A Little Princess

It might seem odd that, given that The Secret Garden is one of my all-time favourite books, if not my number one favourite, it's taken me so long to read another famous title by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Actually, I must have read A Little Princess some time in the dim and ancient past -- or if not A Little Princess itself, its predecessor, Sara Crewe. It scarcely seems possible that I could have lived so long and dodged it entirely.

Certainly the story was very familiar. Young, indulged Sara is left at a London school by her doting father, who then disappears back to India. Years pass, during which absent Papa showers Sara with gifts from afar, then tragically dies. Now plunged into penury, Sara is at the mercy of cruel Miss Minchin, and from her exalted position of richest pupil, she becomes a virtual slave, banished to the attics and half-starved while she works her fingers to the bone about the house, as well as tutoring the younger pupils as an unpaid teacher. But Sara, with the aid of her vivid imagination, always maintains her dignity and generous, loving spirit; and she is duly rewarded by the appearance of a new foster father (I was almost expecting dead Papa to come back to life, but Burnett just shies clear of this option -- just!) and a suitably fairytale ending.

A Little Princess is a Cinderella story, of course, but as I read I kept hearing echoes of other books, for which this story was surey a template. My beloved Wolves of Willoughby Chase (Joan Aiken) has tons of Little Princess in it -- the wicked schoolmistress, the tortured orphans, the magical arrival of longed-for warmth and comfort just when all seems lost. It's one of the most satisfying stories there is, which is why it keeps appearing: virtue in suffering receives its just reward. Sara is unfailingly kind, unfailingly brave, a princess in exile, and at last she is welcomed into the loving home that she has been so cruelly denied.

It struck me that there were similarities between this book and Little Lord Fauntleroy, another turn-of-last-century Burnett hit. Again, an almost perfect child is rewarded by fate by being showered with wealth, though in the little lord's case, his poverty and suffering all takes place before the book starts. The thing is, Sara is spoiled rotten by her adoring papa, her every whim indulged, but it doesn't actually spoil her; she remains thoughtful, loving and courageous, even when all her riches are stripped from her and she has nothing. Mary Lennox, in The Secret Garden, on the other hand, starts off as a most unpleasant child: sullen, sour and angry. The difference is that Mary has been neglected all her life by her beautiful, glamorous parents; she has never been loved.

I wonder if Burnett's subtext in all three books was the same. Victorian era children were often considered to be in danger of 'spoiling' if their wishes were 'indulged' - strict discipline, self-control and punishment were the order of the day. But Burnett's most loving, and loveable*, children are also those most showered with love. Even indulgent, excessive love can't ruin them; in fact, it strengthens them, and enables them to give love to others.

Modern psychology would surely agree.

*We could argue that Lord Fauntleroy is actually an obnoxious little snot, while Mary Lennox is loveable despite her prickly exterior, or even because of it; but we are clearly supposed to find Fauntleroy utterly charming, so let's leave that be!

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