Riches to Rags

A Little Princess:
Being the whole story of Sara Crewe.
by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Vintage Classics, 2012 (1905).

Once on a dark winter’s day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they might do at night, an odd-looking girl sat in a cab with her father, and was driven rather slowly through the big thoroughfares.

Chapter 1, ‘Sara’

With this atmospheric opening paragraph Frances Hodgson Burnett set her take on the Cinderella story in  the grimy capital of England’s capital, far away from India climes where the ‘odd-looking’ girl had spent her first seven years.

True to the story’s fairytale roots the author will introduce figures equivalent to the wicked stepmother, the ugly sisters and the fairy godmother, though the last will morph into a faint echo of the male lead in Beauty and the Beast.

But A Little Princess isn’t just a rags-to-riches story – even if for a while it appears to be mostly riches-to-rags – for Burnett clothed the skeleton plot with gorgeous details and imbued the ancient archetype with psychological insights. In so doing she created a classic that has scarcely dated, despite being more than a century old.

Fleet Street in London looking east towards St Paul’s Cathedral. Photograph by James Valentine, c.1890 (Wikimedia Commons)

Ralph Crewe, an Army captain in British India, invests in his friend’s venture, a diamond mine. His French wife having died, he brings his daughter Sara, serious but with a kind disposition, to Miss Minchin’s select seminary for young ladies to board while he helps supervise mining operations. Being a fond father he showers Sara with everything he thinks she needs in terms of clothes, transport and a French maid, and Miss Maria Minchin is very happy to accommodate Sara’s privileged lifestyle as long as the cash keeps flowing in. Apart from one or two sneering boarders Sara, with her bookish nature, her imagination and capacity for telling stories, remains popular with her contemporaries.

However, five years later disaster strikes: the venture appears to be failing, the funds dry up, Captain Crewe’s partner disappears and he himself dies of a fever, leaving Sara a pauper. Miss Minchin defaults to wicked stepmother mode and turns Sara into an ill-treated and starved drudge to earn her keep. The bleak months go by.

But Sara learns to inculcate stoicism in the face of everything thrown at her. She retains some respect from younger boarders and from Becky, a scullery maid, drawing from her imagination to act as she thinks a little princess should act. And when an ex-colonial whom she regards as ‘the Indian gentleman’ moves in next door to the seminary we sense that her bad luck may change for the better.

Burnett is an extraordinary writer. Though the trope of the orphan who wins through by reason of her innate goodness is a well-worn one (Burnett was to revisit it herself in The Secret Garden) it’s her timeless writing that saves it from banality. Sara is not impossibly pious – God is only invoked once, with as little force as its equivalent phrase “Thank goodness” – nor is she self-pitying, though she has every right to be. That’s not to take away from the injustice meted out by Miss Minchin, whose behaviour is fuelled by resentment and manifested in vindictiveness.

A Little Princess has its own interesting history. It appears to be inspired by one of Charlotte Brontë’s last unfinished novels, Emma, in which poor little rich girl Matilda Fitzgibbon gets sent to a small girls school run by the Misses Wilcox, but breaks off with the disappearance of the girl’s father. Burnett’s treatment first appeared in shorter form which was then expanded when turned into a three-act play, with the 1905 publication being in effect a novelisation of the play, adding extra incidents and characters.

I see the book as a work in praise of the power of the imagination, a talent which the author herself had to nurture and develop in order to earn money when her widowed mother emigrated with Frances and her siblings to America. Like many writers she drew on her own life experiences – for example, the name of the Select Seminary for Young Ladies and Gentlemen which she and her brothers and sisters attended in Salford, Manchester, found its way in A Little Princess – but it was her enjoyment of fairytales and popular fiction that moulded the themes of her novels, with their emphasis on kindness and compassion.

10 Books of Summer

4/10 Books of Summer

35 thoughts on “Riches to Rags

  1. Lovely assessment of one of my favorite books! Nice point that Burnett’s celebration of the imagination and of storytelling comes out of her own experience, as she herself lived by telling stories. What I like about the book is how it points towards the riches that are available to anyone, no matter what their financial circumstances … even though nobility is rewarded with material prosperity in suitable fairy-tale style.

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    1. I’m always pleased if my assessments do justice to readers’ likes, so thanks, Lory! I particularly liked the way that FHB showed us Sara’s thought processes, processes which must have been similar to the author’s when times were tough for her – though couched in a literary fairytale format the sense of a real life lived according to principles takes the tale away from Victorian mawkishness.

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    1. There really are more good children’s classics that don’t make one cringe than one might otherwise expect, aren’t there, this being one of them. I was constantly surprised how little the language had dated – despite the presence of period terms – along with the absence of 19th-century sentimentality.

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  2. I agree with Lisa that you did justice to this beautiful classic. I read it to my daughters and saw one of the movie adaptations. Actually I forget if, this and The Secret Garden, we listened to them beautifully narrated since The Secret Garden has the boy’s and his sister’s accent that gains so much when read as it sounds.

    Many years ago and I still remember Sara’s thought processes while facing adversity and how she focused on attitude versus outcomes. That’s something that speaks to me as a christian and I believe it touches on universal values that appeal to us all.

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    1. That equanimity of mind that Sara displayed from an early age I agree is extraordinary, Silvia, such a mature philosophy in such a young child. Although some might say that her stoicism is unrealistic, I have in education come across kids who, though self-contained, do show a generosity of spirit to others, exactly how Sara is.

      I wonder which narrations you listened to? Getting accents right, even in a relatively small island like Britain, is so important, from the Yorkshire accents of The Secret Garden to the ‘posh’ or affected pronunciations in London contrasting with Becky’s Cockney voice.

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      1. I agree with you, there’s kids like her. I will find out the audiobooks if possible, but that’s it, the Yorkshire accent and the Cockney, they were well done.
        I will let you know if I find out the narrator.

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  3. I loved The Secret Garden as a child, but have never read this one. I thought this might be one of those children’s books that would seem overly sentimental to an adult, so I’m pleased to hear that’s not the case. I’ll definitely keep this book in mind!

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    1. As I say elsewhere, I think the sentimentality here stays on the right side of mawkishness, and Sara comes across as a resourceful child coping with changes in circumstance and bullying by a combination of compassion and imagination. As a picture of turn-of-the-century British society, poised between the Victorian and Edwardian eras, I thought this was honest and authentic and well worth a read, especially bearing in mind your interests! Also interesting to consider in terms of colonial exploitation (the diamond mines) and imperialism (the “Indian gentleman’s” servant, Ram Dass).


  4. That’s a great review! I have fond memories of Little Princess, which I read right on the heels of my withdrawal symptoms for Anne of Green Gables. Very different books they turned out to be though. Burnett seemed to add a bleaker (more realistic?) overtone to her character than Anne from the Montgomery books could ever be.

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    1. You have me at a disadvantage as, although I have a copy, I’ve yet to read AGG. But I agree, A Little Princess is realistic in many ways despite conforming to fairytale tropes: the London grime, the second class treatment of servants, the destitution that could be deepened by the lack of a societal safety net.


  5. I watched the (beautiful) movie as a kid, read the book in high school, if I recall correctly, and appreciated it so much! Cinderella stories really work on me — that’s a great connection to make — and Sara was maybe the sort of kid I wished I’d been?

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    1. Not watched the film – weren’t there two? – so I came to this fresh apart from knowing there was an alleged connection with the Brontë tale. Cinderella stories are claimed as one of the so-called seven basic plots (Philip Pullman identifies more, but rather in the spirit of mischief) but they are, like the six others, sooo appealing.

      Had a quick look at your Farah Mendleson / Diana Wynne Jones piece, and now feel the urge to locate copies of both texts!

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      1. Oh, thank you!! Yes, “The True State of Affairs” is very much worth reading. Apparently she had a hard time getting it published at first because the protagonist is absent from most of the action but it is really interesting and thought-provoking, if also on the sad side for DWJ. Mendlesohn’s book was very helpful to me too — I really ought to read more DWJ criticism

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  6. Lovely review, Chris. I’m fond of this book and prefer it to The Secret Garden. When asked to recommend a classic to children in the school library this was one I frequently suggested. As you point out the language is accessible and I think Sara remains a character with whom young readers will empathise. She has many good points and her positivity is admirable.

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    1. Sara’s bookish, imaginative, and big-hearted—what’s not to look for us bookish, imaginative and sympathetic types?! Young readers of a similar disposition may well identify with her, while the protagonist of The Secret Garden is much more feisty and likely not to take no for an answer!

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  7. I loved this book as a child, and though as you say, Sara isn’t impossibly pious nor makes one cringe, later I found I preferred the Secret Garden just that little bit more because Mary Lennox there is a handful as is her cousin Colin (plus of course that has a nature theme, a Pan like character and such)–quite a contrast to Sara. I must really revisit this soon and also excerpts if available of the Bronte book. Enjoyed reading your thoughts on this

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    1. I wonder if Sara Crewe and Mary Lennox are two sides of FHB’s own character, and if seeing what happened in her life corresponded in any way with the two novels’ protagonists, one from 1888 (and revised in 1905), the other in 1911. She divorced her first husband in 1898, and her second in 1902 after just two years of marriage. I wonder if Mary Lennox’s assertiveness came from the author’s financial and personal independence.

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    1. The history behind is fascinating but in no way detracts from the story itself; in fact, having read what exists of Charlotte Brontë’s Emma she really took the bare bones of it and reconfigured its plot.

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  8. This was one of my favorite books as a child. I remember being surprised that it was a good book, and not what I despised at the time, a book just for girls. I grew up in southern Missouri, in the U.S. bible belt, so there were a lot of girly books in the library.

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    1. As a bloke I was long put off by the title, thinking it wasn’t aimed at me – how wrong I was! It’s a story for anyone who likes stories, in fact a story about stories, and how it’s sometimes possible to maintain positivity even when the chips are down.

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