A Little Princess
by Frances Hodgson Burnett
as an expanded story on a previous short story called Sara Crewe: or, What Happened at Miss Minchin’s (1887 – 1888)
first published in 1905
first read Dec 20th – 25th 2014
Sara Crewe, the only daughter of Captain Crewe and his deceased wife, was born in India and lived with her father until she was five years old. The book opens when Captain Crewe reluctantly places his dear daughter and uplifting companion in Miss Minchin’s Seminary for Young Ladies. Sara, even though only seven years old, is a quiet, steady and serious child who loves to read and make up wonderful stories. Her father delights in her “queer” remarks.
Sara is treated as a “show pupil” at Miss Minchin’s because the headmistress (Miss Minchin) knows her father is a young, wealthy captain willing to pay a lot to the school that sees his daughter comfortable and well-settled. She has the best rooms, beautiful clothes, a lot of expensive toys and adults who shower praises. Yet she does not grow up a spoiled, selfish child – just the opposite. Instead, she sees through Miss Minchin’s fakeness, finds a friend in the school’s scullery maid, Becky, becomes a substitute mother to a five-year-old girl, and becomes best friends with Ermengarde, who is shunned because she is physically not attractive and can’t keep her lessons in her head. Sara continues to make up delightful, enticing stories to amuse herself and her friends.
The tragedy strikes (more than one-third into the book but less than one-half) when her father dies in India after having lost his entire fortune, leaving Sara a penniless orphan. Miss Minchin bans her to the attic so she can be ordered around as a maid for everything.
Sara Crewe was and is not an easy character to relate to. For a young girl of seven and later nine years old (the latter when her papa dies), Sara is remarkably well-composed, polite, intelligent, and wise beyond her years. She is what one might called “old soul, I suppose. At the same time, she has a vivid imagination and is a wonderful storyteller – the kind that draws even the most reluctant people in. With so much goodness in one person, how believable can the person be?
Of course, there’s the turning point when she loses all her privileges and has to work hard and hungry. I wanted a more in-depth examination of Sara’s feelings and reactions towards the downright nasty Miss Minchin and the downstairs staff. She is worn out, tired and sometimes cross, but all in all Sara bears these hardships quietly and with dignity. She pretends that she is a prisoner in the Bastille, that she is a penniless princess who gives bread to even hungrier children when she herself is so hungry she can feel a constant gnawing ache in her stomach. She is polite to the people who say mean, harsh things and make her work like a slave. She never admits to anybody how exhausted, hungry and weepy she feels inside because of her “proud little heart”. … and she is still only nine years old.
A Little Princess was directed at children, so I understand Frances Hodgson Burnett wanted to simplify human emotions and human nature, and that she wanted to set a sort of example for the children, or something. But I still wish Sara were a bit more flawed like Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden.
But even though my inability to fully embrace Sara Crewe as a fleshed-out character, A Little Princess has its charms. The descriptions of both materialistic and the nature is both simple and beautiful. There are many small, odd moments that leave sharp impressions and can be pieced together to recall the story to my mind.
I don’t think Sara fully realizes this, but as her situation becomes bleak and she becomes emotionally deprived, she starts to emotionally rely on living creatures instead of her doll, Emily. The sparrows, Melchisedec and his family, even the monkey. And of course Becky, Ermengarde and Lottie. Even the people she keeps tabs on by observing their lives. It’s quite heart-breaking. And I have to think of Becky, who has had it worse than Sara and who is just as emotionally deprived. But her struggles are kind of dismissed as secondary because… because what? Because her life has been constantly hard? Because she can’t read and write and thus doesn’t feel the emptiness as acutely? Because she’s “stupid”?
I would like to have Becky’s character to be more than the stereotypical “simple, hard-working and protagonist-worshipping maid”. Same goes for Ermengarde, although she is the daughter of a wealthy man.