15 November 2013


Reading Diary: The Lost Prince by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Is it easier to explain why a book has stayed in print for decades or to explain why it has faded into obscurity? Until this month, I had thought that all of Frances Hodgson Burnett's books had become children's classics. It was a huge surprise to learn that she had several more that no one ever hears of any longer. I decided to read one of them and to see for myself why it so swiftly fell out of favour.

"He might be anywhere," [The Rat] said, his small fierce face glowing. "That's what I like to think about. He might be passing in the street outside there; he might be up in one of those houses," jerking his head over his shoulder toward the backs of the inclosing dwellings. "Perhaps he knows he's a king, and perhaps he doesn't . . ."

"Yes, he'd know," put in Marco.

"Well, it'd be finer if he did," went on The Rat. "However poor and shabby he was, he'd know the secret all the time. And if people sneered at him, he'd sneer at them and laugh to himself. I dare say he'd walk tremendously straight and hold his head up. If I was him, I'd like to make people suspect a bit that I wasn't like the common lot o' them." He put out his hand and pushed Marco excitedly. "Let's work out plots for him!" he said. "That'd be a splendid game! Let's pretend we're the Secret Party!"

The Lost Prince could only be a Burnett children's book: it has all the markers. You may have recognised Sara Crewe's princess fantasy in The Rat's musings about a prince whom everyone takes for a commoner--not to mention in his game of working out royalist plots, which hold his friends totally spellbound. But the magic of the imagination is only as good as the impact it can leave on the everyday world. While The Rat can think up "the primest games" in which he himself plays the role of general and can get the neighbourhood boys to be his army, he knows that his crippled legs will mean that he will never be a soldier in real life.

And then he meets Marco, who is this Burnett book's requisite "noble child." When it is Marco's turn to tell a story, it is not part of a game. Or to be more accurate, it is part of The Game, which is part of the Big Thought--something Marco believes in with religious fervour.

"All thinking is part of the Big Thought," said Marco slowly. "It KNOWS—It KNOWS. And the outside part of us somehow broke the chain that linked us to It. And we are always trying to mend the chain, without knowing it. That is what our thinking is—trying to mend the chain. But we shall find out how to do it sometime. The old Buddhist told my father so—just as the sun was rising from behind a high peak of the Himalayas." Then he added hastily, "I am only telling you what my father told me, and he only told me what the old hermit told him . . ."

". . . He had gone to India . . . A native, who had gone back and stayed to wait upon him, told him that near the summit of a mountain, about fifty miles away, there was a ledge which jutted out into space and hung over the valley, which was thousands of feet below. On the ledge there was a hut in which there lived an ancient Buddhist, who was a holy man . . . and who had been there during time which had not been measured. They said that their grandparents and great-grandparents had known of him, though very few persons had ever seen him. It was told that the most savage beast was tame before him. They said that a man-eating tiger would stop to salute him, and that a thirsty lioness would bring her whelps to drink at the spring near his hut . . ."

It's rich stuff, certainly--and still similar to Sara's stories. But the true difference between our girl storyteller and these two boys is how we're supposed to receive their stories. The reader knows that Sara isn't really a princess any more than she is a prisoner in the Bastille: these are just metaphors--albeit very powerful ones. On the other hand, the reader must believe that Marco's father really met a Buddhist guru who has tamed wild animals and learned the secret of life. Otherwise we won't buy into the secret ourselves.

Now the expected suspects are lining up. Is it this blatant propaganda which kept The Last Prince from becoming the fourth Burnett children's classic? I'm what you might call "not a fan," but given that The Secret Garden (which is up next) had a bit of that, too, I'm more inclined to blame the writing itself. Burnett didn't say anything once if she thought she could say it twenty times. Like the word "aide-de-camp." =P The last time I came across writing this ponderous and preachy, I was reading an Ayn Rand novel. But perhaps the real comparison is between Burnett and her contemporary Marie Corelli: both women had strong spiritualist beliefs that they wove into long, didactic passages in their stories, and Corelli had a few protagonists who required initiation into a higher knowledge. (Yeah, I know that still sounds like the idolatrous, gnostic Ayn.)

But perhaps the blackest mark against The Lost Prince is its terrible fantasy. Or rather, its literalising of the fantasy. In this tale, imagination and reality overlap perfectly, begging the question of why it was necessary to have both at the same time. In A Little Princess, Sara's "supposings" and her real life are two distinct streams: they complement each other, and even feed into each other, but they never completely merge . . . for a good reason I didn't realise until now. You see, the lack of boundaries between the imagined and the real in The Lost Prince has ceased to frustrate me with its two-dimensionality and started to intrigue me with an alternative reading.

I'd say that at some point between The Rat's dreaming up of a perfect "Secret Party" plot for his friends to act out and his recruitment into the real Secret Party in order to carry out a totally identical plot, he simply went mad. Indeed, if you wake up to find that an elaborate fantasy of yours has become completely indistinguishable from quotidian existence, then you've probably gone insane.

And just now I've realised that most of the people who'd be able to discuss the last paragraph with me are dead. =P

Image Source: The Lost Prince by Frances Hodgson Burnett


r said...

I don't even remember what the Secret Garden was about, besides that it used the word "moor" a lot. I didn't really know what a moor was but it sounded like a great place to live to me, so I didn't really identify with the moor-hating protagonist.

Enbrethiliel said...


Do you mean Mary or Colin? I think Mary loved the moor. In fact, one reason I didn't care for The Secret Garden when I first read it was that Mary stopped exploring that big Gothic manor to wander outdoors. =P

love the girls said...

Miss E. writes : "But perhaps the blackest mark against The Lost Prince is its terrible fantasy. Or rather, its literalising of the fantasy."

or from my perspective the literalising is its one saving grace. What more can a boy ask for than that Never Never Land is REAL. True, there is the one small drawback that if a pirate stabs oneself one actually dies, but then again falling out a treehouse has equal consequences.

Unfortunately, the actual adventure, like most of life, is rather dull and the story drags on with any actual adventure occurring. Lots of potential for adventure without the boys actually ever getting to join in other than as distant spectators.

Enbrethiliel said...


R -- I'm a few chapters into The Secret Garden now and have been properly reminded that Mary did indeed hate the moor when she first got there! But it's already growing on her. =)

LTG -- As a game, everything from Prince Ivor's mysterious disappearance to the role played by the Bearers of the Sign is not bad. But I'd imagine that two boys allowed to make it as fantastic as they please would have written in a lot more action. Even pirates! Why not? And don't say because Samavia is landlocked. =P

As an actual adventure, however, the story is as dull as you say. And the boys seem really dim not to have figured out at any point during the journey who the lost prince was.

I can imagine two ways of improving this. One is by keeping fantasy and reality separate, so that the former becomes a way of dealing with the latter--but granted, Burnett already did that in A Little Princess. The other is by making the reality something better than the boys could have imagined by themselves--exactly like Neverland, now that you bring it up.

DMS said...

I have never read this one, but think it is great that you checked it out to find out why it didn't become a classic. It is painful when writers repeat their ideas over and over again to get their point across. Thanks for sharing. :)

Enbrethiliel said...


If you're curious about The Lost Prince, too, I think that Puffin Classics put out an abridged version a few years ago. Unless you're a Burnett completist, I'd recommend that instead of the full etext.