Not the Whole Story: More thoughts on Frances Hodgson Burnett

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. A Little Princess; Being the Whole Story of Sara Crewe Now Told for the First Time.

Not long ago, I reviewed Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and one of my readers responded with a comment comparing The Secret Garden with A Little Princess, which I promised I would read. Rather than possibly losing the thread of things by simply adding a response to that earlier comment, I’m going briefly to address A Little Princess in its own post. The version I found for my e-reader was published in 2010 but the publishing information other than a reference to the e-reader company and an ISBN number was absolutely minimal, so I apologise in advance for possibly insufficiently documenting my source.

A Little Princess is only the second work by Frances Hodgson Burnett I’ve read, so I’m hesitant to make any generalizations about her work. I did note certain similarities between the two works, the strongest being Burnett’s what seems to me a rather conflicted attitude towards social status. On the one hand, she creates characters such as the Sowerbys in The Secret Garden and Becky and the woman who runs the bakery in A Little Princess who are kind and good, but the people such as Mrs. Medlock the housekeeper (Garden) and Miss Minchin the headmistress (Princess) are coarse and unsympathetic. This difference would seem to suggest the possibility of a point of view critical of the middle class. However, by the end of A Little Princess the “rightful” order is restored through the actions of upper middle class characters. Burnett offers little suggestion of a possibility for social mobility. The characters in these two novels know their places.

I could argue that Burnett is simply reflecting the values of her time, and that if there is any moral critique in the works it lies in the values they encourage. Selfish children such as Mary Lennox and Colin Craven (Garden) and many of the girls in Miss Minchin’s school (Princess) learn to be kind. Snobbish, superficial adults such as Miss Minchin and Mrs. Medlock learn to see beyond surfaces. Mr. Craven learns to overcome depression and to face up to his duties as a father. Mary Lennox and Sara Crewe both learn self-sufficiency and an understanding that human worth is based on deeds not looks and riches.

Moreover, it is not only in their social settings that the novels reflect their time. There are moments in the works, for example, Burnett’s use of the term “lascar” to describe Ram Dass the Indian servant (Garden), where a contemporary reader may be a little disconcerted. I have memories from childhood of the term being used if not derogatively but as somewhat dismissively of Indian door to door salesmen. I remember my mother buying a very beautiful heavy silk tablecloth from such a man. That table cloth lasted for years even though I would fiddle with its tassels. It was the sort of table cloth that went over the table merely for decorative and I suppose protective purposes: the bare wood look not entering my parents’ milieu until the early sixties. It was covered with a linen cloth when we “dined” or, more often, had formal tea parties. We usually ate in the kitchen; it was warmer. This digression, which I trust you’ll excuse, reminds me again of how societal mores change. That tablecloth was perhaps one of the last vestiges in my family of an Edwardian, even Victorian, aesthetic.

I don’t know whether my grandmother who was already in her teens when these books originally appeared ever read them, but they remain in print even though the world they portray is far more the world in which my grandmother grew up than that experienced by children today. Obviously, there is something in the ethos of the books that still touches young readers.

What I found perhaps most interesting in my response to the two books was the train of thought they elicited. I found myself thinking not only about Burnett’s books but about all those books written for children from the late nineteenth century onwards that reflect the existence of empire. The plots of the two books that I’ve read by Burnett both depend upon the existence of a colonial class. But Burnett is not alone in her use of India as a faraway place that can initiate action in England. Consider for a moment all those boarding school stories where the children’s parents are abroad, or those stories where children are thrust into a kind of independence because parents are building bridges, for example, somewhere abroad. Not only does “abroad” function as a kind of “other” an unknown but rather dangerous place, too dangerous for children anyway, it also sets the children from abroad somewhat apart, unshackled by ties of family life. I only wish I could remember more specific titles from my childhood reading. I just remember being unsurprised as a child to read about children whose parents were abroad. Of course, the reality for those children whose parents really were abroad and who were sent “home” at sometimes amazingly young ages was anything but exciting, and several of Jane Gardam’s works reflect insightfully on this situation.

The other issue I found myself wondering after considering the two Burnett novels together was to what extent did Burnett who though born in Britain lived in the States and wrote initially for an American market reflect American ambivalence towards the English class system as perceived from the other side of the Atlantic. What would I discover if I turned my attention to a detailed comparative analysis of the works of Frances Hodgson Burnett and Henry James? I was unsurprised to find that I’m not alone in thinking this way. Even an initial, superficial internet search linking Burnett and James sets one off down a rather interesting path, and here’s a link to the site I visited first: http://novel.dukejournals.org/content/44/2/229.abstract. You may wish to go further than I. Burnett is also often compared with the English writer E. Nesbit. It may be a matter simply of personal taste, but I prefer E. Nesbit. On the whole, I find her world view somewhat less saccharine than Burnett’s, and her magic is actually magic in the sense of fantasy such as magic carpets, a phoenix, a psammead, and so forth. Burnett’s magic is, if I dare say it, a rather puritan magic, the magic of belief in oneself. For me, while I appreciate that belief in oneself and the discipline to set oneself moral goals is of great value, I, nevertheless, do really enjoy the odd magic carpet ride.

On that note, I will stop. I had intended this post to be a short one, but it has grown; however, the sub-title of my blog is The Ramblings of a Reader. This ramble has come to an end.

 

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