Secrets Behind Houses and the Ghosts Within

By Anne Sebba, History Today, September 2007

One hundred years ago Frances Hodgson Burnett, the renowned children’s author, published a hard hitting novel for adults about an unhappy transatlantic marriage. It was called The Shuttle, * a reference to the hundreds of steamships which for the previous fifty or so years had been carrying rich American women returning to the old world in search not only of old world customs, clothes and culture but also of old world husbands and houses. The particular ship on which the fictional Vanderpoel sisters, Rosalie and Bettina travelled, sailed between “a gulf broader and deeper” than the thousands of miles of sea it crossed.

These travels were a new version of the eighteenth century Grand Tour, only now for girls, usually accompanied by their parents. The journeys were not without danger and Katherine Ledoux, in Ocean Notes for Ladies (1877), advised her readers to dress sensibly and respectably as “accidents too and loss of life are possible at sea and I have always felt that a body washed ashore in good clothes would receive more respect and kinder care than if dressed in those only fit for the rag bag.”

But the real peril, as most English aristocrats were by this time only too aware, came from the possibilities posed by the idea of marrying one of these American women. Lord Palmerston, the British Prime Minister, commented: “before the century is out, those clever and pretty women from New York will pull all the strings in half the chancelleries in Europe.”

As the landed classes in England suffered from falling revenues and insufficient income to run their estates, capturing an heiress offered obvious benefits. Before 1914, sixty peers and forty sons of peers had married American women – the so-called “dollar princesses.” An American magazine, Titled Americans: a List of American Ladies who Have Married Foreigners of Rank, published quarterly, subscription $1 a year and revised annually, catered specifically to this market.

A New York newspaper published a guide for American women with ambition. It stated: “Dukes are the loftiest kind of noblemen in England. There are only twenty seven of them in the whole United Kingdom. Of these, there are only two available for matrimonial purposes. These are the Dukes of Manchester and Roxburgh. The Duke of Hamilton is already spoken for, the Duke of Norfolk is an old widower and the Duke of Leinster only 11 years old.” An enterprising marriage broker in New Orleans even advertised for “Dukes, Marquesses, Earls or other noblemen desirous of meeting for the purposes of marriage, young, beautiful and rich American heiresses.”

As the advert showed only too clearly, money was just one recommendation, the acceptable one. Being young and beautiful, able to invigorate the blood lines, counted too. American women were sexy. Hence a number of “unsuitable” American girls – actresses, showgirls or industrialist’s daughters – also managed to squeeze under the bar.

Hodgson Burnett first had the idea for a story about one of these marriages in 1900 while living in a house she rented in London at 48, Charles Street, an imposing and elegant Georgian town house just off Berkeley Square. Of all the novelists who captured the clash of cultures at the turn of the 19th century, for which Henry James is probably the best known, Hodgson Burnett was supremely able to take a view of both sides since she had direct experience of both. Born in Manchester in 1849 as Frances Eliza Hodgson, the family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee in 1865 after her father’s death. It was a childhood marked by poverty and hardship. Frances began writing for a variety of magazines as soon as possible to help support the family. Her first short stories Hearts and Diamonds and Miss Caruther’s Engagement were published in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1868. In 1886 she published Little Lord Fauntleroy and in 1911 The Secret Garden. It’s largely thanks to these two that we think of her as English but her adult romance novels were very popular during her lifetime and, in spite of numerous health and emotional problems, she was extremely prolific and financially successful. She married in 1873, Dr. L. M. Burnett of Washington D.C., but lived largely in England in the 1890’s and divorced Burnett in 1898. In 1900 she married her business manager, a former doctor and actor ten years younger than her, Stephen Townesend. It was the still raw agony over this second, disastrous, marriage, which came to an abrupt end in 1902, that she poured into The Shuttle. Much of the pain she writes about in the marriage between Rosalie (Rosy) Vanderpoel and the truly loathsome English aristocrat, Sir Nigel Anstruthers is clearly based on first hand experience, fuelled by hatred of her own husband, Stephen. Nigel’s cruel demands on Rosalie Vanderpoel mirror Stephen’s cruelty to her. Frances knew almost as soon as she agreed to marry Stephen that she had made a terrible mistake. His foul temper, bouts of jealous anger and terrifying threats never improved. She feared he was mad and told friends how, hoping for peace, she had been bullied and blackmailed into marriage. Had she refused to marry him, he threatened to reveal that they had been indulging in a physical relationship while she was still married to Burnett. At the end of the 19th century Hodgson Burnett correctly feared professional ruin if this were revealed. But, once married, Townesend not only continued to threaten and abuse her, made unreasonable demands, read her mail and tried to cut her off from her friends, he also lost little time reminding her that a married man became possessor and dispenser of his wife’s belongings and fortune.

But there was another famous marriage disintegrating around this time which fed her imagination: that of Consuelo Vanderbilt and Sunny, Duke of Marlborough. The similarity of the names Vanderbilt and Vanderpoel is a clear indication that they were strongly in her mind. The fabulously wealthy and beautiful Miss Consuelo Vanderbilt, aged 18, had married unhappily in New York in November 1895 while she was still pining for another, less suitable man. The wedding ceremony was famously delayed as Consuelo hoped the redness and swelling around her eyes following hours of crying would subside. By 1906, having produced an heir and a spare, thus removing the threat of Winston, Sunny’s cousin, inheriting Blenheim, the divorce was underway.

But, like all good storytellers, Hodgson Burnett always said that the sources of her inspiration were mysterious and subconscious and, in the centenary of the republication of The Shuttle, I have discovered another. A previous inhabitant of 48, Charles Street was also an American (one-time) heiress unhappily married to an English aristocrat, one of the first and most publicized of all Anglo-American matches. In 1874 the Duke of Marlborough bought the Charles Street mansion as a home for his adored second son, Lord Randolph Churchill, who had just married the dazzling 20 year-old American beauty, Jennie Jerome. They needed a house in a hurry because Winston was on the way. In the event, the baby arrived too soon and was born in Blenheim – not the house in Charles Street as intended. This fact of birth coloured much of Winston’s later life.

The Duke, having paid ten thousand pounds for a 37 year lease, could help them no further. Jennie, it transpired, was far from the heiress the Marlboroughs had hoped for and the upkeep of such a grand house proved far too expensive for the young couple. They lived there for little more than a year, decorating only a few essential rooms at first hoping to deal with the rest later. When a scandal erupted around Lord Blandford, Randolph’s elder brother and Sunny’s father, the young couple escaped to live in Ireland. Randolph acted as secretary to his father, the new Lord Lieutenant, never to return to Charles Street.

Since Hodgson Burnett apparently never commented about Jennie having lived in the Charles Street house, perhaps she was driven to write about a character closely resembling a previous inhabitant without actually knowing that she had lived there too? Bettina, the resourceful young girl who eventually travels to England to rescue her desperate sister, shares much of Jennie’s vibrant spirit and pluck. She represents all that is best about American energy and vitality. There are also similarities, however exaggerated in a novelist’s hand, between Sir Nigel Anstruthers and Lord Randolph Churchill.
“His nervous system was a wreck,” Hodgson Burnett wrote of Anstruthers. “He drank a great deal of whisky to keep himself “straight” during the day, and he rose many times during his black waking hours in the night to drink more because he obstinately refused to give up the hope that, if he drank enough, it would make him sleep.”
Randolph was well known for his spectacular rudeness, including verbal abuse of Jennie, and the details of Nigel’s unnamed fatal illness, with its symptoms of irrationality and violence, bear a strong similarity to Randolph’s probable syphilis.

Hodgson Burnett was a writer who took years to digest her information. By the time she wrote The Shuttle she had long since ceased living at Maytham Hall, a pretty Georgian house near the village of Rolvenden Layne in Kent, where she had discovered much of the background to English country life that informs not only that story but which housed the original ‘secret garden.’ The little English robin, which played such an important role in The Secret Garden, made his debut in The Shuttle. Perched among the fresh wet foliage, “his feathers puffed out, his red young satin-glossed breast pulsating and swelling,” his song introduced one character to another. So it is tempting to believe that perhaps Jennie’s ghost stalks the landing of 48 Charles Street, now divided into offices. Tenants beware!

The Shuttle republished by Persephone Books 2007 with a new introduction by Anne Sebba
Jennie Churchill Winston’s American Mother John Murray £25.00 6th September 2007
Isbn 978-0- 7195- 6339-3