Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Middle Grade Classics: A Little Princess

This is the cover from the first edition in 1905

Title: A Little Princess
Author: Frances Hodgson Burnett
Publisher: Warne Published in 1905, expanded from the serialized novel, Sarah Crewe, published in St. Nicholas Magazine in 1888.
I read the

When the wealthy Captain Crewe brings his little daughter Sarah back from India to go to school in London, she is the prize boarder at Miss Minchin's boarding school. But when he dies and leaves her penniless, Miss Minchin turns Sarah into an unpaid drudge for the school. Sarah's resolve to always be a "princess" in spirit is sorely tested before everything resolves itself into a happy ending.

I won't pretend this is the first time I've read this book. For all it's dated and follows a stereotypical pattern (unbelievably good child keeps shining through tribulation and is given a great reward as a result), I  love the story, and I've read it many times. (Oddly, I don't think I ever read it when I was a child). Maybe I want to believe in happy endings. I love that Sarah uses her imagination to escape her intolerable reality, and that she can spin stories well enough to carry others away with her. The descriptions of the child's suffering of mind and body are moving to the point of pathos, but I have always been able to immerse myself in the story and enjoy it on it's own terms. And that is what is needed to enjoy this, as it is for many children's classics.

The lessons about generosity and selflessness ring a little old-fashioned (or at least heavy-handed, since after all, we might hope that generosity isn't an outdated virtue!), but the lesson about the power of imagination is one that every writer has long since learned.

For fans of orphan stories and hard-luck school stories, as well as those who want to explore the classics of children's literature. The language will feel a bit odd and dated to modern children, but I think that most good readers would have no problem with it. The story will almost certainly appeal primarily to girls, though the lessons aren't bad for boys, either.

Full Disclosure: I long ago purchased A Little Princess, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising." 

Further musings: 
I have been watching old DVDs of a 2002 PBS show called Manor House, in which ordinary people are recruited to fill an English manor house as it would have been in 1905. They have everybody, from the lord of the Manor to the scullery maid. And therein lies the problem, because for the most part, 21st Century folks have trouble working as servants, especially in that extremely hierarchical society. The butler has to continually remind them that even the servant's hall isn't a democracy, and they have no "right" to time off, or even to complain.

This made me think about two things. One was Sarah Crewe and how she copes with her sudden shift from, effectively, lady of the manor to scullery maid (and those descriptions of her working 14 and 16 hours a day at a very tender age appear to be simply statement of fact as life was lived then). Now, being a child, she may in one sense adapt more easily than an adult (kids do tend to adapt to a new reality pretty quickly), but of course, her gracious acceptance is also exaggerated to show her noble personality.

The other thing I thought about was my own brief excursion into the servant's life. When I finished my undergraduate studies, I spent a winter working as an au paire in Monaco (!). Now, in some families, the au paire is part of the family. I drew a more wealthy family, where I definitely felt that I was seen as a servant. Shall we simply say that the experience suggests that I would have been one of the less successful "servants" in the Manor House? It's no small thing for a person who has grown up with a firm belief in equality to suddenly find themselves decidedly not equal. And that may be a good thing, outside of historical re-enactments.  As we used to say when I was an undergrad, "Question Authority!"


  1. I wrote a long, insightful and interesting comment, which Blogger promptly ate. The anti-propaganda gremlins muct be active. Enjoyed the review(s), anyway. :)

    1. Ah, if I had all the brilliant comments I have lost to the beasts of the internet! But now I'm dying to know what you said!

  2. "I love that Sarah uses her imagination to escape her intolerable reality..." - this is why I am such a bookworm. Not because I live in an intolerable reality, but because it's so much more fun to have a great storyteller help me escape (if only for a little while) into a fanciful world. Thank you for sharing your review at the Kidlit Blog Hop.

    1. YES! I love having other people come up with the alternative worlds, though I obviously also enjoy making my own.

  3. Sounds like a beautiful story and I love that it teaches important lessons. Thanks for sharing!


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