Frances Hodgson Burnett: the Fashion, Part 4

Pams Pictorama Post: I am wrapping up this summer reading series on the adult novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett with this post on the lavish and lovingly described clothing in her stories. It is clear from her detailed descriptions that she loved fashion and had thoughts about clothing and what it meant. I share an autochrome of a well dressed woman of the day by Helen Messing, a French photographer, taken in 1912, as the featured image and to set the tone for today. For anyone who has just wandered in, the first three posts can be found clicking on the following: Frances Hodgson Burnett, an Excellent ReadFrances Hodgson Burnett, Part 2: the Grown-up Books;and Frances Hodgson Burnett, Part 3: The Women.

Frances Hodgson Burnett was one of those people who lived long enough and over a time to experience fashion from the days of whale bone corsets to the nebulous non-supportive skivvies of the 1920’s. One interesting quote which I pulled out off the internet concerned her own wedding dress. The story went that she had a long engagement to her first husband, Swan Burnett, and with the earnings from her writing had a couture wedding dress made for herself on a trip to Paris. They were to be married in Tennessee and she shipped the dress there. For whatever reason, now lost in the telling, it was delayed and despite her urging, he would not postpone the wedding for the arrival of the dress. Writing to a friend about her new husband she had this to say, “Men are so shallow … he does not know the vital importance of the difference between white satin and tulle, and cream coloured brocade …”

Wedding dresses are a significant point of discussion in T. Tembarom. In this novel of 1913, the hero finds his foothold as a cub reporter taking over the society page of a New York newspaper. Temple realizes that learning how to describe the wedding dresses accurately will win the favor of the socialites (and their dressmakers) who he needs to befriend for material. Therefore loving descriptions of him laboring to learn the nips and tucks of white peau de cyne trimmed with duchess [sic] lace and other fashionable wedding garb of the carriage trade ensues and descriptions of finery become his stock in trade. I share a photo of something like what he was talking about below, from the period and for sale online if  you are so inclined. (Clearly a bit worse for wear but only fair to consider it is over 100 years since it was sewn.)

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Worth gown circa 1913

 

Later in the same book, Temple’s fondness for his elderly relative is expressed through the wardrobe he has made for her in London. Below is a bit of an excerpt from the novel:

Mrs. Mellish became possessed of an “idea” To create the costume of an exquisite, early-Victorian old lady in a play done for the most fashionable and popular actor manager of the most “drawing-room” of West End theaters, where one saw royalty in the royal box, with bouquets on every side, the orchestra breaking off in the middle of a strain to play “God Save the Queen,” and the audience standing up as the royal party came in—that was her idea. She carried it out, steering Miss Alicia with finished tact through the shoals and rapids of her timidities. And the result was wonderful; color,—or, rather, shades,—textures, and forms were made subservient by real genius. Miss Alicia—as she was turned out when the wardrobe was complete—might have been an elderly little duchess of sweet and modest good taste in the dress of forty years earlier.

In the subsequent pages of the novel, the fragile and shy Miss Alicia is given confidence on several occasions by her extremely well conceived of and thoughtfully considered clothing. (This speaks to my own belief that women’s clothing – and jewelry – are like armor for battle. I urge – choose wisely!)

Like many of her characters, it is reported that Frances turned to her own sewing skills during leaner periods of her life and, among other things, sewed elaborate outfits for her sons – a la Little Lord Fauntleroy. Her writing is peppered with allusions to line and properly made clothes – dresses of old pillaged and remade resourcefully for deserving young, dewy, emerging impoverished belles. I believe I have mentioned the fact of me and sewing – which is that I can re-attached a credible button but not much beyond that. Therefore the idea of remaking dresses and whipping up new ones wholesale is utterly alien to me and vague notions of Project Runway is all I can summon.

In the novel, Vagabondia, published in 1884 we get a glimpse of even earlier fashion. (This is a slightly different type of book about a happy Bohemian family of artists and their salon of hangers on, both rich and not.) The description of a purple dress as trimmed with swan’s down (really?) gave me pause and sent me running to Google. Evidently swan’s down was used as a less expensive replacement for fur, primarily at the end of the 19th and early 20th century. I will spare you the description of how exactly this is extracted from the unfortunate fowl. It was so popular at one time that swans were in danger of extinction.

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Period blue silk vest trimmed in swans down, via i10.photobucket.com or Pinterest

 

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Victorian Edwardian child’s cape/coat trimmed with swan’s down, for sale on Etsy at the time of writing

 

The concept of a simple white muslin frock with a ribbon belt like the one below comes up in virtually every novel and short story – sometimes as a supporting character, sometimes a main event. In its own way this was the little black dress of its late 19th and early 20th century day – although of course it was the exact opposite as instead of sophistication a la Chanel, it was to show off simplicity and innocence. It was the dress that could be simply sewn and easily afforded, and theoretically allowed the native beauty of the wearer to shine. Burnett has wealthy women of the world who embrace the simple muslin gown as a way of showing their simple underlying beauty – while a clever poor good seamstress could whip one up for herself (or sometimes for a beloved sibling) and unusually beautiful this simple dress could let their beauty shine through – and perhaps even show up some catty, wealthier acquaintances.

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While Frances Hodgson Burnett probably would not have been willing to say that clothing makes the man. However, she had a deep understanding of how critical clothes were to how women defined themselves in the world and used it to a descriptive advantage in her stories. At a time when women didn’t have a lot of tools for defining themselves at their disposal, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s interest in them and use of them in her narrative was not coincidental nor casual. My guess is that she had given a lot of thought and understood it in a personal way.

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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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.

 

Frances Hodgson Burnett, Part 2: the Grown-up Books

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I just purchased this gorgeous volume of Hodgson Burnett’s auto-bio of her childhood

 

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.

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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.)

 

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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.

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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.

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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.)

 

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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.

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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.

 

Frances Hodgson Burnett, an Excellent Read

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Kim drew Little Saint Elizabeth into this illustration in his Alias the Cat!

 

Pam’s Pictorama Post: In some ways it is crazy to think I can tackle this subject in a blog post so I will start by saying, this is a warning shot over the bow – I am just skimming the top of very deep water indeed today with an expectation of subsequent entries.

As the author of childhood favorites such as A Little Princess, The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy we all know Frances Hodgson Burnett and the classic films (and many remakes) made from her stories. I read them as an adult and especially loved The Secret Garden. As much as I liked the film, the book had much more flavor and depth.

I had not however given these stories or her much thought in years however when Kim stumbled on and purchased Little Saint Elizabeth a beautifully illustrated volume of stories, ostensibly for children although the title story is a bit gruesome and had a similar, appalling ending to Anderson’s Little Match Girl. We found it at the now mostly eradicated flea market on 24th Street here in Manhattan. He purchased it for very little and we considered it quite the score.

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From the story Little Saint Elizabeth

 

Somehow it did not inspire further digging at the time and it wasn’t until a few months ago, while whining one night in bed about a delay in receiving my next volume of the Judy Bolton series to arrive (future post about that series pending there), that Kim suggested I poke around Burnett’s adult fiction. (May I just take a moment out to say, you really do want to marry someone who is going to make helpful, smart suggestions like this. I do think it is the very best part of being married and no one thinks to tell you that. Choose wisely I say!)

Thanks to Project Gutenberg this could be accomplished with great alacrity, at the speed of a download. For those of you who have yet to be introduced to it, this is a magnificent site it is free downloadable books and stories, generally focused on early works which are out of copyright. This leads to access to many of the more obscure and hard to find works of early authors which would be prohibitively expense to purchase to read, even if you could find them. I read many of Edna Ferber’s short stories from these downloads.

While in general I might say I prefer to read with a book in my hand, about half my reading is done with these downloads these days. (To be fair, another swath is audio books I listen to at the gym – much contemporary fiction is consumed that way.) A great advantage is that I can pull out my phone and read a bit while on line somewhere or on the subway – it is always with me. My Frances Hodgson Burnett mania has been hell on my reading of the New York Times lately, but the news isn’t all that great these days anyways. And as a result I have had a more contented summer commute than most during horrendous subway delays and waits.

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Photo portrait of Burnett from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery collection

 

Born in England in 1850, she evidently always wrote, even as a child. Her own financial fortunes seemed to wax and wane dramatically from childhood through adulthood much like the story lines of her fiction. Born into affluence her father dies when she is young and the family slowly spirals into poverty which ultimately forces a move to Tennessee to live with an uncle, who in turn becomes impoverished. Burnett begins publishing magazine stories to some success when she is 18, in order to help support her family and she quickly becomes a writing and publishing machine. She eventually marries and has two sons. She is living in Washington with her family when in 1879, on a visit to Boston, she meets Louisa May Alcott and Mary Mapes Dodge, editor of St. Nicholas magazine, and that is when she starts to write children’s fiction. This is of course where her fame will live on.

Meanwhile, an interesting aspect of Burnett’s adult fiction for me is she is another entrant in a long line of women who write about the then modern woman of the day. Pictorama readers may remember my posts about the serial books Grace Harlowe and The Automobile Girls and The Moving Picture Girls (which can be read here) as well as my more recent one, mentioned above, about Edna Ferber, Fervent for Ferber (you can find it here).

In my mind there is a fascinating timeline that can be drawn from, let’s say, Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) and her world of women which by necessity revolved mostly around caring for men and their families, to Burnett – women’s fortunes were still largely dependent on men and marriage, but there is an increasing sense of independence and control of their own destiny. The more independent American woman is frequently brought into contrast with her European (generally British) counterparts, causing all sorts of consternation. After Burnett the truly modern woman slowly emerges – driving cars, working for a living, controlling her own financial destiny – ultimately Edna Ferber’s women sit firmly astride both worlds, working, running businesses and finding their own success. I do hope Burnett and Ferber had a chance to meet, and I am glad Hodgson Burnett lives long enough to have a peek at that world for women. In another universe I believe I am writing a PhD thesis on this.

Even when Hodgson Burnett is writing about men, she is writing about women. I will expand on this theory when I return to this topic and write a bit more about some of the books. For though now I think I have chattered on enough for one Sunday!