Friday, August 07, 2009
The Shuttle & Chronicles of Avonlea
I’ve been downloading free e-books for my Sony Reader, among them treasures by Elizabeth von Arnim, Christina Rosetti, and Charlotte M. Yonge. It's like a continuous shopping spree for out-of-print books, only one pays nothing after the initial investment in the e-reader. Reading on the Sony is a surprisingly pleasant experience. Okay, it’s not quite as sensual as a book, but one forgets that it’s a machine because the screen/page is unobtrusive. And one has the advantage of being able to enlarge the print. My eyes appreciate it.
On the Sony I’m reading L. M. Montgomery’s Chronicles of Avonlea, a collection of short stories about the inhabitants of Avonlea (Anne of Green Gables' town). As a girl I was disappointed because Anne appears only occasionally, but now I realize that these stories are probably not aimed at children: in the first two, Montgomery writes about love affairs and friendships among aging proud men and women. This is enjoyable end-of-summer fare for the mature reader.
But I’m also reading a lovely 1907 hardcover edition (heaven forbid I should ever abandon the book!) of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s adult classic, The Shuttle, which the novelist and biographer Diana Birchall introduced to many of us at the Yahoo group Women Writers through the Ages (moderated by Ellen Moody, who often comments on our posts). Burnett, author of The Secret Garden, also wrote novels for adults, and two of them, The Shuttle and The Making of a Marchioness, are available new from Persephone Books (though The Shuttle is abridged), and as free e-books. Diana kept championing The Shuttle, and she was absolutely right. (If you don't want the abridged edition or the e-book, there are plenty of cheap copies of the 1907 Grosset & Dunlap editions online.)
I am absolutely glued to this very modern novel, which is as good as anything Edith Wharton ever wrote. Burnett's style is vigorous and confident, and the theme is the tragic reduction of Rosy Vanderpoel from confident golden girl to battered woman, and the attempts of her sister, Bettina, to rescue her. Rosy, a blossoming, lovely heiress in New York, marries Sir Nigel, who despises Americans but has entrapped her for her money. Back on his mouldering estate in England, he abuses her psychologically and physically until she turns over most of her money to him (which he squanders on frivolous trips). He also cuts off Rosy's communications with her family (though he himself writes occasional letters to placate them) and reduces her to a nervous wreck. When the Vanderpoels visit Europe, he tells them Rosy is away. She is utterly isolated and shattered.
But the heroine is her younger sister, Betty, a beautiful, brilliant young woman who, 12 years after the marraige, when she is grown up, sets out to rescue Rosy. She does not believe her sister dropped them, and her father, a businessman, also suspects she may be Sir Nigel's victim. There's something of the fairy tale about this, with one princess rescuing another. Burnett's description of Betty's impressions of Sir Nigel's estate is enchanting: it's a kind of Sleeping Beauty's castle in need of repairs. And Rosy's 12-year-old son, the crippled Ughtred, is reminiscent of heroes of her children's books.
That's as far as I've got, but the writing is superb. And Burnett knows so much about the psychology of the battered woman. She understands PTSD before its time. The battered woman is not a masochistic victim, but often a successful woman brought down by isolation and constant belittling and tantrums. The abuser often is charming and sympathetic in public: only his wife and children know his other side. How Burnett knew this I don't know: she also writes about this in The Making of a Marchioness.
Posted by Frisbee at 6:43 PM