A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The first time I read this book I was in the sixth grade, and it was a book I was required to read for English class, a task I was not enthusiastic about because I was an eleven year old boy and the book had a ludicrous pink cover and was obviously very girly. Of course, once I read the book I greatly appreciated it, and in a variety of ways it helped me gain a considerable amount of empathy for a fictional young woman in Sara Crewe that I judged to be greatly like myself. For teaching me how to box someone’s ears (a skill I have used occasionally when fighting) and for helping me to develop my compassion and empathy for women, this book has certainly been an important one for me. For this particular time reading the book, which is at least the third or fourth time I have read it all the way through, I read it in order to reflect upon its intense view of creativity, and the book was certainly useful in that way, as there are at least two different ways where creativity is used to great effect, and they are worth exploring in some detail.
As far as books go, this book has a classic U-shaped melodramatic structure that bears a close relationship to the author’s own childhood and the struggles that she faced. We begin with Sara Crewe as a pampered and petted daughter of a British soldier in the Indian Raj who has sent his precious and very intelligent princess of a daughter to a private school to be finished and prepared for adulthood. Throughout the novel her imaginative and “queer” (the author uses this word repeatedly to describe her) ways draw her the friendship of other marginalized students and the jealousy of the mean girl who was the previous show pupil. Of course, her father dies leaving her alone in the world and impoverished, and cruel Miss Minchin makes her into a servant and a drudge, even though she maintains her class and dignity and generosity and imagination to endure the cold and hunger and humiliation of her experience. Finally, in a dramatic scene, she is recognized for who she is and gains an adoptive uncle in her late father’s business partner and is removed from the school and placed in a much better situation, likely to be privately educated with the children of her barrister.
The book, which might not pass muster given contemporary social views, has some rather strident views about creativity. For one, it shows creativity as being the result of a great deal of education and self-education, and Sara Crewe herself is shown as being both a bright child and a ravenous reader, able to appreciate solitary time for thinking and reflecting as well as being outgoing and sociable while remaining an eccentric individual at the same time. The author praises her freethinking ways, including some rather inventive stories about heaven and her tolerance of Eastern religion from her experience with lascars abroad. The creative people are Ram Dass, the clever lascar, as well as Carrisford and Sara Crewe, both elite English of considerable intelligence. Burnett portrays creativity as coming from certain cultural or religious backgrounds with a high degree of education and a passion for learning, and not something that is common among everyday people. Even so, there is a great deal to appreciate here and a lot of creativity shown especially by Sara in making her experience less lonely and less deprived and easier to cope with through the fecund resources of her imagination.