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.