Monday 23 April 2018

Frances Hodgson Burnett's adult fiction, by Leslie Wilson

photo by Herbert Rose Barraud
I re-read 'The Making of a Marchioness' recently, a novel I first heard of via Nancy Mitford, in her 'The Blessing.' Like 'The Shuttle,' by the same author, it's published by Persephone books and I began to be curious about the rest of her adult output; I also got hold of Gretchen Gerzina's autobiography of Burnett.

Like most people, I expect, I first encountered her through her children's work; rather curiously, I heard of 'The Secret Garden' when I read Noel Streatfeild's 'The Painted Garden.' Clearly this was the wrong way round. I'd heard of Little Lord Fauntleroy, as a term of abuse and contempt, I'm afraid. I read 'The Secret Garden, then 'A Little Princess', and finally I found Fauntleroy, in an early 20th century edition, in a second hand bookshop on the other side of the river from where we lived in Kendal, when I was about thirteen. So I read Fauntleroy when I had almost left children's books behind, (you got an adult library ticket at the age of fourteen, and most of my books came from the library: I could never otherwise have financed my reading habit.)

Frances Hodgson Burnett had an interesting and difficult life, which I don't  wish to recount in detail, but in brief, she was born in Manchester, where her father lost all his money. The family then emigrated to Tennessee, where they lived in poverty. Like Louisa May Alcott and her fictional Jo March, Burnett began writing stories for magazines, and earned money for the family that way. She had an up-and-down financial life, but continued to be self-sufficient and to support her family. She had two sons, one of whom died young of TB, and two disastrous marriages. The first ended in divorce, after years of living apart; the second was an abusive relationship and her husband, an English actor, blackmailed her into the marriage. She finally got the courage to get rid of that second husband.
Out of an incredibly prolific output, I'm going to talk about four books. I shan't talk about 'Making of a Marchioness' because it's pretty well known, and if I do ever blog about it, I'd like to give it a blog all to itself.

'The Shuttle' deals with marriages between American heiresses and British aristocrats, and it begins with a rather ineffectual American heiress, Rosalie Vanderpoel, who marries a British aristocrat and waster, is taken back to his dilapidated house in the country and his horrific mother, and is bullied into signing over all her money to Sir Nigel. He also cuts her off from her family. Her younger sister, Bettina, is cast in a different mould; a strong woman, who, when she comes of age, announces to her father that she's going to England to find out what has happened to her sister.
She finds a woman who has been physically and emotionally abused, a shadow of the pretty sister Bettina once knew, However, with her father's money and her own force of personality, Bettina renovates the house for her young nephew, and when Sir Nigel returns, stays on to defend her sister against him. She also finds a love interest on her own account. That's enough about the plot, to avoid spoilers.

What interested me was that this subject matter could find readers in the Victorian era, and the issue of domestic abuse (which arises in 'The Making of a Marchioness' too, is in no way softened. One of the most powerful passages in the book occurs when Vanderpoel senior becomes aware that Bettina has fallen in love, which, given his eldest daughter's experience, cannot be called a risk-free option.
'If a man who was as much a scoundrel, but cleverer - it would be necessary that he should be much cleverer - made the best of himself to Betty - ! It was folly to think one could guess what a woman.. would love. He knew Betty, but no man knows the thing which comes, as it were, in the dark and claims its own - whether for good or evil. He had lived long enough to see beautiful, strong-spirited creatures do strange things.' Hodgson Burnett knew herself to be such a strong woman, and knew that even such a woman could fall into the hands of an abusive partner.

Burnett when older: Library of Congress
I found 'A Lady of Quality' much harder to read, partly because it's written in a rather ghastly pastiche of 17th/18th century language. Though Henry James apparently admired it. Tastes change. Rather too much 'twas,' and not at all the delightful, simple, yet powerfully frank voice which I enjoy in this author. It deals with Clorinda, the daughter of an English gentleman, the child of a downtrodden wife who dies after giving birth to her, who is raised as a boy by her father, but then decides to adopt women's clothing and women's manners after a rebuke by the curate. This is in no way an act of submission; rather of assertion and strategy. Of course the men come after her, but she has no dowry. A handsome young wastrel flirts with her, without any intention of marrying her. She's strongly attracted to him, but her pride won't let her show it too much. She then marries an elderly nobleman, and is quickly widowed. Meanwhile, she's found the man she really loves, but the egregious wastrel, Sir John Oxon, tries to blackmail her into marrying him. I'd better stop now, for fear of spoilers. Clorinda is almost terrifyingly strong and independent; she's balanced by her elder sister Anne, who adores her, but is physically weak and nervous. And yet Anne has her own strength, which Clorinda values. Pairs of women, one weak, the other strong, keep popping up in these novels, and it's hard not to suppose that they correspond to the two sides of Burnett's own character, particularly in regard to her second marriage.
From A Little Princess, my copy,
Again, it's staggering that such a devastatingly strong woman should have been a popular fictional character in the Victorian period, and it knocks into a cocked hat our ideas about demure Victorian heroines. A good thing, that.

'The Head of the House of Coombe' was published in 1922, Burnett's last novel. A feather-headed young woman from Jersey marries a young Englishman who has no money and, apparently, less sense. They have a baby, who she ignores. She lives a life of extravagance, fashion, and debt, and her husband then dies. The servants disappear and she's left on her own till one of her aristocratic friends, a rather strange Marquis, bails her out financially. The world then supposes she's his mistress. She isn't. Her neglected little girl meets a kindly boy in the Park, and plays with him several times, but when his mother discovers who little Robin is, she takes the boy back to Scotland to save him from the taint. Subsequently, Lord Coombe discovers that Robin is not only neglected but abused, and he dismisses her nursemaid and gets her a loving one, gets her educated, builds her a delightful extension to live in, still in the house of 'Feather', which is her mother's nickname.

One can easily recognise elements from the children's books here: Feather strongly resembles Mistress Mary's neglectful mother, and Robin, like Sara Crewe, is consigned to a garret till rescued by a masculine well-wisher, and installed in pleasant rooms, Coombe does not, however, adopt Robin. There's a second volume, apparently, but I haven't read it.

I was interested in this recurrence of the emotionally absent mother. Burnett was not a huge success as a mother; partly because she had to work so hard. Her boys were left behind, missing her, when she voyaged to England to promote her books. Letting it be known that her second son, Vivian, was the inspiration for 'Fauntleroy' wasn't the best move any mother ever made, either. When Lionel was dying of TB in Paris, she went away during his last days to refresh herself in England; she did get back before he died. I don't wish to be judgemental about that. But afterwards she wallowed in grief; remained in England while Vivian wrote letters to her begging her to come to him. He was naturally, grieving greatly for his beloved elder brother. What really stuck in my gullet was her letter to him, telling him that all his needs had always been met, and she had to devote herself to a foundation for poor boys that she had set up in London. Here, she sounds like Mrs Jellaby in 'Bleak House', and though much about Mrs Jellaby makes me wince, I can understand some of what Dickens was lampooning. I do wonder whether Burnett was aware of any element of 'Feather', or Mistress Mary's mother, in herself. Perhaps not. Neither Feather nor Mrs Lennox indulged in philanthropy.

The reason I haven't read the second volume of this novel is the hideous jingoistic subplot of the novel, complete with evil Prussian spies (one of whom wants to rape Robin, and she's rescued only in the nick of time.) Burnett, looking back, characterises the Germany of that time as a nation that believed 'that the world has but one reason for existence - that it may be conquered and ravaged by the country that gave them birth.' Flip back to 'The Shuttle' and consider this passage.
'I believe you would always think about doing things,' said Lady Anstruthers. 'That is American, too.'
'It is a quality Americans inherited from England,' she said lightly, 'one of the results of it is that England covers a rather large share of the map of the world.'
 Only of course, Hodgson Burnett didn't see the British Empire as anything but benevolent. I think further comment is unnecessary.

Illustration from 'That Lass o'Lowries'.

I approached 'That Lass o' Lowries' with some trepidation, because it's full of north-country dialect and though I'd found bits of it quite acceptable in 'The Secret Garden,' I wasn't sure how well I could manage large quantities of dialogue written in it. In fact, it didn't cause me any problems at all, and I honestly think this novel is the best of her adult work. It deals with one of the women who worked underground in the mines. At school I was shown pictures of them dragging trucks along rails underground, acting as beasts of burden, and they were represented to me as pitiable. Joan Lowrie, the heroine of the novel, is a different creature.

'The man's jacket of fustian, open at the neck, bared a handsome sun-browned throat' (though one does wonder how she managed to get it sun-browned, working long hours down the pit). 'The man's hat shaded a face with dark eyes that had a sort of animal beauty, and a well-moulded chin.'

Joan is a woman of character, though she is often physically abused by her no-good father. She shortly takes in an unmarried mother of a small baby who was seduced and kept, till she became pregnant, by the son of a local squire. Liz is one of those weak counterparts to the strong female lead who I've observed in other novels. Joan protects Liz, though she's sometimes irritated by her, and drives the pompous parson out when he comes to moralise at the poor girl.

'Does tha see as tha has done her any good?' she demanded, 'I dunnot mysen.'
'I have endeavoured to the best of my ability to improve her mental condition,' the minister replied.
'I thowt as much,' said Joan. 'I mak no doubt tha'st done thy best, neyther. Happen tha'st gi'en her what comfort tha had to spare, but if you'd been wiser than yo' are, you'd ha' let her alone.'' And she sends him off with: 'Howivver, as tha has said thy say, happen it'll do yo' fur this toime, an' yo' can let her be for a while.'

Joan Lowrie is one of several characters in the novel who can see patronising hypocrisy for what it is, and have no hesitation in speaking their mind about it. I did find the working-class characters convincing and well-drawn, though there are traces of patronage in the portrayal, but far less than one would fear to discover. Perhaps this is because Burnett herself had been desperately poor, and must have had to do with working-class children in Tennessee. But Joan is right up there with Elizabeth Gaskell's working-class heroines, or some of George Eliot's women. Tough, yet kindly, and less ferocious that Clorinda in 'A Lady of Quality,' she has a quality of genuineness, and you can't help but love her. I do recommend this book.

Photo: project Gutenberg

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This is really interesting, Leslie, I must read some of her adult novels.