In 1914 World War I rocked the world. The war and its aftermath marked the end of a way of life, and left a world forever changed. "The Head of the House of Coombe," by Frances Hodgson Burnett, attempts to recreate this lost word through both form and content. Published in 1922, in the aftermath of the war, the book nostalgically recalls the Victorian years preceding the assassination in Sarajevo. The author mourns for the loss of aristocratic values and childlike innocence. "The Head of the House of Coombe" provides an opportunity for both author and readers to revisit this lost world one more time, right on the eve of its destruction.
"The Head of the House of Coombe" tells the story of Robin Gareth-Lawless. It takes place in the early 1900's in London. Robin's father is dead and her mother, Feather, is a careless, frivolous woman with absolutely no mothering instincts. Lord Coombe, whom Robin inexplicably detests, financially supports feather and Robin. Robin's first six years are lonely and loveless. One day Robin, age 6, meets Donal Muir, age 8. The two fall in love, but his mother takes Donal away and Robin is heartbroken. The years go by and Robin grows up. She is taken care of by her governess and maid, and Lord Coombe supervises from afar. Frau Hirsch and Lady Etynge kidnap Robin, for the use of Count Von Hillern. At age 18 Robin becomes a companion for Coombe's old friend, the Duchess of Darte. Throughout the book Coombe and Darte discuss the impending World War I. It is at a party thrown by the Duchess that Robin is reunited with Donal. On the same night Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo, signaling the imminent collapse of the old aristocratic Victorian order.
The dying world portrayed in "The Head of the House of Coombe" was the world to which Frances Hodgson Burnett belonged. She was, or imagined herself to be, of this "old order." She believed in the aristocratic values of the Victorian age and said, "she hoped some of the best values from the old civilization would survive after the war was over" (Bixler 115). Burnett was born in England in 1849 and, though she moved to America as a young child, she returned to London in 1887 for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. From this point forward she maintained close ties with the country of her birth, and her affinity for the Victorian aristocratic values can be seen in works such as "The Head of the House of Coombe" and "Little Lord Fauntleroy" (1886). Burnett was 65 years old when World War I shattered her world, and she never managed to reconcile herself to the change. "The Head of the House of Coombe" and its equally nostalgic sequel, "Robin" (1922), were the last books that Burnett wrote. She died in 1924.
Before her death Burnett wrote many books in many different genres, and enjoyed great popularity as an author. She began writing "potboiler" romantic fiction in ladies magazines while still in her teens, and later expanded to adult fiction, plays, and most notably children's literature. As a proven marketable author with a strong fan base, any book by Burnett was guaranteed to be a success. Frederick A. Stokes Publishing Company sold many advance copies of "The Head of the House of Coombe" purely on the basis of Burnett's reputation. The book enjoyed short-lived success, appearing on the Publisher's Weekly Bestsellers list for a total of 20 weeks and climbing as high as #2 (Justice 57). This popularity, however, resulted more from Burnett's reputation than from the book's merit. This is not an uncommon theme amongst best-selling books: many sell on the basis of the author's popularity or the success of a previous work. This trend is indicative of the importance of precedent in bestsellers; readers find something that they enjoy and then seek further enjoyment through the original source. With regard to "The Head of the House of Coombe" the readers were not so lucky. One of her last books, "The Head of the House of Coombe" is also one of her worst. One critic wrote, "Lush sentiments flow from her pen with a sweetness that suggests syrup rather than plain ink?this is a pity because once upon a time Mrs. Burnett could write differently" (Knight 82). This book not only details the end of a way of life, but also marks the twilight of the author's literary career and decline in critical respect.
The critical lashing taken by "The Head of the House of Coombe" can be attributed to Burnett's stubborn stagnancy in the face of a changing world. Her style remained what it had always been: flowery, sentimental, and romantic. Long, vivid descriptions fill the pages and similes to flowers can be found with astonishing regularity. "'She's got such a pretty mouth and cheeks,' he touched a Jacqueminot rose. ?They are the color of the that'" (Burnett 100). This romantic style of writing, however, had begun to loose its appeal and was nearing its end in 1922. Contemporary authors and critics preferred a more modern, realistic style of writing. One critic succinctly states the difference in styles when she compares Burnett's heroine and the heroines of more modern works. She writes, "The character of Robin will meet with scant favor from the admirer of the modern, hard, brilliant, individualistic heroine with whom we are now supplied. [Robin is] the beautiful, sensitive child" (Bookman 195).
Despite criticism, however, Burnett would not or could not abandon her romantic style, even as it faded into obscurity. And it must be noted that not all of the reviews of "The Head of the House of Coombe" are negative. Interestingly, the romantic and nostalgic nature of the book was the subject of the praise as well as the criticism. Burnett was not alone in her yearning for a lost world, and her recreation of this world found favor with many readers. "The Head of the House of Coombe" offered a flight of fancy through a world sorely missed by many readers. The book tapped into the nostalgia of many of the readers and allowed them to vicariously experience something that they sorely missed. At the same time it provided an escape from the post-war world, a world marked by fear and insecurity. In this way, "The Head of the House of Coombe" is indicative of many best-selling books. Bestsellers provide their readers with something they want, whether it is an escape from the present or a recreation of the past.
A longing for a lost past in "The Head of the House of Coombe" is characteristic of not only the author and the readers, but the characters as well. In fact, the entire plot depends upon Lord Coombe's sentimental nostalgia for an old love. Lord Coombe chooses to support Feather and Robin because Feather resembles Princess Alixe, whom he once admired. Additionally, many of the characters are referred to throughout the course of the book as being the last of their breed. The Duchess says, "?You have an elderly nurse you are very fond of. She seems to belong to a class of servants almost extinct" (Burnett 309).
The discussions that Darte and Coombe engage in also regret the loss of the past. In discussing the inevitability and imminence of the coming war, Darte and Coombe lament the changes that will ensue. They equate these changes with death and destruction. Coombe says, "It's damnable! And it will be so not only in England, but all over a blood drenched world" (Burnett 324). These discussions present Burnett with a vehicle through which to air her opinions about World War I. This acknowledgement of the horror of the war would have reflected the opinion of contemporary readers. Capturing the opinions commonly held by the readers is another common feature of bestsellers.
Burnett captures the common sentiments of 1922 not only in the overt discussions of Coombe and Darte. Her portrayal of the German characters in "The Head of the House of Coombe" speaks to residual fears and prejudices of the war years. Every German character introduced by Burnett turns out to be a spy. Von Hillern is portrayed as not only pompous, but downright wicked, and Frau Hirsch is not just plain, but traitorous. Both are automatons of the Kaiser's war machine. Coombe claims, "'Their God is an understudy of the Kaiser" (Burnett 325).
Another commonly held fear in the post-war years was that the world was changing and unstable. People felt that they had lost control of their lives and that they were helpless, powerless and incapable of action. Burnett's characters in "The Head of the House of Coombe" embody these feelings. They are, for the most part, passive. Forces beyond their control act them upon, and others determine their fates. When Feather finds herself alone and desperate, she becomes hysterical and helpless. Coombe shows up at her door to save her; she does not actively seek him out. Donal's entrance brings light into little Robin's world and his departure casts her again into darkness and despair. She can do nothing in either case; she is at the mercy of fate. "Robin could only wait in the midst of a slow, dark, rising tide of something she had no name for? The world had been torn away" (Burnett 127-9).
Robin's lonely and friendless childhood is also beyond her control. Children are not allowed to play with Robin because of her mother's reputation. Robin's feelings of aloneness reflect the losses of society in the aftermath of the war. Just as Robin lost Donal, the light of her life, so did many people loose friends and lovers in the war. A feeling of loneliness and loss can be assumed to have been almost universal in 1922. Change is only just beginning to stir in "The Head of the House of Coombe" in 1914, but devastation was complete in London in 1922.
With the end of the "old days" in the book come not only a loss of friendship, but also a loss of values. On the night before Robin is to leave to begin her new job with the Duchess of Darte, Feather comes to give her some motherly advice. She says, "'Mothers are not as intimate with their daughters as they used to be when it was a sort of virtuous fashion to superintend their rice pudding and lecture them about their lessons'" (Burnett 314). Although Feather's tone is mocking, Burnett greatly valued such old-fashioned virtue. Donal's mother provides a direct contrast to Feather. She embodies all of these virtues of doting motherhood, and Burnett clearly means for her readers to prefer Mrs. Muir to Feather. It is for such types of people that Burnett is nostalgic.
As the "old days" draw to an end, Robin looses something else for which Burnett mourns: innocence. It is interesting to note that Robin's maturation is regarded as a lamented loss of innocence rather than a desired attainment of knowledge. She says, "I'm BLACK with knowing" (Burnett 292). This negative and nostalgic spin is indicative of the mood that Burnett tries to create in "The Head of the House of Coombe." Robin's great awakening comes when she is kidnapped by Lady Etynge. Robin had believed Lady Etynge to be good and trustworthy, and when this trust is betrayed, Robin is crushed. Previously utterly sheltered, Robin is suddenly directly confronted with evil in the form of a personal assault. The fear and horror that result leave her totally devoid of trust and faith. She says, "I have been so frightened that I shall be a coward ? a coward all my life. I shall be afraid of every face I see ? the more to be trusted they look, the more I shall fear them" (Burnett 292). Many people at the close of World War I, as mentioned above, shared this attitude. Just as Robin's sheltered world had been shattered, so too had the innocent age before the world been utterly destroyed.
However, by the end of the book, Robin's world has been reassembled. She is safe and happy in the employment of the Duchess of Darte. Her future is secure and her present is stable. Donal has come back to her, filling the void caused by his abandonment twelve years earlier. For Robin, the "old world" is still in tact. At the close of the book Robin is dancing in the arms of her beloved Donal. On the very same night, the Archduke is assassinated in Sarajevo. In fact, the end of the book coincides directly with the end of the "old world." In the coming days and weeks everything will change and all that Coombe and Darte have foreseen will come to fruition. The fact remains, however, that the book itself has a happy ending. Robin is safe and loved and, for the moment, the old order has prevailed.
It is this last moment for which Burnett and her readers yearn. A successful bestseller will give the readers what they want or wish for. "The Head of the House of Coombe" provided its readers with a glimpse into a lost social order, a lifestyle that was sorely missed. It offers an escape from the post-war world of 1922 and a retreat back into the years before the world changed forever. The opening paragraph immediately assures the readers that this will be the case. It says, "The history of the circumstances about to be related began?years before all belief in permanency of design seemed lost, and the inhabitants of the earth waited, helplessly?in a degree of mental chaos" (Burnett 1).
"The Head of the House of Coombe" is deeply and unavoidably colored by the time in which it was written. The fears and feelings of people in the post-war era manifest themselves in the pages of the book. The portrayal of Germans, the discussions of Darte and Coombe, and Robin's loneliness and loss of innocence all speak to readers in 1922. The ultimate appeal of the book, however, is its nostalgic retreat into a past that no longer existed. Through plot constructions, character portrayals, and a romantic style, Burnett returned to the end of the Victorian era. The nostalgia and theme of loss in "The Head of the House of Coombe" reflect the time period in which it was written. Its popularity reflects timeless elements of best-selling novels: give the readers what they want in a familiar and comfortable style. "The Head of the House of Coombe" and its continuation, "Robin," do this. Frances Hodgson Burnett's last work may not have been her best. It was panned by the critics and retains no lasting appeal today. In 1922, however, it gave the readers what they wanted. Perhaps this is enough.
Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Head of the House of Coombe. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1922.
Bixler, Phyllis. Frances Hodgson Burnett. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.
Bookman, Volume 55, March-August 1922. New York: George H. Doran Company, 1922. Knight, Marion and Mertice James, ed. Book Review Digest, 1922. New York: HW Wilson Company, 1923.
Justice, Keith L. Bestseller Index. North Carolina: McFarland, 1998.