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.
From the beginning Hansel and Gretel puts us in another world, opening as it does with "Once upon a time . . ." That phrase lets the audience know that what follows is a story and exists in an alternate space. I also think the candy house works to counter the terror of the abandonment with wonder and delight. And then the children in Hansel and Gretel are resourceful and brave, as they first find their way back home and then when lost the second time they confront the witch and outsmart her and defeat her.
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