My rating: 8.5/10
Coming late to the party with this book, I am. I had added it to my Century of Books must-acquire list because of numerous enthusiastic recommendations from other bloggers, and I am thrilled to be able to report that those who gave it the nod were completely correct. It’s an absolutely grand read.
I understand that the currently in-print edition published by Persephone has been edited somewhat, and I can’t help but wonder what they cut out. I’m not terribly concerned that it would have ruined the story – this is a very long book with abundant authorial wanderings just slightly off-topic here and there – but it was intriguing to read the early, as-published text in this lovely vintage edition and speculate as to where it could be gently trimmed.
And golly, I just realized that the book I’m holding in my hands (well, it’s actually sitting on top of the printer beside the computer, but it was just being held in my hands) is a genuine antique. One hundred and seven years old. That’s rather a pleasant thought. It’s travelled through the decades very well indeed, both in physical condition and in staying power of contents.
If you are one of the few of my readers who hasn’t yet tackled The Shuttle, here is a plot summary of sorts.
There were once, in the later years of the 19th century, two American millionaire’s daughters, eighteen-year-old Rosalie (Rosy) and ten-years-younger Bettina (Betty) Vanderpoel. It was just at the time of the first awareness by impoverished English gentlemen of the nobility – second, third and fourth sons, as it were – that here was a rather well-stocked hunting ground for well-dowered wives, who would be willing to exchange the country of their birth and a goodly portion of their fathers’ wealth for an English title and a stately ancestral home. In the best of these transactions, gone into with eyes wide open, both parties benefitted and a certain degree of happy felicity resulted, but occasionally the meeting of American feminine independence and English masculine traditionalist views on the necessity for a wife to submit to her husband’s superior judgement ended in disaster.
Guess which kind of marriage sweet, frail, loving and deeply innocent Rosy Vanderpoel made?
Falling for the seductive wiles of Sir Nigel Anstruthers, Rosy trots innocently off to England, but the honeymoon voyage is not even half over before she realizes that she has yoked herself to a malicious and sadistically abusive man. Sir Nigel is a rotter through and through. He despises not only his new wife, but her family and her country and her ideas and her expectations of at least a modicum of domestic happiness. His bitter disappointment at Rosy’s father’s insistence at leaving the control of her fortune in her own hands and not in her husband’s has Sir Nigel seething; he has hidden his true nature well, but now that the shores of the new world are receding he is preparing to gain control of Rosy’s share of the Vanderpoel millions for himself.
Competently reducing meek Rosy to a grey shadow of her former self, Sir Nigel succeeds in cutting her completely off from her American family, but for the occasional letter requesting more funds. Three babies are born; the first a son, who is born crippled due to his pregnant mother being physically assaulted by Sir Nigel; two little daughters die young.
Ten years pass.
Back in America, Betty Vanderpoel has never forgotten her beloved older sister, and can’t quite believe that the cessation of relations is by Rosy’s wish. (Betty had never liked Sir Nigel, and he returned the scorn she viewed him with in spades.) Taking her father into her confidence, Betty announces that she is going to go to England and see for herself how Rosy is faring. And off she goes, with her father’s blessing and his millions behind her.
What she finds is beyond her worst expectations. Rosy, aged beyond her years, lives a dreary life shut up in a decrepit mansion staffed by sullen servants, her only companion her hunchbacked ten-year-old son, Ughtred. (Aside to author re: “Ughtred”. What the heck, Frances Hodgson Burnett? That is absolutely bizarre. What were you thinking???!) Anyway, the estate is mouldering away while Sir Nigel pursues his merry way a-spending Rosy’s money on mistresses and riotous living abroad; he returns only to indulge himself in spousal abuse and to browbeat Rosy into sending another brief letter to Papa requesting more money to maintain his little grandson’s estate.
Betty, made of much sterner stuff than Rosy, swoops in like an avenging goddess, and the majority of the rest of the book consists of the rehabilitation of Rosy, Ughtred, the estate and the attached village full of grateful rurals. Sir Nigel reappears to find his despised sister-in-law very much in control of things, and their ensuing battle of wills, Rosy’s deeply good against Sir Nigel’s blackly wicked, is a gloriously entertaining thing.
Oh, and there is a further development. The next estate over belongs to another impoverished nobleman, this one the sole survivor of a long succession of bad eggs. But is Lord Mount Dunstan really as deeply black as his spendthrift, now-deceased elder brother, and the heedless ancestors before him, or is he sullen merely because he feels so darned bad about the decrepit state of his hereditary acres? Any guesses?
I will stop right here, because you can now likely guess the ending from what I’ve just said. Nope, no surprises here. But how the author gets us to the inevitable conclusion is deeply diverting. And how genuinely engaging and interesting her various characters are, from meek Rosy to divinely competent Betty to nasty Sir Nigel and his equally nasty old mother to misunderstood-but-really-deeply-noble Mount Dunstan to random American typewriter salesman G. Selden (who makes up a merry little sideplot himself, what with his precipitous entry via bicycle wreck at the very door of the Anstruther mansion) to busy millionaire Reuben Vanderpoel – what a glorious cast!
I loved this story! It’s a proper saga. Such a treat to have a black and white, good-versus-evil, you know who to root for and who to boo and hiss at sort of thing!
And it does reflect some very real historical happenings, such as the astounding trans-Atlantic traffic in (relatively) poor English noblemen and wealthy American heiresses which took place from the 1860s well into the early 1900s. Fictional Rosy Vanderpoel is represented as being one of the earlier of the transplanted rich girls, and her story is based solidly on fact, though with artistic license in her particular details.
A grand exposition on both American and British social structure of the late nineteenth century, with abundant detail and a whole lot of humour. What a good book, in an old-fashioned novel-ish sort of way. If you haven’t read it already, may I suggest that you consider adding it to your Must-Read list, in any edition you can get your hands on? As the publisher’s poster claims, it is a masterpiece.
Edited to add this note on the heroine’s wee little nephew’s name, Ughtred. At first I thought, “No way! This can’t be a real name.” But then a commenter said something about old Saxon names, and the penny dropped. Of course. A bit of internet research (what did we do before Google?!) turned up just a few references, enough to show that Frances Hodgson Burnett did indeed know her stuff. Here we are, then, references from several genealogy websites. (And I did not bookmark the references; bad researching practice, I know. Don’t tell the teens in my family, as this is a constant refrain from me when they are doing online research: “Reference your sources!”)
English: from the rare Old English personal name Uhtred, composed of the elements uht dawn + red counsel, advice. This is a very uncommon given name in the English-speaking world, but remains in use in the Shuttleworth family.
The name “Ughtred” is of Saxon origin, and means “early to counsel”. There were several Ughtreds (also spelt Hurard, Uctred, etc), the first (who did not carry the “de Bradshaw” or “of Bradshaw” surname) was, apparently, living near Preston, Lancashire at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066. He was a “King’s Thane”, that is an trusted retainer of the Saxon King, and he probably held his office by guarding the King’s hunting preserve because he is sometimes called “Forester” or “King’s Sergeant”. He or his son, or grandson, had a brother named Alan de Bradshaw, who held lands in Harwood, near Bradshaw Village. One early descendant was Robert de Bradshaw, a Crusader who died under the wall at Acre, in the Holy Land, circa 1189 A.D…
So there it is. A name with a genuine and quite fascinating history. But I still pity the poor kid in The Shuttle. Crippled from before birth by his wicked father, and then saddled with this. It’s even more eyebrow-raising than Little Lord Fauntleroy’s Cedric. Wonder what his (Ughtred’s) middle name (names) is (are)?