In A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, seven-year-old Sara Crewe has grown up in India with her beloved father. Her mother had died years before. Now the time has come for Sara to go to a boarding school in England.
Her father takes her to Miss Minchen’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies. Because he is rich, he provides for Sara to have her own room, maid, and carriage. Because Sara’s father is rich, Miss Minchen fawns over Sara and sets her as her “star pupil.” Privately she dislikes Sara. Because Sara is so elevated, the older popular girls immediately dislike her.
Sara herself is largely unaware of what being rich means. She seems much older than she is, quiet, thoughtful, and serious. But she has a sweet disposition and befriends other outcasts, like the overweight and not very smart Ermengarde, a motherless younger child named Lottie, and the scullery maid Becky.
Sara likes to pretend, and her most frequent pretend is that she is a princess – not because she is haughty or thinks herself entitled to be a princess, but to remind herself to act as a princess would act. Acting as a princess helps her not to lash or or slap people, even when they deserve it.
Suddenly Sara’s world is turned upside down when her father dies amidst a massive business failure. With no time to mourn or even adjust to the news, Sara is relegated to the attic and now has to work at whatever Miss Minchen assign to her. Sara has no other relatives and apparently there is nothing like children’s protective services in that day and time: Miss Minchen is now responsible for Sara and her upkeep, so she’s determined that Sara will earn her keep.
Sara still pretends to be a princess to help her act right, and she pretends that she is a prisoner in the Bastille to make her situation a little more palatable. But she is sad and miserable. Demands are made on her all day, she’s scolded and denied food for the least infraction. She visits with Becky, who has the attic room next to hers, but Lottie and Ermengarde can only come up when they can sneak in unawares.
At Sara’s lowest point, she wakes up to find “a dream come true” in her attic room – a fire in the grate, good food, warm bed coverings, a stack of books. Where could they have come from?
Though A Little Princess isn’t written exactly in the style of a fairy tale, it has many fairy tale elements: a “princess” in disguise or down on her luck, facing various trials, hidden away in a dark place, only to have things change and put to rights at the end with the villains getting their due comeuppance.
I searched a bit to try to discover Burnett’s purpose in writing the book. I couldn’t discover anything except that Wikipedia said “The novella appears to have been inspired in part by Charlotte Bronte’s unfinished novel, Emma, the first two chapters of which were published in Cornhill Magazine in 1860, featuring a rich heiress with a mysterious past who is apparently abandoned at a boarding school.” Perhaps she just wanted to write a fairy tale set in her time. But Sara certainly seems to be an exemplary heroine: not perfect (she admits to having pride and a temper), but constant in her character, kindness, and interest in others no matter what her circumstances. Maybe Burnett set up a character children could look up to and emulate.
But one factor that stood out to me was the way people treat others based on their economic status. Sara was the same person in good times or bad. Neither she nor her father asked or expected that she be out on a pedestal when they were rich, and certainly no one deserves to be treated as Sara and Becky were just because they were poor. The difference came in how others perceived them. Sure, there are some rich people in every age who feel entitled and deserving of pedestals and accolades. But we need to treat people with kindness and consideration no matter what their circumstances.
There’s some mention of “magic” in this book, but it’s not as pervasive as in The Secret Garden. The view of English imperialism and Indian servants might be offensive to modern sensibilities.
I had never read this book, that I can remember, but some years ago I saw a film version which I’d like to see again now.
I didn’t like the cover (pictured above) of the audiobook I listened to, but I enjoyed the wonderful narration by Virginia Leishman.
C. S. Lewis said the best children’s books are good reading for adults, too, and I agree. I very much enjoyed getting acquainted with this classic.