Book review: A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Okay, I admit this book is problematic. It romanticizes colonialism, and Sara is perhaps a little too perfect and noble 98% of the time. It uses “Oriental” way too much (though I confess I love how often Sara is described as “queer”), and this whole notion of elevating the status of “princess” to being synonymous not just with untold riches, but also the most pure and virtuous of souls, seems a little outdated to say the least. About as outdated as “Oriental,” in fact.

But I had very fond memories of the book, which is why I added it to my list to re-experience. And I can say with confidence now is that it’s a valuable PG-rated story of child abuse and suffering, especially in 19th England, without the many legal protections that exist today.

It’s also an unabashed celebration of capitalism and classism. Even the first time I read it (probably as a preteen), I understood its classification as a “riches to rags to riches” story. That describes a story exploring the trajectory of a character who topples from the most privileged place to the least privileged, then back again to the top.

A modern version of this story might have the protagonist learning different lessons or elevate other characters, the ones at the bottom, along the way. Not so in A Little Princess, where it’s taken for granted that only Sara deserves to be elevated out of her rags back into her finery, and the only rescue for the scullery maid is that she gets a nicer position away from the tyrant, but still serving as handmaid to the little rich girl.

Everyone worships Sara Crewe and no one is her equal. I grew a little frustrated, especially with her friend Ermengarde, who is always emphasized to be so dumb and went on to prove it, shortly after Sara is banished to live in the attic and act as a drudge: Ermengarde finally went to Sara to ask, “Why don’t you like me anymore?” Because Sara’s father’s death and the radical change in her life from star pupil to slave is really about Ermengarde, of course!

But I like the story for how it exalts the power of imagination as a powerful tool in surviving adversity, which I support. Of course, it’s not really everything — one does need to actually be rescued, which usually involves outside forces, as happened here (and um, they completely skipped over the creepiness of adult men breaking and entering into Sara’s attic to bring in all manner of stuff while she’s sleeping). It suffices for a PG depiction of abuse — and even that PG description took into account the lack of child labor laws and protections in Victorian England. Even in this PG version, Sara is told to go a whole day without a meal.

The real element missing is how vulnerable she’d be the worst sorts of predators, especially from 11 to 13. That could have well been the one trouble she couldn’t drive away with imagination, as she would be forced to grow up.

I’m still a sucker for many parts of this story, from how she suffers to the final confrontational scene between her and Miss Minchin, and then the one between Miss Minchin and her sister Amelia. That could easily rank among the most satisfying literary showdowns delivering truth and justice.

Finally, it’s a shame this is not a true statement of cause and effect in our world:

“Perhaps someone has left her a fortune,” Jessie whispered. “I always thought something would happen to her. She’s so queer.”

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