Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Frances Hodgson Burnett

I must start with Austen before veering way off my usual course. Jane Austen inspired countless readers with visions of an idealized English countryside, and I believe Burnett carried these images with her throughout life, part of a yearning for a perfection never attained, like a glorious dream to which one cannot return.

Francis Eliza Hodgson Burnett's was a varied and international life. Born to a Victorian middle class family whose fortunes so fluctuated as to inhabit both manor homes and urban slums, they moved when she was 15 to a log cabin in Tennessee. By her 18th year she was supporting the family with her writing. Almost an instant success, she went on to live in Washington D.C., London, Paris, Bermuda, and Long Island, in all sorts of different accommodations and degrees of luxury. Crossing the Atlantic yearly much of her life, traveling throughout Europe, divorcing her husband in 1898, she wrote thirty-five complex books and stories, often highlighting her Christian Scientist beliefs, all while battling depression, raising four children (one of whom died), and taking active part in the social world of Western literati. Quite frankly, the more I read about her, the more astounding I find the woman.

Today Burnett is chiefly remembered for her three most famous books: Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), The Secret Garden (1911), and The Little Princess (1905). The last of these is perhaps my favorite book of all time. I read it countless times as a child and continue to reread it every few years, each time amazed anew by the tale of Sara Crew, but I never knew of any Burnett books beyond these three until a few weeks ago, when I stumbled upon The Shuttle (1907). Mesmerized by the story, I quickly downloaded The Collected Works of Francis Hodgson Burnett on my Kindle, a steal at $1.99. I have been compulsively making my way through the stories ever since, and as I seem bent on a out and out binge, I figure I might as well share my thoughts. My post have been sparse this year, most of my time being devoted to writing The Madness of Mr. Darcy, and perhaps this diversion will spark some life back into the blog.

Burnett's writing is characterized by superhuman characters. Austen said "pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked," but I can't help but think she would approve of the way Burnett throws her godlike heroes and heroines into contrast with equally vile and horrid humanity. Is it possible Sara Crew and Miss Minchin weren't inspired by Fanny Price and Mrs. Norris? Her characters may not be believable, but they set the stage for explorations of morality, spirituality, and human nature. Readers veer well beyond the "two-inches of ivory" that contained the world of an English village, complete with rectory and great house, immortalized by Austen, traveling across the globe to exotic places of unimaginable beauty, but somehow the morality that emerges is the same. Burnett's style almost resembles modern magical realism, as she depicts a time of as rapid change and astounding advancement as our own, struggling to capture the confusion such disorienting advancement must cause. I think there is much in her work to fascinate the modern reader, and I intend to review those of her stories that stir me the most here.  

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