Friday, September 6, 2013
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Seven-year-old precocious Sara Crewe, who has grown up in India with her wealthy father, has arrived at a boarding school in London. Her mother died when she was young and her father is worried about Sara catching "jungle fever" or malaria because cases have increased as of late in India. Sara's father indulges her every whim but she is not spoiled by it. She is level-headed, kind, and generous making friends with classmates and servants. She's practically perfect - an ideal no one can achieve (maybe you can, but I can't); her character is a symbol of uncorrupted, childhood purity. When Sara arrives at the boarding school Miss Minchin is jealous of her cleverness and money, flattering Sara's father because his wealth brings credit to the boarding school. Sara knows this immediately and recognizes Miss Minchin's two-faced greediness. There is a scene where Miss Minchin asks Sara if she knows French but won't let Sara answer interrupting her in the middle of her sentence because it is taking Sara too long to explain. The French teacher comes in and finds Sara a fluent speaker causing Miss Minchin to unfairly scold Sara for not telling her. Adults oftentimes don't let children explain themselves because they are impatient or jump to wrong conclusions. It is easy for the reader to empathize with Sara who is not in control of her daily routine and is at the mercy of an abusive authority figure.
At school, Sara gets a doll, Emily, that helps her deal with homesickness. She talks to the doll and pretends it is her best friend. Sara fantasizes that Emily comes alive when she turns her back on Emily; prancing about the room and doing her own thing in secret. She says that dolls pretend they aren't alive because if people knew that, they would make them work. Sara is a great storyteller and it is through this gift that she makes friends with the other students at the school. Her stories help her cope with not giving into the misery of her situation or complaining. She keeps control of her attitude and anger. She is patient when teaching her friend who is slow at learning and helps the younger girl who misses her mother throwing temper tantrums. She embodies the ultimate goodness of humanity and innocence of a child. She doesn't have any flaws and is meant to point out the waywardness of Miss Minchin who at the novel's end takes stock of her nature by listening to her sister's diatribe as she expresses regret for not standing up to her cruelty. This book's audience shows how the lines were still blurry as Victorian authors wrote not only for children but for adults as well.
A Little Princess reflects the changing landscape of children leaving the work force and going to school as labor laws went into effect during the early 1900s. Sara Crewe's situation mirrors societal issues and outcries against child labor resulting from industrialism. Middle class was on the rise and the demand for safe conditions and removal of overworked children in industries where supervisors bullied children to work harder and assigned them to dangerous, exhausting or degrading jobs was one of many historical problems being addressed during Burnett's time. The premise that Sara was of privilege and deserved more is revealing in contrast to Becky, the scullery maid. While Becky deserves better conditions, she is never offered education. She is always a maid and the premise that it is up to nobility or an upper class to treat her well, shows a support of the existing class system that did not see education as a way out of poverty. Becky never thinks of not being a maid, but Sara can because she is rich. Becky ends up working for Sara in the end. The notion of education advancing a person's employment wasn't on Burnett's radar. The strange dichotomy of Burnett's support of the establishment; yet, challenge to the elite to deal with hunger and abuse with generosity and kindness made for a fascinating contrast. Add to that the imperialistic view of taking Africa's diamonds to gain wealth and the Indian servant Sara called, "a slave," and you have much discussion for a book club.
Hopefully I got the gist of romanticism and children's literature correct. These were my resources:
Norton's Anthology of Children's Literature
Keywords in Children's Literature by Philip Nel