Little Lord Fauntleroy, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Being a fan of the literature of Frances Hodgson Burnett in general , it is not hard not to read Little Lord Fauntleroy without speculating a little on the psychodrama of this children’s literature classic (albeit a classic that somehow I have not read until this time). Besides the fact that the heroes and heroines of Burnett’s writings are often called “queer” (see also how often this is spoken of Sara Crewe in A Little Princess), something that is a little unnerving to the modern reader, there are other odd aspects of this book. For one, it is a well known fact that the eponymous Little Lord Fauntleroy was based off of Mrs. Burnett’s second son, Vivian, of remarkable politeness. It is also easy to suspect that the model for the much put-upon and not very sociable (but blessed with a social conscience) widow Mrs. Errol was the authoress herself, based on her biography.
It is to be admitted that Little Lord Fauntleroy is a far more slight novel than either The Secret Garden or A Little Princess. The plot is a classic fish-out-of-water tale. A beautiful and proper young man is raised by a poor but virtuous mother after the early death of his father. The young boy is gallant towards his grieving and somewhat frail and sensitive mother and has an unselfish and generous heart, emotionally intuitive to the needs of his small and rather ordinary local New York City working class community, full of boot-blackers and grocers and bricklayers.
This idyllic world is changed forever when young Cedric Erroll is found to be the only surviving heir of a greedy, gouty, and crotchety old Earl who has never loved or thought highly of anyone in his life. Not surprisingly, the young lord’s grace and brave spirit captivate everyone, including the hard-hearted earl, his cynical lawyer, and his terrified servants through his graciousness and good breeding (for lack of a better term), despite his origins as a provincial American supposedly thought to be savages in the worldview of the British of the time (see also Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers or Henry James’ The American for a slightly more mature portrayal of this same problem).
Of course, there is a twist, when a rival claimant to the title of heir to the Earldom of Dorincourt is found, and little Errol’s friends have to save the day to preserve his dignity in the face of a legal trial over precedence. This being a late Victorian children’s novel, everything ends happily and well, but even though the novel as a whole is fairly slight, it is still an enjoyable read for a picture of how a warm-hearted and generous and gallant person can melt through the cold exteriors of the cynical adults. More skeptical readers will note that Little Lord Fauntleroy is especially generous with the property of others, making him a prototype of the type of socialist do-gooder that has plagued Western Civilization since the Progressive Era. Even slight children’s novels can provide telling political insights for those who are so inclined to search them out.