I literally just finished listening to this (although it’s taken months, as I took a few breaks from it, for reasons I’ll go into below), and I feel the need to discuss it immediately, even though I have several previous reads still to get to. I talked about Theo, another book of Burnett’s, a few months ago, that I said seemed to be more of a young adult book (as opposed to the children’s classics so many of us grew up with). This one, however, is decidedly not one to be given to children of any age, as the first half of it is a detailed description of absolutely calculated vile abuse, to breaking point and beyond, of one person by another.
I read some modern stuff about domestic abuse about the time I was listening to that part of this book (and I didn’t know beforehand that the topic would come up in this book, which is part of the reason I’m warning you), and what’s described here falls pretty perfectly within what’s widely described, if more consciously planned by the abuser than most of us probably think happens.
Sir Nigel Anstruthers, an overspending and wastrel member of the minor aristocracy in England goes to New York, polishes his manners and overwhelms the innocent and shy elder daughter of a local millionaire, Rosalie Vanderpoel. Unfortunately the only member of the family who sees through his act is Rosalie’s much younger sister Bettina (mostly known as Betty), who does not at the time have the power to stop the match. And so Rosalie has a pretty and expensive New York wedding, and then boards the ship to England with her new husband. Her happy anticipation is thrown overboard almost before she’s out of sight of her parents, as Sir Nigel makes it very clear that he is to be in control, she is next to worthless (especially since her father signed over a significant bank account to her, not to him), and that under English law and social opinion she has no rights or redress at all.
Basically, he spends the first couple of years of the marriage breaking her from a pretty, happy, much beloved and naive girl to a bedraggled, harrowed, terrified shadow of herself with no contact with her family, little or no access to the money he hasn’t bullied out of her yet, and a carefully spread reputation for hysteria in the neighbourhood (meaning she has no way of making friends or gathering support there). The only/main (it’s not entirely clear) incident of actual violence is while Rosie is pregnant with her only child, and he turns out to have some physical disabilities, which she blames on the violence (but can’t say so), and her husband publicly blames on her ‘hysteria’.
The story picks up again some years later, when Betty has left school a confident, intelligent and capable young woman with the confidence of her now more worldly father. She decides to go to England and find out whatever happened to her beloved older sister, and turns up at Stornham (the Anstruthers estate) unannounced and uninvited. Luckily enough, Sir Nigel is away in Europe, having left no contact details or indication of when he’ll be back, so that Betty has several weeks to begin to rehabilitate her sister before the very polite war of wills really begins…
I’m not going to spoil the second half of the book, except to say that some good guys do show up, even if they don’t seem to be able to do very much, and really it is up to the little sister to be the knight in shining armour in this story. While there is a background romance storyline, the serious topics are never forgotten (and only wrapped up neatly right at the very end), and several more social-issues storylines are brought up and woven into the tale.
I don’t think I could ever call this a favourite book, because of the explicitly horrible things which happen in it, but it’s definitely very interesting, particularly in Burnett’s careful detail and forthright description of misbehaviours that are often kept secret a full century later. (Thankfully today Rosalie would have been able to call in the police, get some support, and wouldn’t have automatically lost her son and reputation in a divorce court, but even today social status counts for a lot in many groups and societies, and the rest remains unfortunately accurate.)
This is a far more modern book than I had imagined it could be, and actually made me rethink The Secret Garden, A Little Princess and Little Lord Fauntleroy (now Burnett’s best known children’s classics and favourites) and how each of these books hints at mistreatment that cannot be described for children, in the more ‘allowable’ neglect and willful misunderstanding that is discussed and at the core of each story.
So yes, this is a well written and very interesting book, if you’re in the mental space to read it.