Frances Hodgson Burnett, by Phyllis Bixler
It is one of the strange and unpleasant aspects of literary history over the past century at least that there has been such a sharp divide between mass literature and high literature. To the extent that Frances Hodgson Burnett is remembered these days, it is mostly for three novels that she wrote for children: Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess, and The Secret Garden . She wrote much more than that, it must be admitted, but even as someone who is fond of at least two of her three most favorite works, I must admit that I have not read any more of her work than these, although this book definitely made me want to read more of those works, to ponder upon Burnett’s tension between needing to make an income and being a capable genre writer and wanting to have a lasting reputation, made difficult as a writer because of her absence of education and how much writing literary fiction took out of her. The author makes a case that Burnett should be remembered not only for her children’s work but also as a writer of romance and melodrama and as someone whose life richly informs her works and provides interpretation of the struggles within characters as well as the tensions within the plots of many of her stories.
This book is a bit more than 100 pages and is divided into five chapters. The author begins with some notes about the author, then moves on to a preface, acknowledgements, and a chronology of the life of her subject. After that the author discusses the woman and the writer, two ways of looking at Frances Hodgson Burnett that can prove to illuminate the other (1). After that there is a discussion of the first period of Burnett’s writing as she moved from a young writer of magazine fiction to someone who could competently handle realistic novels, in the period from 1868-1884 (2). After this the author transitions to Burnett’s popular romances for children and adults in the period from 1885-1899 as her first marriage fell apart and she entered a second and ill-advised one (3). After that the author explores Burnett’s late period of fairy stories for children and adults from 1900-1924, which included some notable works as well as some of her least accomplished material (4). The author closes with a discussion of the considerable achievement of Frances Hodgson Burnett (5) as well as notes and references, a selected bibliography, and an index.
Frances Hodgson Burnett was a “new woman” of the Victorian period who struggled to both be a loving mother and to be respected as a creative person and also a successful writer. She struggled in her marriages, dealt with some serious mental health issues, and sought to find and support a worldview that promoted the power of positive thinking as a way of overcoming life’s difficulties and also a belief in beneficent divine providence that would make everything work out alright in the end. The author’s own fairy tale thinking made her a successful writer of romances for children and adults, but that is not the sort of writing that tends to give one a lasting literary reputation, so her more serious literary efforts, some of which were apparently quite striking for her time, like Under One Administration, have been forgotten and she has received no credit for having at least been able to write serious literary fiction even if she turned after that to work that she could write easier and more profitably. Can she be blamed for that? This author provides enough evidence of Burnett’s ability to work with her fiction in a way not too dissimilar from figures like Henry James, Kate Chopin, Henry Adams, and George MacDonald suggests that she deserves a better historical reputation than she has received thus far.
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