Dress Down Sunday: The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Published 1907   chapter 3


She was sitting in her stateroom enfolded in a dressing gown covered with cascades of lace, tied with knots of embroidered ribbon, and her maid, Hannah, who admired her greatly, was brushing her fair long hair with a gold-backed brush, ornamented with a monogram of jewels. If she had been a French duchess of a piquant type, or an English one with an aquiline nose, she would have been beyond criticism; if she had been a plump, over-fed woman, or an ugly, ill-natured, gross one, she would have looked vulgar, but she was a little, thin, fair New Yorker, and though she was not beyond criticism—if one demanded high distinction—she was pretty and nice to look at…

[Her new husband comes in] "My dear Rosalie," with a wave of the hand taking in both herself and her dressing case, "it is all too strong."

"All—wh—what?" gaspingly.

"The whole thing. All that lace and love knot arrangement, the gold-backed brushes and scent bottles with diamonds and rubies sticking in them."

observations: Starting as he means to go on, evil Sir Nigel suggests her room looks like that of a courtesan. Rosalie, who in a rare Burnett joke is described as having ‘small hands and small feet and a small waist—a small brain also, it must be admitted’ – doesn’t understand but is horrified, and knows her place is in the wrong from now on. Rosalie needs her sister Bettina to come and rescue her, but that won’t happen for many years (it is hard to imagine why her rich powerful family leave it so long to try to find out what is going on). Bettina is made of sterner stuff, as we saw in an earlier visit to this book – that entry explains more of the plot. One of Sir Nigel’s interesting claims is
that divorce courts in America are for women, but in England they are for men
-- probably roughly speaking true at that time. He also addresses his sister-in-law as a trolloping gipsy wench, a splendid phrase.

Rosalie is a sad figure – there is a pitiful scene where she dresses up in one of her trousseau gowns – it is ‘slipping off her thin shoulders… as faded and out of date as her carpet.’ But she has no other. ‘It was pretty once.’

There’s a surprising paragraph here:
The same rain was drip-dripping at Mount Dunstan—upon the desolate great house—upon the village—upon the mounds and ancient stone tombs in the churchyard, sinking into the earth—sinking deep, sucked in by the clay beneath—the cold damp clay.
--weirdly reminiscent of the end of James Joyce’s The Dead, written around the same time:
Snow…was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.
-- It’s quite hard to imagine either of the two writers reading the other.

The picture is of a 19th century negligee, photographed by Balljuli and available on Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Moira - I remember your mention of this one not long ago. The more I read of this, the creepier Rosalie's situation seems to be. As I mentioned when I read your other post, I read Burnett's work when I was younger, but not this one (yet!). You're giving me more and more incentive to give this one a go. Oh, and you made a great choice of 'photo.

    1. It's good for a skim-read Margot! It is long, but it is also very intriguing, and I do like the heroine - an early feminist without the word ever being mentioned, forceful and not relying on men...


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