- The Novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett: In "the World of Actual Literature." by Thomas Recchio
With this literary reclamation of Burnett's novels, Thomas Recchio has made a significant contribution to nineteenth- and twentieth-century studies, persuasively arguing for the recognition of Frances Hodgson Burnett as a serious writer. Recchio situates Burnett's novels in the context of her contemporaries, her shifting residences between the United States and England, and her struggle to support herself financially yet create novels read as high literature. In doing so, Recchio offers thoughtful readings of Burnett's novels, which can also provide an introduction to these often-neglected works or a reminder for others that her novels written for adults, not just those for children, are worthy of scholarly consideration.
One way in which The Novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett develops its in-depth analysis is by exploring intersecting threads of Burnett's life and career, thereby offering rich contexts in which to highlight her craft. Recchio considers her work chronologically, locating it in historical and literary categories. Beginning with Burnett's forays into writing by engaging with [End Page 213] and producing domestic Victorian fiction, Recchio traces her novels in the contexts of American regional fiction, transatlantic alliances, and the aftermath of World War I. Into this structure, he weaves analysis of the fluidity between her fiction written for children and that for adults, to illustrate the recurrence of ideas and styles regardless of intended audience. Another thread contributing to the study's richness is the question of how gendered experiences shape genre as well as expectations and assumptions about high literature and innovation.
Recchio begins his study of Burnett's novels by considering her literary apprenticeship and early experimentation primarily in relationship to her fellow Mancunian, Elizabeth Gaskell. Although a generation before Burnett, Gaskell had earned critical acclaim for her industrial novels that developed the intersecting realities of the public and domestic spheres. Through close analysis of Burnett's early works and Gaskell's novels, Recchio demonstrates both Gaskell's influence and the limitations of Burnett's initial experimentation with narrative. That Burnett would model her first novels after Gaskell's is not surprising, but Recchio's analysis offers intriguing and interesting springboards for further studies of literary tradition and the evolving visions of female experience as characters and as authors.
Recchio's original, detailed, and contextualized reading of Burnett's novels is this study's strength. Often considering Burnett's novels in pairs, Recchio demonstrates Burnett's literary craft and innovation whether perspective, genre, or cultural context. For instance, his analysis of His Grace of Osmonde and A Lady of Quality effectively illustrates Burnett's experimentation with perspective and realism, given that the two novels tell the same story, but each offers a different perspective, specifically that of Osmonde and Clorinda. Here Recchio persuasively argues that these novels more significantly disrupt the "rigid binaries" of gendered scripts than Burnett's contemporaries who also experimented with alternating voices, such as Robert Browning in The Ring and the Book, Charles Dickens in Bleak House, and Wilkie Collins in The Woman in White (28). Recchio's pairing of her work also includes aligning her children's novels and those for adults, diffusing the boundaries between those genres by exploring the fluidity of theme between her most popular children's novels, Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Secret Garden, and works for adults. He illustrates how her perspective of healing and restoration developing in Fauntleroy evolves into the transatlantic novels for adults that follow. Similarly, the ecological concerns that inform In Connection with the De Willoughby Claims are developed into an important facet of The Secret Garden. With another pairing, Recchio explores exchanges between power, identity, and nationality in The Shuttle and T. Tembarom. Focusing on Burnett's depiction of transatlantic alliances, Recchio reveals her focus on competing [End Page 214] tensions between the United States and England as they construct and attempt to stabilize their own culture's racial and ethnic identities. These alliances, Recchio illustrates, expose desires for the privilege and...