The combination of snowy weather and watching some of a terrible adaptation of 'A Little Princess' (Frances Hodgson Burnett is not well served when it comes to adaptations) over Christmas made me really want to read the book again. When I was a child this was a real favourite but it's a long time since I read it and revisiting childhood books can be disappointing; I had mixed feelings about 'The Secret Garden' when I read it a year or so ago it was more interesting than charming - some of the magic was stripped away by my adult sensibilities and cynicisms.
My original copy is long gone and not every shop stocks 'A Little Princess' (I don't know why it's not as ubiquitous as 'The Secret Garden', I think it's much better) so this turned out to be the perfect time to buy something from the only independent bookshop near me - it's specifically dedicated to children's books so it's taken a while to find something I might want from it. The otherwise helpful lady in there was surprised that the book was for me - I don't think she would have had the same reaction if I'd come in for a Twilight title and there's something mildly depressing about that.
Fairy tales are fluid things, even written down they evolve into different stories - 'A Little Princess' is basically Cinderella with a bit of embellishment. Sara Crewe is the loved and petted daughter of a rich father who makes her a present of anything she may desire. She's sent to school in London where she manages to befriend almost all around her (though not the wicked stepmother - her headmistress Miss Minchin). She's an intelligent child with a gift for learning and story telling and a rich imagination. All things she'll need when she learns on her birthday that her father has dies and she's bundled off to the attic for a life of drudgery and semi starvation.
Every possible humiliation is heaped on Sara, but just as when she was rich she determined to behave like a Princess, she finds she still can even in her much reduced circumstances (in fact she behaves much better than any actual Princess could be expected to). She is always kind and generous, always honest, and still does what she can to help those worse off than she is. What she doesn't do is loose her spirit which discomforts Miss Minchin and make her harder than ever on the girl she's exploiting. It's interesting that Burnett makes no attempt to make sense of Sara's loss - one of the things I disliked about the film version is that her father turns up alive which is far to conventional a happy ending. Part of the point of 'A Little Princess' is surely to help children understand that life is often desperately unfair and that you have to deal with it.
Happily things look up for Sara just as they seem to be at their darkest - the neighbours take an interest in her and in the role of fairy godmother sneak good things into her attic - it's gradual transformation from grim prison cell to comfortable boudoir is my favourite part of the book. Eventually Sara's fortunes are restored - quite literally, and what pleases me most is that it's not in the form of a handsome Prince. True she gets an adoptive father figure who can return to her the fortune it seemed had been lost, but it's Sara's fortune - she doesn't have to be beholden to anybody for it. I really like the idea that she gets her independence, that she intends to use it for philanthropic purposes is also pleasing - she's a splendid role modal.
I'm curious about how Burnett felt about this particular book, of the 4 novels by her I've read I'm inclined to think this one the best. The value placed on Sara's intelligence and spirit are encouraging. Even without the fairy god father the reader feels sure she would survive, escape from Miss Minchin, and make her own way in the world. Burnett quietly makes it clear that life is often unfair and that adults don't always behave as they should (as bad as Miss Minchin is her father's lawyer is far worse in the way he quickly distances himself from Sara). The moral lessens about friendship and decency are not overdone - Sara's determination to behave as she thinks a Princess should is almost aggressively defiant at times; Miss Minchin can perhaps be excused for disliking the charge who exposes her for what she is, though there is no excuse for the rest of her behaviour. The value placed on education and an imaginative inner life are also encouraging.
Really enjoyed this review, Hayley. This was my favourite FHB book growing up and probably still is (much as I enjoy The Shuttle).ReplyDelete
I think it's my favourite too, though I might re read The Shuttle soon just to be sure. There's so much about it that I like, and which I found helpful - mostly regarding the right attitude to take to work...Delete
I liked her spirit too - she's more independent (I like your use of aggressive) than the usual victim-heroine. I loved the room transformation too! I want to read this again now.ReplyDelete
Nothing breaks her, and she does keep putting Miss Minchin in her place. She ought to be a victim but I never feel like she is, and the big prize at the end isn't specifically love but financial security and independence which is quite encouraging.Delete
It's a good job I don't know just where you live. As someone who used to lecture in children's literature, I would never be out of that bookshop and my bank manager would have a daily fit. 'The Little Princess' was Burnett's second go at this story. She had tried once before under the title of 'Sara Crewe' and at that point she was still living first time found in the US so was almost certainly writing out of the need to make money to support the family. 'The Little Princess' was re-written back in England after her marriage had begun to disintegrate and when she had become interested in theosophy.ReplyDelete
It's not the best bookshop - small and not very adventurous stock, I think you and you're bank manager would be okay. (It's still a nice bookshop though, and certainly deserves support). My knowledge of theosophy is rusty now, I should look it up properly and see what it adds to the books. There is a bleakness about the book I like and which was rare in the children's books I read, even the happy ending is bitter sweet.Delete
I absolutely agree about the adaptations but though I love The Little Princess I disagree about The Secret Garden -- for me it's far and away her best. Still, good thing we don't all like the same things as life would be very boring if we did.ReplyDelete
It would indeed. I loved 'The Secret Garden' when I was young, but 'A Little Princess' has a special place in my memory. I remember finding it on the shelf and reading it for the first time - it was with my parents books so I thought it was for grown ups but liked the title. Who knows where it came from or where it went but I remember it like no other from that time.Delete
I remember reading this as a child (together with Daddy Long Legs, I think) and getting it confused with the Secret Garden. I must have had a collection of her books. I recently read The Making of a Marchioness which I found very interesting (although the tv version was atrocious as they changed everything). A lovely reminder of a much-loved book!ReplyDelete
FHB has had some dire adaptations hasn't she. I do wonder why things get changed around as much as they do when you have a perfectly good plot already...Delete
I adore this book. I remember crying my eyes out, and still get moist eyed now, when she is all alone in the attic and she puts her head down on her doll Emily and cries for her father. If you read a life of FHB you will find it surprising, as I did, to see how she is indifferent to her son who so missed her and longed to see her (she was always travelling) when she writes with such understanding of a child's grief and lonelinessReplyDelete
It's a heartbreaking moment! Look forward to chatting about FHB face to face :)Delete
Really interested to read this. I remember The Secret Garden as one of my favourite childhood booka and it's on the list along with Little Women, Anne of Green Gables and I Capture the Castle to introduce to my daughter when she's old enough to enjoy. At 5 she loves books so I have great hopes of snuggling up enjoying these classics together. I haven't ever read this though - it's added to my list.ReplyDelete
I hope you both like it, and what a lot to look forward too. If your daughter is anything like I was she will love the descriptions of the dolls!Delete
Is Little Lord Fauntleroy one of the four Burnetts that you've read? A friend lent it to me but I haven't yet entered it into my TBR line-up.ReplyDelete
It's not and I have been wondering of I should hunt it out to read as it shouldn't be hard to get hold of.Delete
My copy was a Puffin with a yellow cover with a line drawing. Anyone else have this edition?ReplyDelete
That's the one I had, and would rather like to find again. My original copy would probably disintegrate now if I ever did find it though.Delete
I have that copy too!Delete
I have to say that I always loved 'The Secret Garden' more as a child, but I reread this a couple of years ago and was really impressed. (Although I cried over it much more than when I was little!) I am a bit scared to read 'Little Lord Fauntleroy', but it must be better than I think, mustn't it? Perhaps I'll wait until you have read it, you can be my reading filter heh heh!
It might be Rubbish but I expect it'll be entertaining enough so I'm going to give my local library another chance and see if they can come across for me. Will report back...Eventually!Delete
Ah, I loved this book as a child. You've made me want to re-read it, thank you!ReplyDelete
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did :)ReplyDelete
I really must root through my childrens books and see if I have a copy of this. I know I read it as a child but I have a feeling it's not one of the FHB's I own.ReplyDelete
I like Little Lord Fauntleroy but she really ladles on the sugar in that one!
I hope you find a copy!ReplyDelete
one of my favorite childrens books ... i love the cartoon tooReplyDelete
I love A Little Princess, but I wouldn't agree that Sara is "always kind and generous" during the hard times. She very nearly always is but there's a moment when, in her misery, she lashes out at Ermengarde - "What do you think? Do you think I am very happy?" - and Ermengarde proves that she's a true friend by offering support even after that rebuff.ReplyDelete
Equally though, I think that's part of what makes the book so much more vivid. Sara is not a saint, she's a young girl who's been through a terrible tragedy and she would be likely to lash out. It's part of what makes her human, credible - and lovable.
M, you are absolutely right on both counts. I think it's a remarkable book and all the better for the when Sara does lash out. I want to read it all over again now.ReplyDelete