“If Nature has made you for a giver, your hands are born open, and so is your heart; and though there may be times when your hands are empty, your heart is always full, and you can give things out of that—warm things, kind things, sweet things—help and comfort and laughter—and sometimes gay, kind laughter is the best help of all.”
~Sara Crewe in A Little Princess
Capt. Ralph Crewe, a young officer stationed in India, returns to England with his half-orphaned daughter, Sara, and places her in a boarding school headed up by the sycophantic Miss Minchin. Providing his little daughter with luxuries enough for a princess, Crewe returns to India, believing he has left her in good hands. Afterwards, the calculating proprietress never misses an opportunity to parade her new star pupil to other parents in order to increase her own status.
Then one day during Sara’s birthday party, Miss Minchin receives the news that Sara’s father has just died, leaving the child penniless. Outraged over her unrecoverable expenditures on Sara’s behalf, Miss Minchin has a mind to turn the child out. But then she concedes that it will reflect badly on her establishment if word gets around that she has booted a “friendless orphan” into the street. In exchange for room and board in a rat-infested attic, Sara becomes a “charity pupil,” in Miss Minchin’s “Seminary for Young Ladies.”
Sara’s determination to pretend she is a princess while reduced to rags, hunger, and mistreatment causes strangers to wonder at her fine diction and manners so unlike that of the orphans they are used to seeing. Just before Sara succumbs to despondency, an unseen friend enters her life and everything changes.
The Author and the Significance of A Little Princess
Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924), English playwright and author, wrote Sara Crewe; or, What Happened at Miss Minchin’s as a serialized novel for St. Nicholas magazine (1987-88). In 1905, she revised the story into a full-length novel, A Little Princess, though she is perhaps best remembered as the author of The Secret Garden.
It seems unarguable that Burnett infused something of her own childhood perceptions into the character of Sara Crewe. Her own father died when she was three, leaving her mother to carry on as best she could in the family’s ironmongery (hardware) business. The family’s reduced circumstances forced them to sell their home in Cheetham Hill, Manchester, and move to Salford. For a time, the family troubles were so great that Burnett was sent to be cared for by her grandparents. The possibility of complete destitution must have felt very close to Burnett at times. It was an age when dreaded diseases killed many parents, and those children who were orphaned or abandoned ended up in the orphanages, the factories, or the streets.
In 1865, Burnett and her family moved to America at the invitation of her brother who had enjoyed some financial success there. She was fifteen at the time, and when they arrived they found that the brother had fallen upon hard times himself in the aftermath of the Civil War. For that reason, he could only afford to employ one brother in his business. At his suggestion, the rest of the family settled into a log cabin near Knoxville, Tennessee, where Burnett began writing to help support the family. We might consider Burnett as much a cross-Atlantic writer as an English one, for though she lived in America for most of her life, her stories were inspired by her English memories. They spoke to a general Anglo-American sentiment of the day—that Good must triumph over Evil and that we must be on the side of Good to make it happen.
This raises a question about the content of children’s stories, which often spark narratives that guide the whole of their adult lives. What narratives should adult writers instill in children? Today’s stories place much more attention on self-acceptance and social inclusion. Yesterday’s stories, though they gave a passing nod to both of those aspects, tended to couch them as integral to the larger components of community and selfless service to others. Stories like “The Little Dutch Boy”1 and “The Little Mermaid”2 portray honor, courage, and self-sacrifice as examples worthy of esteem or emulation.
Burnett’s A Little Princess suggests that our moral capacity for choosing the Good and the True is not determined by circumstances but lies within ourselves. Her protagonist, Sara Crewe, pretends that she is really a “princess,” whether she enjoys prosperity or must endure poverty. Many little readers of the last century understood that Sara’s designation of “princess” included privilege and riches, but also obligation and integrity. In spite of the rigid Victorian ideas about one’s “station in life,” evidenced in Sara’s social exclusion from the other girls after she becomes a menial worker, the 19th century was a time of great change where human life at every social level was perceived as having value.
Many a 20th-century schoolgirl read and re-read A Little Princess religiously. Likely, some even slept with the book under a pillow — it was that popular. As a mouthpiece of a Christian culture to its children, the story no doubt brought to mind the Golden Rule3 spoken of by Jesus, and parts of it are even vaguely reminiscent of the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux4 such as Sara’s dialogue with herself:
“If I WAS a princess—a REAL princess,” she murmured, “I could scatter largess to the populace. But even if I am only a pretend princess, I can invent little things to do for people. … I’ll pretend that to do things people like is scattering largess.”
Sara understands that her self-appointed status of “princess” is embodied more in her doings, than in her pretendings. To her, such a status insists upon valuing others, showing compassion, having better manners and more integrity than one’s tormentors — and so the child shows up the hypocrisy of the adults in charge of the school, becoming the champion along the way of children even needier than herself.
A Memorable Scene from Sara’s Birthday Party
One of the most revealing scenes of this book comes during Sara’s birthday party just before she learns of the death of her father. Sara has befriended a scullery maid named Becky who, in truth, is little older than Sara herself with none of the privileges. Becky has just been ordered from the room by Miss Minchin, since her social station does not allow her to participate in the festivities and mix with the other girls. Still, Sara wishes to let Becky see − if only from a distance − the beautiful presents her father has sent. She pleads with Miss Minchin to let Becky stay if only to watch from a distant corner:
“I want her because I know she will like to see the presents,” she explained. “She is a little girl, too, you know.”
Miss Minchin was scandalized. She glanced from one figure to the other.
“My dear Sara,” she said, “Becky is the scullery maid. Scullery maids—er—are not little girls.”
It really had not occurred to her to think of them in that light. Scullery maids were machines who carried coal scuttles and made fires.
Although the main children in the story may seem a little sappy at times to our contemporary sensibilities, the sentiments regarding social values and the inherent worth of every individual are not. This book will still delight readers (especially females) of any age who believe that personal choice has the power to change the fabric of the whole. In the end, Sara Crewe’s attention to excellence of character and purpose prevails. Good wins over evil, kindness over injustice, mercy over judgment, and authenticity over hypocrisy.
1. The story of “The Little Dutch Boy” actually appears as a fictional story, “The Hero of Haarlem,” within the book Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland by Mary Mapes Dodge (1865). In the story, a little boy passes by a dike that has sprung a leak. To save a town from inundation, he sticks his finger in the hole and stays there all night until the townsfolk discover him there and plug up the leak. Afterwards, they proclaim him a hero. The nugget of the tale is, “Even the little children in Holland know that constant watchfulness is required to keep the rivers and ocean from overwhelming the country…”
2. The original story of “The Little Mermaid” was written as a ballet by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837. A little mermaid saves a prince from drowning and takes him, while he is still unconscious, to the shore. She falls in love with him though he never sees her. In order to be with him, she must become human, and only after he falls in love with her will she gain a human soul. Although she fails in her quest to make him love her, through her good deeds she becomes one of the “daughters of the air” with a chance to obtain an immortal soul by continuing to do good deeds for 300 years.
3. The Golden Rule is popularly summarized as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The words spoken by Jesus Christ are recorded in their fuller form in Matthew 7:12: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets. (KJV)”
4. St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) was a French Carmelite nun, sometimes known as “The Little Flower of Jesus.” Her “little way” was based on manifesting the love of God to people in everyday lives and circumstances. This could be shown in the smallest tasks done for others wherein God’s love would be revealed through mercy and forgiveness. Additionally, He would be experienced by the doer as “merciful love” itself.
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett is available online through Project Gutenberg at http://gutenberg.org in several forms, both audio and e-book.
Resler, Johanna Elizabeth. “Sara’s Transformation: A Textual Analysis of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Sara Crewe and A Little Princess.” M.A. thesis. Indiana University, 2007.