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.