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!

 

 

Fervor for Ferber

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Interesting photo of Edna from the 1940’s, snatched off the internet

 

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I have always been a voracious reader. From the time I first mastered the skill, I delved deeply, deliciously and happily into a never-ending parade of books. I started with what we would today call young adult fiction, but quickly found my way to the broader world of fiction where I have largely wandered around delightedly ever since. I am, almost exclusively, a reader of fiction – straying into non-fiction only often enough to prove the rule.

I like to read books in order if they are a series, and it is annoying to me to not be able to start at the beginning and move forward – I also am irritated by gaps; I am a completist. This is sometimes stressful when reading old and somewhat obscure books which required hunting down, purchasing. (See my post on Grace Harlowe, the Automobile Girls and the Moving Picture Girls Novels which can be found here.) When I was younger I was fairly strict about reading one book at a time. These days I am likely to have an audio one going at the gym, a few available to me on my phone and iPad, and at least one in physical form. Those last ones generally reside next to the bed in our tiny bedroom a waxing and waning pile on my side. (Kim’s side of the bed requires its own future post, with high, towering piles which threaten to bury us in a Collier brothers type demise.) The audio books tend toward lighter fiction, short stories on my electronic devices and more serious fiction preferred in book form.

I would like to note here that I am an escapist in my reading. I shy away from the tragic and generally use my reading as a way of relaxing and shutting out the world. By my own definition, I read a combination of trash and good writing – classics, juveniles, comics – my own media feed of entertainment which follows my nose. I keep lists of books on my phone, on Amazon and on my Audible account so I don’t lose track of what crosses my path out in the world which I may wish to eventually devour.

I took on Edna Ferber last summer. I began with her short stories and a short novel and devoured them, finishing with the novels I had not read in my youth. Let me state for the record – she is one hell of a short story writer. Each story is a little gem of character development. The plots are simple, but not annoyingly so, and the stories have the added attraction (for me anyway) of being miniature time capsules of her day. She wrote very much of her world and the time she was living in – a very contemporary writer. Her stories, often but not by any means always, written from a women’s perspective frequently examine the changing, but often still confined and limited, role of women as the 20th century in this country really got rolling.

Most compelling for me in some ways are the stories of the women who made up the force of nannies, cooks and house keepers for Manhattan’s wealthy of the time – a live-in work force which peeled off to their other homes in Harlem and (my beloved home) Yorkville on the rare day or evening free. Often we get both sides of those stories – Edna was as able to write about the wealthy (so successful was she as a writer and screen writer, that she eventually joined their ranks) as well as the working class – and occasionally even the middle class folks on their way up and down the economic ladder.

It was the working class and the young and making their way in the world folks that she is at her best with in my opinion. One story that stayed with me Sun Dried, a collection called Buttered Side Down (1912) is about a young woman who comes to New York to become a writer and what happens to her as she sits on the roof of her building drying her hair. (Yes, a quaint idea but not uncommon in the days before home hair dryers and a women’s fashion that valued long hair, piled high on the head, for women.)

Edna (born in 1885 and died in 1968) made a study of people and that, combined with experiences from her own life, inform these stories and color them deeply with detail and immediacy. She was an excellent observer of people and their habits – had suffered a certain amount of anti-semitism herself which seems to inform her perspective as a loner and outsider.

Project Gutenberg provided me with (free no less) download access to much of Ferber’s earlier volumes of short stories and the novella, Dawn O’Hara: the Girl Who Laughed, published in 1911, all of which are a bit scarce in their non-electronic form these days. Kim kicked off the Ferber fiesta with a sampling of her series about the corset saleswoman, Emma McChesney. He hated it. Nonetheless, it caught my imagination, although I am willing to admit that those are indeed the lesser of her short stories they got me hooked. It was the early collections such as Cheerful by Request and Roast Beef, Medium which earned my deep regard. I believe I gobbled up all of the collections of her story, although perhaps a few of the uncollected stories escaped my dragnet and will come my way eventually. I do hope so.

Edna divides her attention largely between the greater Chicago area of her youth and New York City where she eventually sets up shop so to speak. Some of her stories take the occasional trip to Europe, Gigolo comes to mind, the same way she herself periodically made the tourist tour of the Old World. A partnership with George S. Kaufman produced plays and screen plays, some which became beloved films, such as Dinner at Eight and Stage Door.

Her novels, numbering more than a dozen, also contribute more than their share to cinema and musical history. Show BoatGiantSo Big, and Saratoga Trunk are among those that come to mind. The novels are very different fare and I have read almost all of them. The good ones are great – So BigShow Boat and Saratoga Trunk – are tops and sparkle with the best of her work. But I found the novels to be a mixed bag. Generally, even the good ones, lack the cunning and often mordant character development of her short stories.

Edna traveled with me to and from New Jersey all summer as I visited my father in hospice. It was often Edna I read at his bedside if he was asleep while I was there. I read her novel about Alaska (Ice Palace, 1953, – very disappointing for me actually, suffered from very two-dimensional characters, and I love a good Alaska story) while trying to recover from a miserable summer cold which plagued me from July into August.

I spent part of one night on our couch with a cough induced insomnia, giving Kim a break from my endless hacking, dosed with NyQuil and reading the bits of her autobiography that interested me. (She wrote two and we had the earlier one, A Peculiar Treasure, in the house thanks to Kim.) In short, Edna’s voice colored and calmed me both through the terrible and the monotonous over that long summer.

By fall I was working my way through some of the remaining novels – Saratoga Trunk traveled with me as I made my way to and through California with the orchestra, reading it on the bus and backstage at various times. I adored it and remember wishing it would last longer. (I am a fast reader and flights across country or internationally require several books.) A less successful book about a Connecticut family also consumed this fall, American Beauty, 1931. I did find her hit or miss on some of the novels. Giant, which I finished over the holiday season, was middle of the road for me. It wasn’t a favorite, but it was very readable and well written. Although I will never think of Texas exactly the same after reading it.

There are still a few scraps for me to read if I can track them down. Of the novels Cimarron remains. I recently read a book of short stories by Fannie Hurst, who certainly worked the same side of the street on short stories at the same time. (She too enjoying the voracious appetite of the theater and cinema for consuming her work.) The short stories were for me just that bit more maudlin, the characters a bit sodden and sentimental – missing the sparkle I am afraid. I will give her novels (Imitation of Life and Back Street among them) a try and see what I think of those. If I find anything of interest I will, of course, let you know.