As a sixth-grader, looking at the absurd pink cover of “A Little Princess” with its picture of a little girl dressed in a ridiculously frilly dress, my first impressions were anything but positive. In fact, if I had not been required to read the book, I may never have bothered with it. Nonetheless, my negative first impression of the book quickly changed into an appreciation of a classic which had much to tell me. Finding myself very similar in temperament and personality to the plucky heroine, Sara Crewe, I quickly became very fond of the book, and still reread it from time to time.
What was it in that book, seemingly pigeonholed as a late-Victorian children’s novel for girls, that was able to reach me? It is the purpose of this book review of sorts to examine the lasting impact of a children’s classic on my life, and to pay homage to the creativity and imagination of its author. In rereading the novel, one finds new layers and realizations that were not obvious before, even as one remembers what made it so enjoyable to read the first time. As a children’s classic, “A Little Princess” has a lot of emotional depth, and there are aspects of the novel that I relate to better now than I did when I first read it.
For one, I relate very deeply to the protagonist of the novel, Sara Crewe. This greatly aids in endearing a book to a reader. Both Sara and I have been drastically affected by the loss of a father. My father had been largely absent during my childhood anyway, but his death made Sara’s situation after the death of her father even more poignant. Sara is a serious young lady full of old-fashioned speeches, a quiet sense of stubbornness, and a healthy gift for story-telling and imagination. The same could be said for me. We both devour books, enjoy teaching others, think ourselves ugly, have solemn gray-green eyes, and struggle to control our temper. We are both cultured but abhor snobbery and treat small children and animals very tenderly and gently. In Sara I recognized a kindred spirit, a young person struggling to maintain her dignity and sense of worth despite the abuse of others. And one can draw encouragement from her success, even if it does not depend merely on her own efforts.
A Little Princess is, in fact, a novel about providence. Initially, Sara views her time as a pampered schoolgirl as a soldierly test to be overcome. She prefers to be around her loving and affectionate father and enjoys the company of adults more than gossip with her fellow children. Nonetheless, she is not sure whether she is a good child merely because she has been blessed with wealth and intelligence, since her life has (in her eyes) lacked trials. When her wealth is taken away, suddenly, by the death of her father due to jungle fever (combined with a nervous breakdown), she becomes a scullery maid. She is bossed around and teased, but never loses her dignity. She rightly judges that to refuse to respond to abuse with anger demonstrates that she is more powerful than her tormentors. There are obvious Christian parallels here. Likewise, Sara’s comparing of her fate with innocent prisoners in the Bastille and the Count of Monte Cristo give her a context for her suffering and show her in her mind that she is not alone. But most importantly, her dignity even in desperate positions brings her to the attention of other generous people. In giving rolls to a starving street urchin, she is herself the means of deliverance for Anne. She also draws the attention of an Indian servant Ram Dass, who manages to turn her dingy attic room into a room fit for a princess. Eventually, she is providentially guided to her ward and guardian, the friend and business partner of her father, who is able to provide her with the blessings of wealth, love, and security. She, in turn, provides the means for his emotional healing. This is all done providentially, without conscious planning, but with amazing results. It is a well-earned happy ending for a deserving little princess.
As a child, I did not necessarily understand all of that in my mind. But I could feel it in my heart all the same. If such a gloriously happy ending was possible for Sara, perhaps it was also possible for me. Perhaps someday others would get to see me as the prince I was inside. That day has not yet come, but perhaps it shall. Until it does, having a good imagination is necessary. This life is unbearable without the ability to draw courage and hope from one’s dreams. It was true of my life as a child, and it is no less true now.
Besides providing me with what I hoped was an example of the sort of future success may come my way, there were also practical lessons to be taken from “A Little Princess.” For one, it taught me how to box someone’s ears, a useful technique for disabling one’s foes in a fight that has largely been forgotten. Likewise, the novel was also a very practical guide to understanding the mindset of some people. The worst villains in “A Little Princess,” behave in similar ways. Miss Minchin and Livinia are snobby people whose opinion of others is based on their (net) worth, and who enjoy dominating other people. Their search for power and control corrupts them, and they are aided by others (like Jesse and Miss Amelia) who are not evil themselves, but are under the sway of others. The cook, who steals food, gives it to her policeman “friend,” and blames it on Becky, is another villain. Again, it is the love of control (her bullying of Sara and Becky) and her dishonesty that bring her down. The book comes down harshly on those who appear respectable but are really not, a distinction not often made in the real world.
“A Little Princess” also excels in its description of frequent characters who feel as if they are in an alien world. Sara, like the helpful lascar (Indian manservant) and his monkey, is more at home in India than in England. Sara is an alien both in the world of gossiping aristocratic young women as well as the world of uneducated scullery maids. Monsiur Defarge is an alien in London, teaching French to pretentious young women who lack Sara’s gentle charm. The book, over and over again, shows people who belong somewhere else, soldiering on to find the place they belong. Clearly, this novel was created by an author very sensitive to her sense of place. Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in England, but the death of her father led to her family’s loss of financial solvency, and they moved to Appalachia to seek the generosity of a relative. When that was denied, Frances supported her family by writing stories, which earned her fame but also a lot of gossip from the press. Perhaps she, too, struggled to control her temper as she read hostile articles about her personal life in the tabloids of the time. Frances, too, was an alien in a hostile world, but her work endures.
What makes “A Little Princess” a genuine classic work of literature is that it speaks deeply and movingly about the lives of a particular type of child, one sensitive to goodness and justice and feelings of being a misfit in a hostile world. That so much well-known children’s literature writes about such themes suggests a deep need for children to draw strength from books. How refreshing it is to find a heroine in this novel who is shown as both powerful and good, as an example to emulate in Christian love as well as self-control. Sarah is not a plaster saint, but like her doll Emily is a character who feels alive, almost as if she was a real person. She is someone I would appreciate as a friend and as a daughter, and someone who (when somewhat older) would be very attractive to me even now.