Recchio, Thomas. The Novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett: In “the World of Actual Literature.” New York: Anthem Press, 2020.

Portrait of Frances Hodgson Burnett

Recchio, Thomas. The Novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett: In “the World of Actual Literature.” New York: Anthem Press, 2020. ISBN:9781785273643. £25.00, $40.00.

Upon closing the final pages of The Novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett In ‘the World of Actual Literature,” I am spellbound. As a reader of Burnett’s children’s works, Recchio brings so many dimensions of her adult writing, thus broadening the scope. Recchio, Professor of English, Emeritus at University of Connecticut, attempts to place the author, best known for her children’s literature such as The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy, solidly in the realm of serious women writers of adult fiction. With his extensive academic knowledge and publications on the Victorian literature on the writings of Elizabeth Gaskell, he builds well-documented arguments worth reading within the five chapters of the book.

Beginning with Elizabeth Gaskell’s work as a backdrop, Recchio draws similarities between the two authors, using passages from their writing that reflect on societal woes, difficulties for women’s place, and the use of dialect: “As she had done in That Lass, Burnett deploys those elements from Gaskell’s novels, refigures and adds them to produce a narrative that evokes the social problem of mid-century” (Recchio 2020, 37). He argues this successfully despite his claim that Gaskell’s influence “was too deep to be named” (Recchio 24). It is clear that Burnett takes up Gaskell’s mantle and crafts it uniquely and inclusive of her British and American sensibilities.

The Victorian and mid-19th century American literary ages and their complexities come front and center for Recchio when he examines Burnett’s novels from 1877 to the early 1880s. The death of George Eliot, author rivalries, divisions between “high” and “low” art, or traditional literature, and the “new school of fiction” are dissected closely. With the overlay of this era’s publishing industries and the socio-cultural/religious mores of both continents, the literary and financial stature of Frances Hodgson Burnett during this chaotic time is revealed. Recchio’s discourse regarding the inclusion of “emotional” and intellectual components in her work, such as Through One Administration,is notable because it reveals how she, as a woman author in this restrictive time period, began molding her career. A historical lens can be a precarious method when considering a woman writer in light of her disruption to the status quo. 

Chapter 3, “Historical Dreamscapes and the Vicissitudes of Class: From A Lady of Quality to The Methods of Lady Walderhurst”, is dense and intricate in its reading. In this chapter, Recchio illustrates how gender begins to play a dominant role with Burnett’s characters. While patriarchy is a central theme, Burnett calls upon a kind of equality between the sexes. It is also here that Recchio makes his strongest argument for his thesis. His concern is primarily Burnett’s work; work difficult to define as “romantic,” realistic,” or even “historical.” Using interviews, in-text references, and direct quotations from her novels, Recchio demonstrates Burnett’s uncommon perspective: “‘[W]e are not to be divided into mere men and women, we are human beings who are part of each other. Each part should be as noble as the other, and the one who is stronger should teach the other strength’’ (Recchio 2020, 95). Recchio’s outside notes, especially articles by Elizabeth Thiel[1] and Nancy Armstrong[2], are recommended for the neophyte reader as they clarify his arguments.

In Chapter 4, “Transatlantic Alliances”, Recchio provides a rich history that is dense with facets in Burnett’s works is offered: the ‘Fauntleroy plague’, (Recchio 2020, 136), immigration of the ‘lower’ races, decline of British aristocratic patriarchy with its declining wealth. It is with the concept of ‘rational reproduction,’ as manifest with her characters, where Burnett is categorized, again, as a ‘New Woman’ novelist. This area needs further illumination and the inclusion of Lyn Pickett’s distinction between novels by ‘sensationalist’ vs. ‘New Woman’ authors would be a boon for this analysis.[3] A discussion of The Secret Garden and T. Tembarom yield the clearest look at Burnett’s values and intent. Recchio states that the author is optimistic early on, and with this, one can comprehend this as “the possibility of an open-ended, renewable historical future […] all contained in Burnett’s conception of the garden both a real, tangible, life-enhancing place and as a metaphor for the world” (Recchio 2020, 164).

Continuing with a historical and sociological view of Burnett’s writing, it is her earlier novels in the 1900s, the “transatlantic” titles, in the final chapter that Recchio delves into a more socio-psychological analysis, arguing that the combining effects from the death of Burnett’s son, the Great War, and ennui affecting societies, in titles including Robin and The Head of the House of Coombe, bring Burnett’s belief in “woman” – her regenerative power, her acute sensibilities with nature extending to the occult, and essentially the central importance of relationship in order to be ‘human.’

Recchio’s intellectual exuberance is to be commended with his publication. He is no stranger to research in both depth and breadth of his subject; the primary and secondary sources are extensive. The crux of his almost devotion-like adherence to the task is to present valid and compelling arguments for Francis Hogdson Burnett’s inclusion as a major literary figure regardless of, or in spite of, Francis J. Molson’s statement that she “is admittedly, an author of secondary importance in American literature” (Recchio 2020, 40).[4] While written for an academic audience, preferably one steeped in Victorian literature, Recchio succeeds in proving his thesis. Despite voluminous Notes and Bibliography, the casual reader will be overwhelmed with oblique and multitudinous references to Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy, author Winifred Hughes, Stephen Arata, Max Nordau and lack of definitions, specifically ‘the new woman.’

Regardless, this publication opens up an entire world – historically, intellectually, and emotionally – to those interested in Burnett’s children’s novels and short stories. In the end, all readers will come to understand that although Frances Hodgson Burnett’s body of work may well qualify as “magpie art” it is art that is well deserving for inclusion in the canon of literature.[5]

Tina Hudak

[1] Thiel, E. (2007). The Fantasy of Family: Nineteenth-Century Children’s Literature and the Myth of the Domestic Ideal (1st ed.). Routledge.

[2] Armstrong, Nancy. “History in the House of Culture: Social Disorder and Domestic Fiction in Early Victorian England.” Poetics Today 7, no. 4 (1986): 641–71.

[3] Pykett, L. (1992). The ‘Improper’ Feminine: The Women’s Sensation Novel and the New Woman Writing (1st ed.). Routledge.

[4] Molson, Francis J. “Frances Hodgson Burnett (1848-1924).” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 8, no. 1 (1975): 35–41.

[5] Reference to his conference paper noted in his online CV  Recchio, Thomas. Learning from Elizabeth Gaskell: Francis Hodgson Burnett’s ‘Magpie’ Art.” Annual meeting of the North American Victorian Studies Association, Pasadena, CA, October 25, 2013.