Frances Hodgson Burnett, Part 3: The Women

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A still from A Lady of Quality, 1913, probably a lost film

 

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Back to my summer reading adventure and the third installment on the adult novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett. (If you have been on vacation and missed the first installments they can be found here and here.) Today I give you another favorite aspect of her writing, the women characters of her books. I have illustrated this post largely with film stills from the various movies made from her books, sadly mostly lost as of right now, as they started to turn up in my research. As an aside, it is worth noting that the first two books I mention below, were best sellers in the years they were published, plays (often adapted by her) as well as early films proliferated from Hodgson Burnett’s work. The books mentioned below are all available for download via Project Gutenberg for free.

Unlike Edna Ferber, who I have offered up as sort of an heir to Hodgson Burnett’s work (I fantasize about a meeting between them, and would be very curious to know if they ever did meet. I imagine the handing of a certain literary baton over lunch in a mutual city somewhere around 1917), Burnett writes about men more, fleshing them out further than Ferber when she did, although somehow a woman generally lurks around and is pivotal to the plot.

For example, T. Tembarom is a man (in fact the unfortunate name of the man) and the main character of the book by the same title. He is in every sense delightful and I loved the few weeks I spent in his head this July. It is hard to write about this book without spoiling the plot (and I urge you to read this book if you are the least interested), but suffice it to say it is a rags to riches story of a type – hard working orphaned boy who has both charm and grit and makes his way off the street and up onto the nascent rungs on the ladder of journalism. There are unexpected turns of event (and thoroughly, utterly, unlikely ones, but that didn’t bother me in the least), and he manages them and all quite adroitly. However, this character and the plot ultimately are entirely driven in his actions for the woman he loves who, by way of a refreshing literary change, is attractive although not beautiful and most of all very wise and, most interesting of all, has an excellent head for business.

Very smart women with good business sense are a theme in Burnett’s books. T. Tembarom notwithstanding, these women are generally unusually beautiful and frequently have a more or less unlimited pocketbook. This does not make them less interesting and in fact makes the most enjoyable plot points possible in The Shuttle. This, my second favorite novel to date, begins with a bit of melodrama concerning a young heiress marrying a rogue of a titled Englishman who more or less locks her away, abuses her and isolates her from her American family. Her younger and very different sister (who clearly today would cheerfully run multi-national corporations if not whole countries) comes to her rescue quite literally – while making an entire village love her and ultimately finds happiness with one of them. I would love to see the 1918 Constance Talmadge version, lobby card set shown below. It is not clear if it is a lost film or not however.

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While these books illustrate the first sort of independence for women of the early part of the last century (contrasting the much more liberated American woman against her British counterpart) they also do a splendid job of embracing that made dash toward the modernity of that period. In my mind this is a lovely race, especially in the United States, headlong into the future during this period. It is a moment when developments like photography give way to moving pictures, and train and liner ship travel becoming prevalent and widely available to a broader part of the population. Cars and bicycles also liberate, literally and figuratively, and everything happens, faster and faster, bigger and better, until about 1918 when the influenza epidemic and WWI knock everything for a loop and it all stops more or less on a dime – or at least this power morphs into war energy and a new period begins, infinitely less hopeful than the previous one.

I remember once standing in front of a Georgia O’Keeffe early charcoal drawing at the Whitney and thinking what it might have been like to be in New York City on a day in 1916, seeing this drawing at a gallery and perhaps later in the day hitting a movie theater later and seen Fatty and Mabel Adrift or perhaps The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (I had just been watching films from 1916 and I can’t remember exactly what film I was thinking of), and how you would have felt like you had indeed entered a new, great, modern age. You were thinking, We are so lucky to live right now! These books and their storylines try to capture some of that enthusiasm and energy. And yet, Frances Hodgson Burnett is careful not to ignore all reality in favor of the vision of a promise land. There are impoverished characters who cannot and will never rise from poverty, the facts of what money cannot buy are recognized, and all not cast aside as some honoring of the old ways and tradition is also embraced.

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Georgia O’Keeffe drawing from 1915, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum and possibly the one I was looking at that day.

 

Also, Burnett’s world had not quite developed into the world of Edna Ferber (or even Georgia O’Keeffe for that matter) and while the stage is set, poised for the emancipation of women, it has not yet occurred. Women are still dependent on fathers and husband’s for their financial security and their role in society, all society really, is still circumspect. You might push the boundaries here and there but in the end you were still only where first your family money could get you, and then your husband’s fortune. If you were a smart woman with an excellent head for business you applied it via the men in your life and in your advice to them. Men were your only conduit into the broader world, especially that of business. Your choice of a husband being your most important decision about your future – the push and pull of love versus financial well-being is a frequent part of many of these plots.

Finally, I will round out with a mention of yet another female character which drives a narrative, that of a girl named Glad, the protagonist of the novella, The Dawn of a Tomorrow. This is a very different type of story and takes up the Spiritualism vein mentioned in last week’s post. (It can be found here.) While the narrative of the tale is told from the perspective of a middle aged man, it is Glad, a filthy street urchin, who drives the storyline forward. The man in question is saved from suicide by Glad (portrayed above at top and here below, by a much cleaner and more beautiful Mary Pickford in the 1915 film version; one still from the internet and the other from Mary Pickford Rediscovered, by Kevin Brownlow, from the Kim Deitch library) who eventually takes him to meet an equally poor elderly woman who lives in the same slum. However, this woman has a strange, spiritual and somewhat mystical sensibility which imbues all who meet her with a sense of well-being and hope for the future, despite their wretched living circumstances and this is the turning point of the entire plot.

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Mary Pickford book.JPG

 

The Pickford film version (rumored to be extant in a Swedish archive) seems to somewhat bastardize the story, perhaps making Mary/Glad the only dominant female character, pushing everyone else (as to be expected) into secondary roles. The film was remade in 1924 with a different lead and that one appears lost. The Pickford film has glowing period reviews and I very much hope it becomes available.

If you have stuck with me through this third post about Frances Hodgson Burnett and her adult novels, perhaps you will not be entirely disappointed to hear that there will be another (final?) post. That one will tackle the love Burnett lavished on her descriptions of clothing and fashion of her day which has driven me to the internet for illustration and explanation more than once.

 

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