merino on the shrine of the household impecuniosity as she would be to borrow Dolly's best bonnet, or Mollie's shoes, or Aimée's gloves, when occasion demanded such a course. So the merino was laid upon the table, and the council rose to examine, comment, and suggest. 
"A train," said Dolly, concisely; "no trimming, and swan's-down. Even the Bilberry could n't complain of that, I 'm sure."
 The ending of the book is ... very melodramatic, but overall, the book is a good read and a nice take on some old tropes.

Comments

  1. I've always loved The Secret Garden--I'll have to check out some of Burnett's other work! Thanks!

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    Replies
    1. You totally should! And I skipped quite a few because some later one sounded intriguing to me at the time - the collected works are really big.

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