It’s thanks to Bonnets at Dawn that I picked up this book by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I hadn’t even heard of it until they announced it for their read-along back in September, but apparently FHB wrote quite a few adult novels and plays in addition to children’s books.
I thoroughly enjoyed this one. The title refers to the ships ferrying passengers back and forth across the Atlantic with increased frequency just before the turn of the 20th century. At that point in time, industrialization was wreaking havoc on European aristocratic estates and many of them were marrying American heiress in order to inject money back into their estates.
This book revolves around one such marriage in which a pretty young American woman gets married to a minor English aristocrat with a crumbling estate, only she has no idea how dire his financial circumstances are. He’s done his best to keep up appearances, but it’s driven him into debt and now he’s desperate for money. So you can imagine his disappointment when he realizes that American women’s inheritances don’t all go straight to their husbands as soon as they get married, as is the law in the U.K. But he realizes the girl he’s courting, Rosalie Vanderpoel, can be easily controlled, and if he manages to separate her from her family, then he can have all her money.
So he whisks her off to England as soon as they’re married and promptly sets about controlling her, terrorizing her, and interfering with communications between her and her family. He tells her that her family has forgotten about her and leaves her family to assume she’s forgotten about them.
But her sister, Bettina, is too smart for that. Even though she’s just a child when Rosalie gets married, Bettina is immediately able to discern what Nigel is all about and she knows her loving, affectionate sister never would have willingly cut ties with her beloved family. So she grows up and as soon as she’s finished with her education, decides to head to her sister’s house without telling them she’s coming.
She arrives to find Nigel out of town and no one knows where he is or how to reach him. Rosalie is shabby and thin with a humpbacked son and the estate is still falling apart because every cent Nigel gets, he spends on his own pleasure anywhere but home.
Bettina gets permission from her dad and Nigel’s lawyers to use her family’s money to fix up the estate. She sets about doing so, but here’s where FHB started to lose me: she makes a big deal about how Bettina comes from a line of businessmen who have built a vast fortune by taking small things and using them to turn a profit and that Bettina has this same quality (though her sister, unfortunately, does not). She then uses Bettina’s head for “business” to explain how she manages to make the estate profitable. My problem is with her assumption that “business” is all one thing. Does she know anything about real estate? Or agriculture? Or architecture? Because that’s what she would need in order to know the first thing about what a dilapidated estate would need, but there’s no indication as to what Mr. Vanderpoel does for “business.”
The other thing that bothered me was that FHB makes it seem like all these estates were falling apart due entirely to bad management. She seems to have forgotten there was a little thing called industrialization and urban migration that disrupted the entire economy as it had existed for centuries. It wasn’t just a few bad managers who lost their estates, but a continent-wide phenomenon.
Anywho, Nigel reappears and is pleasantly surprised at the improved state of things. He’s even pleased to see Bettina there stirring things up because bringing her under his control gives him something to do. So they go head-to-head and it’s delightful. He’s a wonderful villain, and I love Bettina, even though she’s too perfect to be real. The whole thing was a delight to read and I highly recommend it.
What did you read this week? Any other classics you hadn’t realized existed until an online read-along brought it to your attention?