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Review: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

a little princess Review: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Having thoroughly enjoyed my re-read of The Secret Garden'earlier this year (see my review), Ive set about acquainting myself with the rest of Frances Hodgson Burnetts work, beginning with her famous A Little Princess. Curiously, there are a number of shared themes between the two books, but in my mind'A Little Princess'draws more on the tropes of the boarding school genre than it does on that in which The Secret Garden'(as well as books such as Heidi'[see my review] and Anne of Green Gables [my review forthcoming]) fallsthe orphaned child in care subgenre, perhaps.

Like The Secret Garden, A Little Princess'begins with the transplanting of a young girl from India to England with a view of beginning a new life. But given the vastly divergent natures of the protagonists of the novels, the goals, and thus outcomes, of these works are in substantial contrast. In The Secret Garden, headstrong Mary Lennox undergoes massive and emotional growth as a result of her interaction with the natural world, while in A Little Princess, Sara Crewe is tasked with retaining the moral and emotional qualities she has always exhibited.

Unlike Princess Mary, so named for her bratty and selfish disposition, Sara, the titular princess of A Little Princess, is level-headed and almost uncannily aware. Where Mary reacts emotionally and unthinkingly, Saras typical response to any sort of stimuli is inaction. Her efforts are on maintaining the status quo and on avoiding confrontation, and she conducts herself flawlessly. Her conduct, of course, is in stark contrast with that of the adults around herrather amusing given that Saras well-meaning father has sent her to England with the expressed intention of her learning English customs and comportment.

Like Mary, whose bratty behaviour sees her immediately given outsider status in her new household, Saras impeccable manners and inscrutable manner sees the same happen to her: she is immediately sized up by boarding school owner Miss Minchin as a threat. The two participate in a power struggle throughout the book, with Miss Minchin using her position as an adult to cow Saraand Saras impassive nature only encourages further mistreatment.

Sara is initially in the odd position of being a sort of odd adult-child amalgam, and this is perhaps the issue Miss Minchin struggles with most. Saras wealthy father has asserted that she is to have everything that she desires, elevating her to the status of lady of means despite her youth, and Saras perspicacity and quickness of mind sees her veer further into the adult sphere, challenging Miss Minchins authority.

And indeed, things become more strained between the two as Mary takes on a sort of guardianship role over not just her fellow students, but also of the serving staff, undermining and to a degree even usurping Miss Minchin. But Sara is so very good, and Miss Minchin has no form of recourse with which to challenge her new student. Saras fees, of course, are exorbitant, and thus the child is not only undermining Miss Minchin, but shes also keeping her in business, making for a rather delicate situation indeed.

But, as Sara notes, she is only so good because she has never lacked for anything. (And here comes a lesson in being careful for what one wishes for). Of course, the fates move in narratively appropriate ways, and Saras father is promptly dead, and Sara (as a result of a rather complicated series of events involving diamond mines and greed) is a penniless orphan.

Miss Minchin, of course, seizes on this in delight. The circumstances of Saras newfound poverty can easily be associated with moral desultoriness arising from greed, and Miss Minchin sets about tarring Sara with her cruel schoolmarms brush. Sara is reduced to a virtual slave, and Miss Minchin is able to take the moral high ground through her endless assertions that shes helping the child by keeping a roof over her head.

But despite these endless tests of her moral fabric, Sara doesnt waver (although I have to admit, I really wish that she had). Though she has lost the physical trappings of her pseudo-adulthood, she still retains the moral and emotional elements of the same, and throws herself into her habit of caring for the others in the school to an even greater degree. (Of course, this also involves having regular and ongoing conversations with a family of rats hidden in the wall, and increasingly common flights of fancyperhaps Saras simply a tad unhinged throughout all of this?)

Saras admirable performance in such trying circumstances requires that she be rescued and returned to a status more fitting of her behaviour, and yes, youre probably not surprised to find that this is so. But despite this inexorable lead-up to an inevitable ending, its hard not to be fascinated by everything that happens. I think in part this is because Sara is less of a character than she is a mirror'(something which also occurs in Little Lord Fauntleroy, which Ill review shortly).

Because Sara always takes the moral high ground, its clearly evident when those around her do not, and we are given a fascinating picture of how others act when confronted by this. Moreover, Saras unflinching perfection magnifies the flaws or positives in everyone with whom she interacts, making the generous seem exceptionally gregarious, and the miserlywell, bloody awful indeed.

But this absence of change in Saras character despite the evidence changes in her circumstances highlights how the material does not make a person who they are. Sara always seems rich and satisfied regardless of how challenging her circumstances, and indeed, her actions encourage those around her to behave in a way that facilitates this very satisfactioneveryone leaps to indulge or support Sara. In contrast, Miss Minchins behaviour entails that she will remain morally (and in her eyes materially) impoverished, as her actions curtail any generosity on behalf of others.

Like The Secret Garden, A Little Princess'is in general a triumph, but there are some elements that pull it down a little. Its orientialism, while of course reflecting the sentiments of the day, is somewhat teeth-grinding, and while I understand the need for Saras unvarying perfection, occasionally one wishes shed be a little more humanits rather hard to feel much for a saint.

Still, its a beautifully written book, and one that stays with the reader and spurs them to discussion (my poor fiance has heard more about this book than he ever wanted to). Read in tandem with some of the others noted above, or even alongside others from the boarding school genre mentioned above, it makes for some food for thought indeed.

Rating: star Review: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnettstar Review: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnettstar Review: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnettstar Review: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnettblankstar Review: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (excellent)

Purchase A Little Princess'from Amazon | Book Depository UK | Book Depository USA

See also our review of The Secret Garden'(Rating: star Review: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnettstar Review: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnettstar Review: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnettstar Review: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnettstar Review: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett)

Other books by Frances Hodgson Burnett:

secret garden Review: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnettlittle lord fauntleroy Review: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett





  1. Hi there,
    I enjoyed reading your review. You made an excellent critique. I clicked the like button, because it was good. Anyway good luck!

  2. Very much enjoyed this review. And I cannot agree more Sara is perfect through and through, no matter the circumstance. I also wished she would have been more human, more emotional, and though there were glimpses of that, it wasnt nearly enough.

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks for your thoughtful response, Blaqhrt. Its interesting how a perfect character can make the antagonists seem more sympathetic, thoughits perhaps a sign of my own character that I sympathised more with them than Sara!

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