"...it has nothing to do with what you look like, or what you have. It has only to do with what you think of, and what you do." --Sara Crewe (on being a princess)
For many reasons, Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess was a favorite of mine growing up. When I found myself woefully behind on the Cannonball Read, I thought revisiting it would be a good way to catch up while seeing how well a childhood favorite held up over time. Much to my relief and delight, I was not disappointed. Burnett's style, while florid, is intelligent enough to appeal to adult readers as well as children. Like Dickens' work, her story pulls no punches, either. The often fatally harsh living conditions for impoverished English children of the early twentieth century are brought painfully to life, as well as the capriciousness of fortune. Within the bleak narrative, Hodgson provides a stoic little heroine whose methods of coping provide valuable lessons to children and adults alike.
One of the things I loved most about the book as a child was that it didn't flinch from sharing ugly truths with me. It is a common and understandable habit in grown ups to try to shield their children from unpleasant ideas or unhappy stories. However, this is not always helpful for some children. As the child of a bipolar alcoholic with a volatile, violent temper, I was frustrated by storytellers who sugar-coated their interpretation of the world and the people in it. At best, it felt like they were trying to distract me with a poorly wrought illusion. At worst, they left me feeling even more isolated, as if I was solitary in my predicament and resulting unhappiness. It made me feel different, odd, and full of self-doubt.
Read at age 8, A Little Princess was a revelation for me. Its heroine, Sara Crewe, is well-loved by her kind, wealthy father, who sends her to a school for girls while he pursues a mining investment in a distant jungle. On her eleventh birthday, the school's gold-digging headmistress Miss Minchin receives word that Sara's father has died penniless from a sudden illness, leaving the girl an orphan with no money or prospective guardians. Upon this news, Miss Minchin makes Sara a servant, takes away all of her belongings save for a few shabby, outgrown dresses, and sends her to live in the cold, dilapidated attic. From there, it only gets worse. Miss Minchin starves Sara, denies her fire or decently warm clothes in the wintertime, works her past the point of exhaustion, calls her abusive names, and beats her. Whats more, she encourages her staff and pupils to shower abuse upon her as well.
Miss Minchin has never liked Sara. Sara is not the bouncy, blonde, dimpled cutey so often leading little girls' stories. Rather, she is dark haired, with large, green eyes and a thin frame. Her manner is quiet and gravely thoughtful. She is also extremely bright, fluent in multiple languages and far ahead of her fellow students in other subjects. On top of this, she is unusually clever, possessing a wisdom and insight far beyond her years. Such things are unnerving to Miss Minchin, who can only feel powerful and self-secure when she is domineering or bullying others. Girls like Sara are difficult to bully. Regardless of the cruelties heaped upon her, Sara meets them with a brave, stoic resolve. Hodgson points out that it does not come easily for her. The little girl often struggles to stay brave, reminding herself of soldiers in battle for inspiration. Although it is difficult, she chooses to strive for an attitude of courage and quiet pride, knowing they're the only weapons she has against those who would break her will. In the face of bullying, her grave stoicism confuses, unnerves, and bewilders those who wish to make her suffer.
Sara seldom cries, but when she does, it's usually for the sake of others. She is an unusually empathetic person, befriending those whom others would despise due to their disadvantages in social class or intellect. Her temper rarely flares, but when she does, it's triggered by the bullying of a social outcast. She is not an angel, and acknowledges this herself. What is truly remarkable about Sara is that she knows she has it in her to be either good or wicked. Yet she consciously chooses, time and again, to be a caring, brave, thoughtful person, even when it isn't easy.
Unlike the film adaptations, her father does not magically reappear in the end. Her beloved father dies, and she must cope with that. She must find a way to deal with starvation, exhaustion, emotional and physical abuse with little to no help from others. Until she finds a more material salvation, Sara sustains herself through imagination, empathy, and a resolve to be courageous. Through Sara Crewe's unhappy story, Hodgson tells her readers, especially those in difficult or painful circumstances, that yes, sometimes terrible things happen to good people, even children, for no acceptable reason. However, she also tells us that when the unthinkable happens, we have it within each of us to sustain ourselves. Even without means, prospects, or friends with the power to help us, we can turn to our own imagination, strength of will, and a resolve to keep a loving heart. As a child, I learned from this book that I could not control what happened to me, but I could control how I faced it. To this day, I consider it the most valuable lesson of my childhood.