Top 100 Children’s Novels #56: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
At eight, I found nothing as exciting as a poor mistreated orphan. Swoon! – Anna Ruhs
I read this again fairly recently and couldn’t capture the sense of wonder that I had as a child, but refreshing the story in my mind was enough to make me remember falling in love with a book. – Pam Coughlan
Ah, the Burnett begins! Last time we clocked A Little Princess in at #27. This time it’s #56. Notice how so many books have fallen in their ranks? What can account for their replacements? Heh heh. You’ll see . . .
The plot description from the publisher reads, “In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic tale, Sara Crewe learns that deep down, being a real princess is an attitude of the heart. She is a gifted and well-mannered child, and Captain Crewe, her father, is an extraordinary wealthy man. Miss Minchin, headmistress of Sara’s new boarding school in London, is pleased to treat Sara her star pupil as a pampered little princess. But one day, Sara’s father dies, and her world suddenly collapses around her. However, Sara does not break, and with the help of a monkey, an Indian lascar, and the strange, ailing gentleman next door, she not only survives her sufferings but helps those around her.”
There were actually three versions of this story in the end. Says Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers, in the publication St. Nicholas the short story, “Sara Crewe [Or What Happened at Miss Minchin’s?] first appeared in 1887. It was a story drawing on some of her experiences as a child at the Miss Hadfields’ school in Manchester, but was set in London. Like nearly all Burnett’s stories, its theme is the reversal of fortune.” Still. It wasn’t quite enough. Burnett would later say, “Between the lines of every story there is another story. … When I wrote Sara Crewe I guessed that a great deal more had happened at Miss Minchin’s than I had time to find out just then.” In 1902 Burnett turned the story of Sara Crewe into a play. “The following year, her editor at Scribner’s came up with the suggestion that she write a new, longer version of the book under the play’s title, A Little Princess, incorporating the new material she had introduced in the play. He wanted the book quickly, the play was still running and sales would be splendid. Fortunately at that point Burnett was committed to two other plays. The book was not rushed and was not finally finished until November 1904.”
Of course, one has to mention the use of Ram Dass, the Indian servant who brings Sara such magic. As Eileen Connell pointed out in the article Playing House: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Victorian Fairy Tale that “Like other discourses of this period, the story represents India as the locus of the exotic. In doing so, Burnett obscures the reality that the imperialist exploitation of India contributed significantly to the economic expansion in nineteenth-century Great Britain that both produced and upheld the ideology of separate spheres informing British domestic life . . . Instead of representing an Indian who gratefully receives the fruits of English civilization, Burnett constructs an Indian who gives Sara the services and commodities representing his subjugation to a country that robs his own country of its resources.”
On the flip side, Mitali Perkins had a loving ode to the book in her Paper Tigers piece Books Can Shape a Child’s Heart. After recounting her own childhood response to Sara’s unselfishness when she was nine, Mitali writes, “I read The Little Princess aloud to our twins when they were nine. We reached the narrative about Sara giving away those fresh-baked pieces of bread, and my voice quavered a bit, but I powered through to the end of the chapter. The room was quiet with that listening stillness easily recognized by every reading parent or teacher. Looking up, I saw the thoughtfulness in the boys’ expressions and the compassion in their eyes. I didn’t comment, and we moved on. But I knew that once again, Burnett’s powerful story had accomplished its heart-shaping work. We were one step closer to our goal of raising children to change the world.”
There are too many covers out there to show them all, but here at least is a smattering:
There have been many cinematic versions of the movie over the years. First and foremost, the Shirley Temple version. I love this trailer partly because of the grossly interjected romance.
For my part, I best remember the 1995 version of the film.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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