*WARNING: This blog is intended for a mature audience. Its contents may include adult situations, violence and sensitive issues that some people might find disturbing. Please read at your own discretion.

20 August 2014

Book Review #3: The Shuttle, by F. H. Burnett

Of late I've been introduced to two cherished classic children's books authors but, surprisingly enough, by their more adult and lesser-known works. First it was L.M. Montgomery and her novel The Blue Castle, and now, it's the turn of Frances Hodgson Burnett, and The Shuttle.

The Shuttle revolves around a wealthy American girl (Rosy Vanderpoel) who marries a ruined English baronet (Sir Nigel Anstruthers), not giving enough thought to the matter.

When she goes to live with him at his estate, she is immediately confronted by the dire reality awaiting her. The reality of a marriage that might prove to be the opposite of what she had expected it to be. She is sweet and he is a brute; she is naive and he is a miser. The outcome of it all is that she gets constantly bullied by her husband, who makes no effort whatsoever to hide the fact that he's merely interested in having her support him financially.

But everything changes when her younger sister Betty Vanderpoel comes to pay her a visit, suspecting that something is amiss, on the grounds of her having being estranged from his family for some twelve years. Betty is obviously shocked—yet not completely surprised—by the kind of miserable life Rosy and her son lead.

The heroine.-

Betty Vanderpoel is beautiful, clever, rich, resourceful, charming... almost too good to be true. She knows what needs to be done at every moment, and who she needs to speak with to get it done. She's respected and well loved wherever she goes, and has her father's complete trust in every matter. But perhaps her best asset is to be perfectly aware of her limitations as a woman of her era.

"Men know the things other men cannot do. Women don't. Generally they know nothing about the law and can be bullied into feeling that it is dangerous and compromising to inquire into it.(...) It is because he [Nigel] knows these things that he says that my sending for father will be a declaration of war."

The antagonist.-

Sir Nigel Anstruthers is nothing but your regular gothic villain, somehow reminiscent of such classic examples of the genre as Count Fosco (from Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White) or Montoni (from Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho), only less charming and more obssessive than the other two. Here's an example of his way of thinking:

"The old cruel dominance of the man over the woman thing, which had seemed the mere natural working of the law among men of his race in centuries past, was awake in him, amid the limitations of modern days.

'My god,' he said to himself more than once, 'I would like to have had her in my hands a few hundred years ago. Women were kept in their places, then' (...) and now a man could not beat even his own wife, or spend her money, without being meddled with by fools."

Nice guy, huh? He has no redeeming quality, actually. He's evil, two-timing, cunning and egotistic. But he's also a fool, who lets his, ahem, loins get the better of him most of the time. At some point in the novel it's hinted—or so I understood—that he may be suffering from some sort of STD, and then he develops an unhealthy passion for his young sister in law, which will ultimately be his undoing.

The love interest.-

Lord Mount Dunstan is another empoverished English baronet, freshly returned from America, where he had hoped in vain to earn a living and save enough money to invest in his derelict estate back home.

He's stubborn, a little ill-humoured, and displays such a dislike for wealthy Americans that goes so far as to becoming utterly ridiculous. But he's also fair and deeply conscious of the great responsability that comes with his privileged position in society. In fact, there must be something really special about him, since he is capable of eliciting these feelings from the likes of Betty:

"'Nothing matters but one thing—one person,' she owned to herself aloud. 'I suppose it is always like this. Rosy, Ughtred, even father and mother—everyone seems less near than they were. It is too strong – too strong. It is–' the words dropped slowly from her lips, 'the strongest thing—in the world.'"

His worth is exemplified at several parts of the novel by his attitude in the face of adversity, most notably when a typhus epidemy strikes the village and he volunteers to turn his house into a makeshift hospital ward.

Some details I found interesting.-
  • There is a mention to piracy. Yes, you heard that right. They didn't know P2P software back then, but still, they did pirate books. "Cheap, pirated editions of English works, much quarrelled over by authors and publishers, [were] being scattered over the land." Some things never change, huh?

  • Ughtred, the name borne by Betty's nephew. I swear I had never heard that name before, but I'd say you can't go any more Anglo-Saxon than that. I've done a little digging and I've found this at Behind the Name. Apparently it means something along the lines of counsel at dawn. Not bad!

  • The term Victorian is used throughout the whole novel. This surprised me, because it had never occurred to me that the Victorians would label themselves as such. Of course, this is a historical novel to some extent (it was first published in 1907), and that might the reason why.

  • Typewriters. One of the characters in the novel is an American young dealer of these modern gadgets, which, according to Wikipedia, started to be commercially successful by as early a date as 1868.

  • Divorce is suggested several times. Divorce in Victorian literature is a topic I'm deeply interested in, so I make a point of taking notes every time I see it discussed.

Final thoughts.-

On the whole, it's been a rewarding read. The Shuttle is a well-crafted mixture of social denunciation and drama with a pinch of what I'd call modern gothic fiction. Frances Hodgson Burnett, on her part, shows great expertise in the art of writing. Her style is well honed and pleasing, her characters are developed and nuanced, and her storyline is thoughtful and contemporary. But—and this is a big but—a couple of things have considerably compromised my fondness for the novel:
  1. The author's constant effort at making readers see Betty as an entity who's near perfection. There's only so much one can take of being told how blue her eyes are, how black her hair is, how nice her dresses are, or, most importantly, how well built her mind is.

  2. The novel gets too digressive at times. This goes along with the previous one; Burnett's insistence on the differences between the old, status-concerned, England and the modern, action-seeking, America gets tiresome and trite after a while. She gets her point across clearly enough by the way her characters think and act, there was no need for her to shove that piece of information down the reader's throat time and again.

  3. The ending makes no sense. There's no much I can say without spoling the whole plot, but suffice it to say that it goes against character, and way beyond being melodramatic and sensational, very much as the novel itself suggests. "Exaggerated as it all was, somehow the melodrama dropped away from it and left bare, simple, hideous fact for her to confront." The story somehow seems to imply that even the wisest of women turn silly and irrational when they fall in love, which "forces" them to do the stupidest things.

Further reading.-

 photo NextPeview_zpse1b4d0a1.png photo PrevReview_zps1b6a8b42.png


  1. Great review dear Marsar... I loved the way you have organized the contents and found it interesting and very well written.
    Thanks for sharing, best wishes to you, Aquileana :)

    1. Aww, thanks! I'm glad you liked it. Organizing the content helps me to shape my own thoughts. Thanks to you for reading :-).

  2. Hi!!

    Excellent review! I did not know very much about this story but after reading your review I look forward to taking a look at this book. However, you said the ending was not very satisfactory... But sthe story itself seems great!

    Un saludito ;)

    1. Hi! I'm glad you liked the review. No, the ending was not very good, but it wasn't so bad either as to keep me from recommending this novel. I liked it on the whole :-).

      Un saludito para ti también :-D.

  3. LOL I suppose the saying "Love makes people do crazy things," is fitting here, considering the ending of this book? XD

    For some reason, the topic of divorce and abusive marriages made me think of this - back when divorce was considered much more taboo than it is in society today, it might have made abusive people think that they could get away with it forever, since divorce was never an option, and their captured prey could never escape them. O_O A creepy thought, but one that did cross my mind. LOL.

    1. Crazy things, indeed! And stupid, too. Hehe

      Divorce laws back then favoured men above all else, so you're very right, men could get away with abusing their wives very easily >:-(.

      Thanks for stopping by :-).