Pam’s Pictorama Post: Returning to last week’s post (find it here) on the author Hodgson Burnett, largely known for her children’s fiction, I have been exploring her adult work which pre-dates as well as running concurrently with her now more famous work for children. I have been reading them via Project Gutenberg, a resource for free, online publications, generally those obscure or early works that have fallen out of copyright. I am enjoying supplying you all with the sumptuous covers of these books since I have not seen them myself before.
Burnett was born in Manchester, England, but moved to Tennessee when she was about 15. Like many of her novels and short stories, she moved between these two worlds, annual trips when funds allowed later in life, although she appears to have lived the larger portion of her life here in the United States – dying in Nassau County, New York and buried there. Her personal fortune also bounced between extremes, although ultimately her writing secured her and her family’s financial security.
Without knowing a lot of the details, the dramatic episodes of her life must have made up some of the color and storylines of her writing. She lost an adult son to consumption which plunged her into a prolonged depression which had already been a feature of her adult life. Her other son also fell quite ill but she was able to nurse him back to health. While her writing is not obsessed with this sort of Victorian illness, people are consumptive or die of other wasting illnesses – however, in all fairness, that was the real world she lived in.
Eventually she divorces her husband, marries another man, but that marriage only lasts two years. (The details of this are a tad torrid and somewhat like one of her stories – he’s an actor who may have been blackmailing her, she ends up in a sanatorium with a nervous breakdown after fleeing to England.) Somewhere in there, in the 1880’s she also finds religion – a theme which does permeate her writing but only occasionally a key element. Her interest in Christian Science, Theosophy and Spiritualism do color her later works. In particular The Dawn of a To-morrow, a short novel or even really a novella, is one of the few that goes deeply down a rabbit hole of religious subject (with a heavy dose of Spiritualism), but in a way no less entertaining than her other stories. (I was riveted reading it on the subway a few weeks ago.)
Frances Hodgson Burnett referred to herself as a writing machine (a sentiment shared by Louisa May Alcott who also wrote for her family’s security) and she was wildly prolific. She wrote for the magazines of the day including Godley’s Lady’s Book, Scribner’s Monthly, Peterson’s and Harper’s Bazaar among them. Once she started writing for children, those stories resided in magazines and compilations in addition to novels. Stories such as A Little Princess and Little Lord Fontleroy appeared first as short stories under similar but different titles, and then once their popularity was clear, grew into their longer novel formats.
Both the juvenile and adult works were turned into plays and then films. A clutch of her early novels were adapted to movies in the mid-teens but sadly now appear to be lost – there are a few I would be very curious to see. The ones that are known to exist are going onto my must-see list to dig up including The Dawn of Tomorrow (1915 and a real weepy), The Flame of Life (1916, based on A Lady of Quality) and The Fair Barbarian (1917, one I just finished reading). Films based on her books are still being made today, in several languages.
Like Edna Ferber (who I raved about in my post Fervor for Ferber which can be read here) Frances Hodgson Burnett revels in character development. Also like Ferber she zips between the various classes, detailing both with equal capacity. It is, in a sense, the divide between classes and their interaction that moves most of her stories. In Britain, social mobility, even with money, is notwithstanding. You are either born of a class or you are not and money (or to some degree lack thereof) does not really change that. People of the working class who come into money are still of a different class. Titled people, even if impoverished, still hold their social standing at least in a sense.
However, Burnett was documenting a world that was rapidly changing, an evolving society which allowed for more financial mobility. A number of her stories concern the invasion of waves of hugely wealthy Americans in Great Britain. Two of my favorite books take on this theme, The Shuttle and T. Tembarom. (Please note that, in my experience, somehow the books of hers with the least appealing titles turn out to be the best. As it is hard to get descriptions of the more obscure books I think this is helpful to know.)
Americans of all classes invading England once a thriving liner industry was established and the cost of that trip diminished as frequency and demand increased. Even the American working class was saving up and able to make the trip to Europe and England. Suddenly there they were, everywhere – riding bikes, touring and taking in the historic sights, marrying impoverished gentry and renovating their lands and historic homes. I had not been aware that this kind of travel expansion was happening in 1907 and that the American working class was taking full advantage of it – nor that it was a boon financially to Europe and England, although shook their tree socially as well, so to speak. Evidently the large influx of newly minted American money was without question sought after, while the brash personalities barely withstood. Newly minted millionaires were evidently mad for titles and married their progeny off to titled Europeans and Brits for this sole purpose.
A Fair Barbarian takes on a young girl visiting a relative, her father’s sister, in a small town in England. The father has made millions in silver mining in Montana. The elderly aunt almost faints when she hears that the girl spent part of her youth in a silver camp called Bloody Gulch. As a young woman of the upper class England wouldn’t even say the word bloody the aunt pleads with the young woman never to say it again. The young woman, understandably, looks confused and explains that it was the name of the place; it was not she who named it.
One of my favorite characters was teased out in The Shuttle (1907). Not a main character, but a very well defined one, of an ambitious, fast talking, young typewriter salesman who had been orphaned and fought his way to modest success selling typewriters, allowing his bicycle trip through England. He is critical to the plot in one book and is referred to in another and is completely delightful. At first English gentry don’t know what to make of brash Americans like these (the typewriter salesman speaks with the most amazing American slang of the day), but they turn out to be such very likable people that most warm to them over time as the stories unfold. The theoretical social mobility and unconsciousness of the modern American at the turn of the century was standing England on its ear.
Even Hodgson Burnett and her gilded rags to riches stories did not believe that total social mobility was possible in her time, in either country. Nor did she ignore the impoverished who would not find an economic foothold to hoist them up the ranks. It is clear that it was only a few who fortune would favor.
I plan to round off my enthusiastic commentary on Frances Hodgson Burnett in a subsequent post, with a nod to her female characters who, even when they are not the main ones, control the action and storyline of every one of her books. Stay tuned.