The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett

published 1907  chapter 6

[The study] was luxuriously comfortable, and its effect was sober and rich and fine. When Bettina came in, Vanderpoel, looking up to smile at her in welcome, was struck by the fact that as a background to an entering figure of tall, splendid girlhood in a ball dress, it was admirable, throwing up all its whiteness and grace and sweep of line…

She smiled back at him, and, coming forward took her place in a big armchair close to him, her lace-frilled cloak slipping from her shoulders with a soft rustling sound which seemed to convey her intention to stay. 

[They discuss what they should do about her sister Rosalie]

Bettina picked up her fallen cloak and laid it over her arm. It was made of billowy frills of Malines lace, such as only Vanderpoels could buy. She looked down at the amazing thing and touched up the frills with her fingers as she whimsically smiled. "There are a good many girls who can be trusted to do things in these days," she said. "Women have found out so much. Perhaps it is because the heroines of novels have informed them. Heroines and heroes always bring in the new fashions in character. I believe it is years since a heroine 'burst into a flood of tears.' It has been discovered, really, that nothing is to be gained by it. Whatsoever I find at Stornham Court, I shall neither weep nor be helpless…”

observations: We keep returning to The Shuttle: although it is no mean undertaking to read all of this very long novel, it throws up all kinds of unexpected side issues. As we pointed out before, Bettina is a remarkably capable, independent heroine – she would be unusually so in a novel written a lot more recently than 1907. She doesn’t weep, and she is not helpless. And she has some surprising thoughts: she is (of course) very kind and generous, but while being Lady Bountiful among the villagers, she considers for a moment an old man, for whom she is kindly buying a pipe:

A man has one life, and his has passed like that. It is done now, and all the years and work have left nothing in his old hands but his pipe. That's all…Who am I that I can buy him a new one, and keep it filled for him until the end? How did it happen?
She consciously decides not to think too hard about it, but I’m impressed she thought it at all.

And there is another passage worth quoting at length. The evil Sir Nigel married Rosalie and made her life a misery while trying to get his hands on her money. Bettina makes him face up to a rather unlikely thought:

“Don't you know….that if you had been kind to her, and had made her happy, you could have had anything you wished for—without trouble?" This was one of the unadorned facts which are like bullets. Disgustedly, he found himself veering towards an outlook which forced him to admit that there was probably truth in what she said…

She went on: "She would have wanted only what you wanted, and she would not have asked much in return. She would not have asked as much as I should. What you did was not businesslike." She paused a moment to give thought to it. "You paid too high a price for the luxury of indulging the inherited temperament. Your luxury was not to control it. But it was a bad investment."

"The figure of speech is rather commercial," [he says] coldly.

"It is curious that most things are, as a rule.”

This is a fascinating and impressive dose of realism (and capitalism) amid the melodrama.

This book featured before here and here, as have other books by Frances Hodgson Burnett - click on the label below.

The dress is a fashion illustration of a Paquin dress, from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Moira - I've always thought ball gowns were so elegant! And Bettina does sound very much ahead of her time. I meant to read this when you first featured it, and you've reminded me that I still need to do that. I like your choice of words 'realism amid the melodrama,' too. The novels I have read by Frances Hodgson Burnett are like that..

    1. Yes, she's a good feisty writer, and has a good eye for a plot - and she was writing in different times, where keeping it short wasn't valued so much!

  2. I like what you're doing in this blog, combing two of my own interests--but the illustration for this one years too late for the book (1907) or the setting of the book, which seems to be somewhat earlier (it's a book I've read a number of times over the years). A splendid lacy turn of the century ball dress would have been lovely.

    1. Hello, and thanks for visiting. In general, my excuse for date vagueness is that I'm trying to express the spirit of the description rather than the exact date and style. You are the first person to notice that: I did realize the book must be set a lot earlier, but I did like this picture. On the other hand, your description of your preferred dress sounds gorgeous! If you find a picture of the right one let me know...


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