Conduelo, Duchess of Marlborough née Vanderbilt, from Country House Camera by Christopher Simon Sykes.
PREFACE BY ANNE SEBBA
The Shuttle was first published in 1907. It was begun in 1900 but frequently abandoned while its author, Frances Hodgson Burnett, wrote several other books, including, most famously, The Making of a Marchioness and its sequel The Methods of Lady Walderhurst. Nowadays these are referred to together as The Making of a Marchioness, and this is the title of one of our bestselling titles, Persephone book no. 29; this was billed as a ‘delightful and occasionally dark romance’ by the Radio Times when broadcast as a two part BBC Radio 4 Classic Serial starring Lucy Briers, Joanna David, Miriam Margolyes and Charles Dance.
The Shuttle, Persephone book no.71, is about American heiresses marrying English aristocrats; by extension it is about the effect of American energy, dynamism and affluence on an effete and impoverished English ruling class. Sir Nigel Anstruthers crosses the Atlantic to look for a rich wife and returns with the daughter of an American millionaire, Rosalie Vanderpoel. He turns out to be a bully, a miser and a philanderer and virtually imprisons his wife in the house. Only when Rosalie's sister Bettina is grown up does it occur to her and her father that some sort of rescue expedition should take place. And the beautiful, kind and dynamic Bettina leaves for Europe to try and find out why Rosalie has, inexplicably, chosen to lose touch with her family. In the process she engages in a psychological war with Sir Nigel; meets and falls in love with another Englishman; and starts to use the Vanderpoel money to modernise ‘Stornham Court’.
But The Shuttle, which is five hundred pages long and a page-turner for every one of them, is about far more than the process by which an English country house can be brought back to life with the injection of transatlantic money (there is some particularly interesting detail about the new life breathed into the garden). It is mainly about American energy and initiative and get-up-and-go; this is symbolised by G Selden, the typewriter salesman on a bicycling tour of England, who meets, and charms, Bettina and her sister and, back in New York, their father. And it is about the excellent relationship that, curiously enough, many of the heiresses enjoyed with their multi-millionaire fathers.
Above all it is about Bettina Vanderpoel. She is the reason why this is such a successful, entertaining and interesting novel – one could almost say that she is one of the great heroines, on a par with Elizabeth Bennet, Becky Sharp and Isabel Archer. This is because she is so intelligent and so enterprising – she has the normal feminine qualities but a strong business sense, inherited from her father, and instinctive management skills (as we would now call them). If every man in England married a girl like Bettina Vanderpoel, we are meant to think, England’s future would be as glittering as America’s.
And this is what many wanted to do. An American magazine, Titled Americans: A list of American ladies who have married foreigners of rank, was published specifically to cater to the market in heiresses; it included: ‘A carefully compiled List of Peers Who are Supposed to be eager to lay their coronets, and incidentally their hearts, at the feet of the allconquering American Girl.’
But, as Anne Sebba writes in her Persephone Preface, ‘money was only one recommendation; being young and beautiful – able to invigorate the bloodlines – counted too’, so that by the time The Shuttle was published, as Ann Thwaite points out in her recently re-issued life of Frances Hodgson Burnett, ‘it was to be estimated that more than five hundred American women had married titled foreigners and some $220 million had gone with them to Europe.’
The book’s title refers to ships shuttling back and forth over the Atlantic (Frances Hodgson Burnett herself travelled between the two countries thirty-three times, something very unusual then) and also to the weaving of the alliance between America and Britain. ‘As Americans discovered Europe, that continent discovered America. American beauties began to appear in English drawing-rooms and Continental salons... What could be more a matter of course than that American women, being aided by adoring fathers sumptuously to ship themselves to other lands, should begin to rule these lands also?’
One of the first and best known of all the Anglo-American matrimonial alliances was that of Jennie Jerome to Lord Randolph Churchill (Anne Sebba’s new biography of Jennie will be published this autumn); their son, Winston Churchill, was to be the most illustrious offspring of all such transatlantic matches. Another well-known American heiress was Consuelo Vanderbilt, whose picture is reproduced above. When she married the 9th Duke of Marlborough (Winston Churchill's cousin) in 1895, her dowry was said to be in the region of two and a half million dollars, and was used to renovate Blenheim Palace.
All during the ten years of the Marlboroughs’ life together at Blenheim – they separated in 1907 – the newspapers were full of gossip about them, gossip which Frances Hodgson Burnett would certainly have read. And although the house lived in by ‘Sir Nigel Anstruthers’ and his wife is small in comparison with Blenheim, some of the details came from there; the actual model for ‘Stornham Court’, however, is Great Maytham Hall, near Rolvenden in Kent. This had, and still has, a wonderful garden which, in The Shuttle, Bettina sets about restoring and which, in 1911, inspired the walled garden in The Secret Garden.
Also available as a Persephone eBook.
Endpapers taken from 'Tulip Tree', a roller-printed cotton designed by Lewis F Day for Turnbull and Stockdale in 1903.