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The Shuttle

January 13, 2020

I’ve been meaning to read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Shuttle for years, but somehow never managed to get there until I got a very compelling email about it from RQ reader Franziska. Yes, I knew it was about an American heiress marrying a titled Englishman, but did I know it featured a competent young woman restoring a crumbling estate, or an abusive husband being defied and punished? I couldn’t have, or I would have read it ages ago.

The heroine of The Shuttle is a beautiful American heiress, but the marriage at the center of the book isn’t hers. When Rosalie Vanderpoel marries Sir Nigel Anstruthers, her sister Bettina is only nine. Even as a child, though, she’s smart enough to see through Sir Nigel, which is more than can be said for the rest of the family. So Nigel takes Rosy home to his crumbling estate where he cuts her off from her family, bullies her into handing over control of her money, and generally makes her life miserable. Meanwhile, Betty is attending a series of European schools, soaking up knowledge like a sponge, and secretly planning to rescue her sister when she grows up.

Betty’s trip to England and her actions when she arrives at Stornham Court are the best part of the book. Nigel is absent–spending Rosy’s money on the Riviera and enjoying the company of a Spanish dancer–so she has a free hand. She’s so strategic–getting Rosy into a better frame of mind, making sure she has legal authority to start making repairs, and getting the local people on her side. It’s lots of fun, but I would love to know more about what exactly is being done–it’s nice to know that everything is in good taste, but I want detail. Burnett is more interested in showing how Betty impresses everyone she meets, and that’s pretty good, too.

By the time Nigel returns home, the repairs have been made, the house has been refurnished, and she and Rosy have entered into local society. Nigel is angry, but he pretends to be pleased, and plots his revenge.

This is where things started to fall apart a little for me. I liked that Nigel wasn’t easily defeated, and I liked watching Betty deal with him, but the more unhinged he gets, the less it works for me. I have trouble picking out specific choices that I disagree with. It’s never hard to believe that an inferior man will exploit existing structures to maintain power over a vastly superior woman. But the  rest of the book is enough of a fairy tale that I wanted the ending to follow through. Which is not to say that Betty and Rosy don’t get a happy ending–it just wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped. Burnett writes herself into a corner, and extracts herself as best she can.

I haven’t talked about Betty’s romance, but, like the rest of the book, it started very, very well, but ended up a little underwhelming. The love interest, Lord Mount Dunstan, is the owner of a similarly decayed estate near Stornham Court, but, unlike Nigel, he’s unafraid of work and would considering marrying for money beneath him. He and Betty have a lot in common, and Burnett lets their interest in each other grow slowly. Unfortunately, once they fall in love, there’s less talking and appreciation, and more vague philosophizing about Primeval Force–what Franziska described as “the usual FHB woo woo about life forces.”

I’m a little disappointed, because it seemed like The Shuttle was going to be perfect, and it’s just good, but it is good. Betty is wonderful, clear-headed and clever without being unemotional, and I love her development from a child into an adult. Her relationship with her father is great, too. They respect and understand and trust each other in a way that’s both ideal and believable. Then there’s Mount Dunstan’s one friend, a gentle elderly vicar, and G. Selden, a New York typewriter salesman who could be a grown-up Alger hero, and is very definitely a Nice Boy. I also liked, and would have enjoyed seeing more of, Rosy’s hunchbacked son Ughtred.

There are few things more enjoyable than seeing an abuse victim rescued and showered with love and care and more material gifts, so The Shuttle has that going for it. Burnett has a good grasp of the different ways emotional abuse can destroy you, and in the second half of the book she does a good job of developing Rosy as a character with strengths and feelings that are different from her sister’s without being less.

I’ve talked myself around again. I do like The Shuttle. But I would have absolutely loved  it if it had followed a slightly different path.

6 comments

  1. Adding this to my to-read list!


    • enjoy!


  2. I both love it and find it horrific because it *does* really get at some of the consequences of abuse, especially cleverly hidden abuse, that are not often laid out for people to see. (and also because the women in the case honestly *should* be afraid of him and do not have a great deal of recourse in a lot of situations, which I hate but which is also definitely how it is and I hate that that’s it’s how it is)

    And this bit gets at something I experienced (albeit not a brother-in-law!) but have never quite been able to explain to anyone:
    “I beg your pardon, my dear Betty,” he said, and walked away with the manner of an offended adorer, leaving her to realise an odiously unpleasant truth—which is that there are incidents only made more inexplicable by an effort to explain. She saw also that he was quite aware of this, and that his offended departure was a brilliant inspiration, and had left her, as it were, in the lurch. To have said to Lady Alanby: “My brother-in-law, in whose house I am merely staying for my sister’s sake, is trying to lead you to believe that I allow him to make love to me,” would have suggested either folly or insanity on her own part.


    • that’s the worst part, isn’t it–it’s so unfair and there’s nothing she can do to counter it. And it feels so real, which makes it hard to want it to fall out any other way.


  3. Exactly! As satisfying as snappy comebacks and swoop-in-and-everything’s-fixed situations are, this one really had to play out to the bitter end before it was made fully right, for it to be plausible.

    I also agree re: the love story. It could have been such an enjoyable love story to read, but no, Life Forces are apparently better than them, like, using the excellent personalities they have already shown they have in other portions of the book, sigh.

    (have you read Emily Fox-Seton? Totally different book, and you will want to kick the title character [and, quite possibly, the author] repeatedly, but there are some redeeming moments.)


    • A lot of authors have that issue, I find–where the characters have personalities and chemistry that disappear when they fall in love.

      This is actually the first of Burnett’s novels for adults that I’ve read. I read a description of Emily Fox-Seton and I was intrigued.



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