Frances Hodgson Burnett

Joy upon joy! Autumn is here! Not officially (apparently that’s the 21st of September), but in my heart it is now Autumn. I am drinking tea at work (something I forego during the summer months as our office becomes a sauna from May onwards), I am wearing black tights again (this is allowed from September to April only, regardless of how cold it might be!) and this morning I wore a light jacket to work as there is a cold crispness in the air just beginning to creep in. In addition to these changes of habits and attire, there is a perceptible smell of Autumn in the air; that slight dampness and smokiness that signals the start of wet afternoons and bonfires, and, the best of all, the leaves have started to turn. This is my absolute favourite part of the year, when the trees are ablaze with colour in shades of red, orange, gold and brown, and their leaves fill the pavements with deliciously crunchy piles of fun. This morning as I waited for my train the trees lining the platform were beginning to turn golden in places, and I allowed myself to get excited for the cosy days to come when I can curl up on the sofa with a hefty Victorian novel while the wind wails outside and the rain beats against the windows.

Two years ago I was in New England for the latter half of September, visiting my American friend who was studying at the stunning Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, and as I travelled from Amherst to Boston and on to Newport in Rhode Island the magnificent panorama of New England’s forests turning the most brilliant shades of red and orange was an absolute delight to see. I would love to go back and see it again. While London cannot offer the same beauty it does have its moments, and I can’t wait to wander through the canopy of amber and gold that the trees become in Hyde Park when Autumn is at its height. It has always seemed such a contradiction to me that in dying nature becomes at its most beautiful; perhaps there is a philosophical point there to dwell upon.

This is a long preamble for a post on Frances Hodgson Burnett, but it does have a connection. For what better time of year than Autumn to read wonderfully cosy, ever so slightly saccharine, melodramatic tales of Victorian virtue and vice? As the seasons change so do my reading habits, and I always long for a bit of old fashioned values in my novels once the evenings begin to draw in. Old fashioned values are what Frances Hodgson Burnett does best, and if all you’ve read of her is The Secret Garden, then, my friend, you are missing out!

As Elaine so brilliantly described here, FHB as I shall refer to her from now on, wrote many novels, most of which were for adults, and she, sadly like many writers well loved for their happy endings, had a fairly troubled life. Her biography by Gretchen Gerzina makes for very illuminating reading and I highly recommend it to those with a passing interest in FHB. One of the reasons I love reading her novels is that they are so of their time. Burnett didn’t write for prizes, or for critical acclaim; she wrote to sell, and so she gave the public what they wanted. This means her stories for adults are filled with slender doe eyed saintly women and dashing, chivalrous heroes, dastardly villains, fallen women, sermons and wonderfully neat endings where there is always a happily ever after and a nice kick in the teeth for the villain of the piece. They uphold the values of womanhood being vulnerable and in need of protection by noble gentlemen; of repentance and atonement for sins; of chivalry and homely femininity. They are everything a typical Victorian housewife would have loved, and as I am clearly a misplaced Victorian housewife, I love them too. They are not everyone’s cup of tea and you do have to launch upon reading knowing what you’re letting yourself in for but personally I don’t think life would be complete without reading stories of little slips of things waltzing around in flower gardens waiting for gentlemen in riding boots to come and rescue them from poverty and *gasp* naughty out of wedlock pregnancy.

My most recent FHB was In Connection With the De Willoughby Claim which is, unsurprisingly, out of print, though you can download it for free from the Gutenberg Project. I say unsurprisingly because it’s a very niche taste nowadays. Suffice to say the plot revolves around a kindly oaf named Tom De Willoughby who gets cast out of his aristocratic good looking family for being a bit fat and clumsy; no joke. Apparently that’s what they did back then. He sets up a general store a few towns away where nobody knows him, because no one travels more than ten minutes from their own front door (this is in pre Civil War North Carolina), and makes himself well loved. One day a stranger turns up in town with a suspicious looking wife and then something narsty happens in the woodshed and before we know it Uncle Tom as he becomes known has adopted a poor motherless baby and her ‘father’ has fled. So far, so predictable. But it gets even better than this! The plot then switches to another group of people in a town not far from Boston who rave about a wonderful angelic girl called Margery who tragically died of ‘consumption’ in Italy and her brother Rev Latimer is prostrate with grief until he makes a friend of the Rev John Baird and they become inseparable. Time moves on and Uncle Tom has brought up the motherless baby into a beautiful and wonderful girl called Sheba who everyone loves, and there is another subplot by which his family ruin themselves and his young nephew Rupert comes into the picture, and then there is the Civil War, and then everyone loses their money and becomes very sad. To cut a long story short there is a claim system by which families who lost land and property during the Civil War can reclaim their losses from the government, but they have to go to Washington and fight their case. Rupert comes and finds Tom to tell him about this as there is lots of De Willougby land to be claimed, Tom, Rupert and Sheba travel to Washington to claim their money, Rupert and Sheba fall in love, the people from the subplot enter their lives in Washington, there are unsurprising revelations as to Sheba’s parenthood through the ‘unrelated subplot’ that was so obviously related FHB might as well have spilled the beans pages and pages ago, and it all ends happily ever after. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? And it should be, but somehow it isn’t!

Here’s a little quote to tempt you:

“I am not alone now,” said Rupert; “I must make a place and a home forSheba. I must not be only a boy in love with her; I must be a man who canprotect her from everything-from everything. She is so sweet-she is so sweet. She makes me feel that I am a man.”

If you want to read an adult FHB, start with The Shuttle and then explore outwards; there are plenty of gems to be found and I am still working my way through my collection. My favourite will always be The Secret Garden but I am so glad that I read her biography and discovered her adult novels too. They are a joy to the Victorian at heart!

7 comments

  1. Autumn is my favourite time of year as well. The sweaters that we happily pack away in May make a welcome reappearance in October. I've also been craving apple pie lately. You are so right about this time of year and the need for certain types of books. I've already purchased a copy of Villette for my cozy autumnal read. Did you know that there are 'leaf reports' regarding the colours along the East Coast, really! People will plan holidays around that gorgeous vista so they want to be sure to catch it at it's peak. You were lucky to witness it! I have The Shuttle on my shelf, I'll try not to keep it waiting too long.

  2. My very favorite quote from FHB:"Imagine, if you can, what the rest of the evening was like. How they crouched by the fire which blazed and leaped and made much of itself in the little grate. How they removed the covers of the dishes, and found rich, hot savory soup, which was a meal in itself, and sandwiches and toast and muffins enough for both of them."A perfect fall or winter occupation, yes??!

  3. I am a massive FBH fan and quite agree you need to know more than 'The Secret Garden' even though that is one of the great books of children's literature. If you love the smell of Autumn, do you know the Elizabeth Jennings' poem which beginsNow watch this Autumn that arrives in smells It was my first introduction to a writer who became one of my favourite poets.

  4. Darlene – mmm, apple pie and jumpers. And long novels! You will love Villette, I enjoyed it very much. Though beware – the ending is rather frustrating, and very unexpected! Yes I did know about the leaf reports – I read them! Please please get The Shuttle down soon, you will so enjoy it, I am sure.Nan – from The Little Princess, is it not? So Autumnal indeed. I long for toast and tea now!TableTalk – just read the entire poem. Thank you for mentioning it, it's beautiful, and entirely sums up Autumn.

  5. Oh Nan I recognised that quote straight away. I adore FHB and have a copy of the De Willoughby Claim on my shelf. Time to get it down I think. May I also put in a plea for the Head of the House of Combe and the sequel, Robin? Simply wonderful and also Through One Administration – very Whartonish

  6. FHB is wonderful. Though you have to track down her lovely adult novel The Making of a Marchioness. It is lovely perfect autumn reading.

  7. I was interested to read this review, as I’ve just finished several of FHB’s adult novels one after the other, having been tipped off they were available on Project Gutenberg by Claire (The Captive Reader).

    Although this certainly isn’t one of the better ones, I wouldn’t say that she ‘ “upholds” the values of womanhood needing protection’ at all. From my reading, she holds up late Victorian women’s vulnerable position with regards to the social norms of the time to the light – and gets in several subtle cracks about the way they are treated by society and male expectations in the process. I find her excellent in her analysis of human beings and their relationships to one another in all forms – ‘The Making of a Marchioness’ is basically about the struggle for survival for women with little money and the unthinking callousness of those who have it (hidden beneath the surface fairy-story of Emily’s romance so no publisher could possibly object).

    I think my favourite so far is ‘T. Tembarom’ – the hero is an extremely engaging character and I find it very amusing the way ‘Little Ann’, his sweetheart, quietly and efficiently runs her father’s business to the consternation of his male colleagues. Although, obviously, in the spirit of the times and not to alarm the publishers, her father is the public figurehead.

    I completely agree that, read for the story alone, they are wonderful ‘comfort books’ but a closer reading reveals just how subversive FBH actually was.

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