26 October 2013


Reading Diary: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

"Is that--" [Becky] ventured, looking longingly at the rose-colored frock . . . "Is that there your best?"

"It is one of my dancing-frocks," answered Sara. "I like it, don't you?"

For a few seconds Becky was almost speechless with admiration. Then she said in an awed voice, "Onct I see a princess. I was standin' in the street with the crowd outside Covin' Garden, watchin' the swells go inter the operer. An' there was one everyone stared at most. They ses to each other, `That's the princess.' She was a growed-up young lady, but she was pink all over--gownd an' cloak, an' flowers an' all. I called her to mind the minnit I see you, sittin' there on the table, miss. You looked like her."

"I've often thought," said Sara, in her reflecting voice, "that I should like to be a princess; I wonder what it feels like. I believe I will begin pretending I am one."

Although Sara Crewe's story was a childhood favourite of mine, I haven't revisited her in years. I'm afraid that after I became fully acquainted with Jane Eyre, dear Sara didn't stand a chance. And yet now that I think it over, A Little Princess served as "training wheels" for great books to come later and was the perfect prelude to Charlotte Bronte's beloved (especially by me) novel.

I decided to brush the dust off this one after Melanie said that she had started reading it to her eldest daughter, who had a very strong reaction to what is arguably the saddest part. But it was when I got to that part myself that I realised the real connection was to one of Melanie's earlier posts, on a faerie tale some now consider "inappropriate" for children.

Every children's storyteller who is going to deal with something truly painful has the responsibility of establishing that the story "exists in an alternate space." That is, that the world of the characters is different from the world of the listeners or readers. This is why faerie tales have "Once upon a time . . ."--and A Little Princess has "Once on a dark winter's day . . ." Although catastrophe after catastrophe crashes onto the child characters' heads, these magic words keep the child readers and listeners snug and safe.

A Little Princess may not be a Horror novel, but there are few realistic things more horrifying to children than losing both parents, being at the mercy of adults who don't like them, having to do hard menial work all day, getting barely enough to eat, and sleeping in a cold, dark, lonely attic. Boarding school proprietress Miss Minchin may not be Sara's stepmother, but her wickedness is worthy of a real faerie tale. Ram Dass may not fit our idea of a faerie godmother, but he more than meets that high bar. And what an unlikely, yet perfectly sufficient, Prince Charming figure we have at the end! =P

Which brings us to the question of why children need such stories at all--to which I say that childhood is the best time to learn that valuable skill of fear management. And one of the best ways to teach that is through cathartic literature: a well-written tale in which a child character is dealt a terrible hand but eventually manages to come out on top. First, following Aristotle's model, the emotions are engaged through fear and pity. Then the imagination comes into play, as the young audience attempt the exercise of putting themselves in the characters' shoes. Now, what I find especially interesting about this story is that its imaginary child character is also imaginative . . . as if Frances Hodgson Burnett totally intended A Little Princess to be an adversity instruction manual.

When Sara first starts pretending that she is a princess, it is purely a fancy. But this private game serves her well when it makes her stop right before she slaps a spiteful classmate--because a princess would never do something like that. She alters the narrative a bit after she is orphaned and left penniless: inspired by the story of King Alfred the Great and the peasant woman who boxed his ears because she didn't recognise him, she sees her own mistreatment at the hands of Miss Minchin in a way that keeps it from breaking her spirit. And during the times when being an unrecognised princess isn't consolation enough, she also pretends that she is a soldier in the middle of a long, hard war or a prisoner in the Bastille. To use a modern expression, Sara fakes it until she makes it--and faking it is the only way she could have made it. An excellent moral.

It was interesting to reread A Little Princess during a month I usually reserve for Horror, my favourite genre in the world. Maybe I should give Jane Eyre another crack, too. It's certainly Gothic enough--not just in its elements, but in a similar interior way.

Image Sources: a) A Little Princess by Frances Hogdson Burnett, b) Hansel and Gretel interpreted by Laura Barrett


love the girls said...

I'm not sure what to make of the rescuing aspect of these stories as reassurance given that the attic room had served numberless previous occupants, just as the house in the woods had seen innumerable previous small lost children over the millennium.

To be sure, we're glad for the princess that she is saved by St. George, but what of all the prior maidens who were staked to the same post before her?

Perhaps the stories work as empathic consolation because like my own daughters, all daughters envision themselves as princesses, just as all father see their daughters as little princesses.

Enbrethiliel said...


This may be another rambling exchange, because it will take me some time to see exactly why you have compared Hansel and Gretel and A Little Princess to the legend of St. George and the dragon. I don't think they go together at all, as the first two aren't meant to be Christian allegories. There may have been previous maidens whom St. George didn't rescue, just as there were previous women who were not immaculately conceived, but what can be said about them doesn't apply to the previous attic residents and gingerbread house fodder.

Again, the two stories I've mention unfold in an alternate space. There's a sense in which the attic bedroom and the gingerbread house didn't even exist until the child characters encountered them, because they're based not in reality but in the nature of imaginative play. A child who starts pretending to be royalty doesn't step into a kingdom someone else created for him, but creates that kingdom all by himself on that very day. And he may someday completely obliterate that realm when he tires of it and pretends to be something else.

An adult might have some fun and ask, "But won't your subjects be sad now that you've decided to abandon your throne and become a ninja?" And some children might come up with a totally plausible way to link up both fantasy worlds. But if the child really just forgets about the world, like last year's Halloween costume, we wouldn't say that he's being unrealistic--and we wouldn't make him continue to play because his absence from the kingdom would open it up to conquerors. (Then again, C.S. Lewis did just that in the second Narnia book, didn't he?)

Anyway, if I'm bothered about anything in A Little Princess, it is that Sara's friend the scullery maid is also saved at the end, but by becoming a lady's maid. Granted, the inheritance which makes this possible is all Sara's, but the modern in me can't help but wish that the two who had been fellow "prisoners of the Bastille" had ended more like sisters.

love the girls said...

Miss E.,
Perhaps I have the wrong story, but I thought I remembered something about a mirror in the bedroom and the consideration of past residents of that bedroom.

Enbrethiliel said...


Well, this is embarrassing! =P Despite having reread A Little Princess recently, I can't say whether or not that bit is in the novel. I don't remember it at all, but it does sound like it could be one of Sara's musings.

love the girls said...

Miss E.,

It's difficult to remember a negative, so I'm probably wrong and only remembering Polyanna's not having a mirror in her attic room.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I don't remember any musings about the attic's past residents, and I've read the book countless times. But if I come across such a passage, I'll let you know.

The versions we've read of Hansel and Gretel and St George and the Dragon neither of them give any thought to previous victims. Though they might be inserted into the narrative by a child, they aren't in these.

In fact in Margaret Hodges' St George and the Dragon, which is really a retelling of Spencer's The Faerie Queen, the princess, Una, is not being sacrificed to the dragon (as Andromeda is sacrificed to the sea monster-- and even there we saw no version of previous sacrifices), but is instead the guide who has gone to seek George and bring him back to her kingdom. She is an agent of rescue and not a victim. (Now I'm wondering if that is a modern interpolation or the way the original story goes.)

So I'm curious as to which version you are citing that has the princess as victim. And now I'm curious as to whether children's stories do spend much time thinking of past victims or if the child hero tends to be portrayed as unique.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

About Becky being a ladies maid and not an adopted sister... Burnett does make a great deal about class distinctions, doesn't she?

It's bothering me a bit this time through how often Becky is anonymously in her attic next door and not coming over to spend the good times with Sara and company. She's kind of off stage when Ermengarde and Lottie come, she's really not quite an equal. And the accent does seem to come into that. One of the things the Montmorency children notice is Sara's proper diction and syntax. She doesn't speak or act like a beggar. She never could. And even Miss Minchin realizes that she's too well-read and too well-bred to truly be a scullery maid like Becky.

Enbrethiliel said...


Ever since LTG brought previous victims up, I've been wondering if other children think about them. I know that I never gave a thought to them as a child. Inasmuch as they make the stories more realistic--and the villains better fleshed out--they seem to be more of an adult's interpretation of the same stories.

Until you brought up the accents, I would have said that Becky's great limitation is her imagination. She needs Sara to pretend for her; she cannot do it herself. And that is why she arguably isn't Sara's equal. But even when they are poor, notice that Sara doesn't deign to imagine that Becky is a fellow lost princess. When she brings Becky into one of her stories, it is to be "the prisoner in the next cell." Do we read this as a blind spot?

I'll have to give more thought to accents. I'm reading another Burnett book now in which the main characters speak "normally" while the supporting characters--yes, mostly servants--get to have the richness of their respective regions in their voices. And I'm not quite easy about that any longer.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I think if it's a blind spot, it might be FHB's and not Sara's. She tries so very hard to make Sara generous and noticing of everyone. I wonder if she doesn't even realize her own bias against Becky.

Belfry Bat said...

Just as a point of interest in connection with this "class-consciousness", it's worth mentioning that, in Dickens' Bleak House, one of the steadiest forms of charity exercised by the 2nd hero is to find people suitable employment. This usually doesn't involve class shuffling. So, I'd guess that it's part of the Victorian mindset; whether or how much it's suitable... I don't know.

Enbrethiliel said...


Melanie -- I think that Burnett would be surprised to have it pointed out to her. Then again, perhaps the part in which Sara tells Becky that they are both little girls and are therefore the same was already quite revolutionary for its day.

Bat -- Interestingly, that ties into our previous discussion on the jobs crisis! =P

Perhaps it's different in places with less social stratification, but I have experienced taking a job some might consider "beneath me" and having the other employees insinuate that I was taking a position away from someone who needed it more and who would be a better fit. And since those were service-based jobs, and clients who compared the quality of my work to the quality of my colleagues' work sometimes switched over to me, there was also a sense in which I was hurting the companies I worked for. People who aim too low can be as troublesome as people who aim too high.

love the girls said...

The children's version of St. George and the Dragon I was thinking of is by Geraldine McCaughrean.

A version not as well known as I have just found out from here, and my wife describing it as just some "obscure author" in comparison to Margaret Hodges version, where she couldn't believe that I didn't know it was based on the Faerie Queen, as if it was as commonly known as the sun rising in the east.

Nevertheless, and for what it is worth, McCaughrean's version is a better story and it does strongly reference past sacrifices because the lottery is central to the story, and a far better story because of it's reflection of fallen nature and sin which is what the story is about.

mrsdarwin said...

Class in England is what race is in America: the great national blindspot/sore spot/flashpoint/cause for shame. The way Sara interacts with Becky, for all her best intentions, isn't that far off from the way a sweet character in an American novel of the same period might interact with a black servant. It's worth noting and talking over with children.

I think this is a flaw in FHB, not in Sara Crewe, and it's odd because her characters of "lower" birth in The Secret Garden are so fully rounded and have rich lives of their own. Of course, the poverty of a loving family on the moor is very different from the poverty of a London orphan, but it's too bad that Becky should be merely a prop for Sara's nobility. This is why I prefer The Secret Garden -- even the "villains" are more fully realized. The housekeeper in Secret Garden is a more human character than Miss Minchin.

love the girls said...

America has class differentiation. The difference is that it's done according to the vulgar scale of money.

The commonly accepted american class differentiation is grounded in money. Both the quantity possessed, as well as the capacity to earn it.

This stratification according to the new class differentiation is most clearly seen in neighborhood housing.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I probably should like The Secret Garden better, but I still love A Little Princess the best because Sara Crewe, c'est moi.

But I do think we will read The Secret Garden next. We'll see how I feel after reading them back to back to Bella and Sophie. Right now Bella is totally in love.

DMS said...

I haven't read A Little Princess in years and think I will probably pick it up again soon after reading this post. You reminded me of a book I really loved, but need to get reacquainted with now that I am older. :) I like how you said it was training wheels for other books like Jane Eyre. So true!


Enbrethiliel said...


Like Melanie, I'm planning to reread A Secret Garden next. (Unlike Melanie, I don't have enchanted little girls listening to me. =P)

I was surprised to learn that there is a fourth Burnett book called The Lost Prince which is mostly out of print. Our author likes the royal theme, aye? LOL! Cultural and historical blind spots aside, I'm afraid that class issues come into play whenever you have royal characters. So do money issues, as LTG has pointed out, but Sara's redefinition of largess after she becomes penniless is worth thinking over as well.

Jess -- I still identify a bit with Sara, but there's a sense in which I can't enjoy her story as an adult the way I did as a child. Training wheels are fun and exciting at the proper age, but someone who rides a bike very well wouldn't really want to use them again! But don't let this discourage you from revisiting Sara. A Little Princess would be a great novel for you to feature on your blog. I recall that you've already done The Secret Garden. =)

love the girls said...

The Lost Prince : https://archive.org/details/lost_prince_su_librivox

I'm glad you pointed it out, I didn't know it existed. Of course, there could be a reason it's been lost to memory. For instance, Le Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame are exceptionally good, while Toiler of the Sea is eminently forgettable.

Egalitarianism has never held very strong sway with me. Let it be cultural or class or whatever distinctions, there are differences in society and people are best off marrying and associating within their culture.

Dickon or Becky may be an enjoyable playmate, but there are differences that are more than skin deep which makes Becky a good servant, but not a good friend when they are both older and life becomes more than play.

Enbrethiliel said...


Actually, Sara doesn't have any peers at her school. Ermengarde may be deeply loyal, but she is, to be blunt about it, slow. And Lottie is much too young. Sara's three companions truly love her, but they lack her ability to create whole worlds out of the imagination and are dependent on her because of it. If Sara has any equal, it is the Lascar Ram Dass, who can create "magic" for her the way she creates it for others.

Dickon is a special case that I hope to discuss in greater depth in a future post.

love the girls said...

Miss E. writes : "Actually, Sara doesn't have any peers at her school."

Her lack of peers is the true injustice Sara suffers. Not because there are not girls who could be her equal, but because she's been unjustly removed from the culture she best belongs to.

Lascar Ram isn't her peer, but a substitute that stands in place of her peers, not unlike the new ecclesial communities stand in place of properly formed society.

Enbrethiliel said...


Would you believe that I saw your last reply coming ever since you responded to Mrs. Darwin's thoughts on class differences? That first comment put me in mind of an old post of yours about the reason you go out of your way to make sure that you and your children are members of a parish of your peers. But it fits that other train of thought of yours nicely as well. =)

love the girls said...

Miss E. writes :Would you believe I saw . . "

Yes I would. I didn't see it, but it's fitting that you were able to put the pieces together.

You're very good at seeing what other don't.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

By the way, don't miss my new post where I pick up on your idea of children learning how to manage their fears. I finished reading the kids Mr McFadden's Halloween today and I'd forgotten how much the ending is like A Little Princess complete with little Tim getting new clothes and a new home and getting well-fed. They really made a lovely pair to read together.