Fiction – Kindle edition. Project Gutenberg, 2012. Originally published 1906. 522 pgs. Free download.
The book’s title refers to ships shuttling back and forth over the Atlantic, carrying wealthy Americans heiresses to England in search of titled husbands and impoverish, titled Englishmen in search of wealthy women. (Think Cora Crawley from “Downton Abbey” and her marriage to Lord Grantham.) According to Persephone Books, it would later be estimated that more than five hundred American women married titled foreigners and some $220 million went with them to Europe.
In Burnett’s fictional telling of this phenomenon, Sir Nigel Anstruthers crosses the Atlantic Ocean in search of a wealthy wife and returns to his country estate married to the daughter of an American millionaire, Rosalie Vanderpoel. Yet, the differences in American and English society enrage Nigel – namely, American fathers entrust the control of their daughter’s inheritance to the daughter rather than settling control upon the husband – and he relentless bullies Rosalie until she signs over control of her fortune.
Once Nigel has access to the funds, he returns to his philandering ways and leaves Rosalie imprisoned at the dilapidated Stornham Court. Rosalie’s contact with her family is intercepted by Nigel, and her parents are distressed to think that Rosalie looks down on them now that she has a title. Only her young sister, Bettina, suspects differently; she’s carried a deep distrust and dislike of Nigel since the age of eight.
Over a decade later, Bettina finally convinces her father to allow her to travel to Stornham Court and discover the truth about why Rosalie has chosen to cut off contact with her family. Upon arrival, Bettina – or, Betty – launches a plan to restore Stornham Court using the Vanderpoel money and her sister’s emotional health using her wit. She also, unexpectedly, finds herself falling in love with another Englishman, Fergus Mount Dunstan, and must determine if he has the same designs on her fortune that Nigel had on Rosalie’s.
The core story in Burnett’s novel – the psychological war between Nigel and Bettina – was wonderfully crafted. Bettina’s determination to help her sister forced her to curtail her natural reactions towards Nigel, and I loved seeing her development into a diplomat capable of backing a true villain into the corner with carefully crafted words and deeds. And I’m confident that Rosalie’s plight would have been quite the warning to Burnett’s readers.
Yet, at 522 pages, the novel could have done with a serious editing. The lengthy pontification on the superiority of Americans – considered by Burnett to be industrious and more forward-thinking – over the stuffy, lazy British aristocracy grew tiresome after just a short while. And the long ruminations on the gardens of Stornham Court lacked the magic and beauty found in her other novel about a garden, The Secret Garden.
Note: Burnett’s novel book was republished by Persephone Books in 2007, which is how it came to my attention and why I’ve categorized this post under the publisher’s name.
The Classics Club:
This is my 43rd book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. This deadline has since come and past, but I am still trying to work through my list. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post or project post.