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.
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.
4/10 Books of Summer