Little Lord Fauntleroy, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, 149 pages
Orig. Publication: 1877.
Source: Library e-book.
This less-read work by the author of The Secret Garden follows the fortunes of young Cedric Errol, an American boy whose English father died when he was very young, leaving him and his mother to get on as best they can. But when Ceddie is seven, an astonishing thing happens: it is revealed (to him; his mother knew all along) that his father was the youngest son of the Earl of Dorincourt. Further, it seems that his father's two older brothers have both died without having sons, and Ceddie is now Lord Fauntleroy, heir to the earldom. Transplanted to England and the home of his crusty, selfish, self-indulgent grandfather, Cedric is too pure and innocent to see anything but good in others (even his dreadful grandfather), and so brings about a miraculous transformation, with a little more help from fate.
As you can tell from my summary, the book is in some ways deserving of the reputation it has, though it by no means deserves it all. I grew up knowing that a "little lord fauntleroy" was an over-dressed kid and probably a stuck-up prig into the bargain. Actually, neither is true taken in context of the book. Cedric's mother dresses him as nicely as she can, in the fashion of the time for a boy of good family, and this is continued when he comes to England. But little of the book's focus is on his clothing.
It is Cedric's pure nature that is the focus of the book, and here the criticism is somewhat more deserved. No child ever was or could be so pure, innocent, and good. He's not awful; I've seen worse in the literature from the period, but he lacks that imperfect humanity that makes Mary in Secret Garden someone we can like and relate too. The only reason Cedric isn't too perfect to live is that he is so naive. I mean, really. He lived seven years on the tough streets of New York and never noticed that not everyone is good?
And yet. I can't despise him. I can't like him as well as I like Mary, because he's just not enough of a human being (being only 7 is probably part of that. He's just too young to be that interesting, especially as Burnett wrote his naivete more like he was five). But I can't despise him. I still rooted for him, and was glad when he got to keep his title and his inheritance. Besides, unless he's totally spoiled, which is definitely a possibility (and no wonder the Earl's own sons mostly turned out badly if his idea of parenting is to give a boy whatever he wants, and no school as far as I can tell!) he'll be an improvement over his grandfather as manager of the estate.
Of Burnett's three books, this one does the least for me, largely because not only does Cedric not have a personality developed as fully as Mary or Sarah Crewe (A Little Princess), but he doesn't really have any adversity to overcome. And that, more than his too-good nature, I think is the root of the problem of this book. It might almost stand as a cautionary tale for those of us who hate to make our characters suffer. Because, as our mothers all told us, suffering builds character(s). Without some kind of challenge that the protagonist himself must overcome, you just have a bunch of things happening to a bit of fluff in the wind.
Full disclosure: I borrowed this book from the library and received nothing from the author or the publisher for this review. The opinions expressed herein are my own and those of no one else.