I wish I was one of those people that could remember exactly how old I was when I read key books of my childhood. I’ve been slowly reading Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book by Anita Silvey, and there are lots and lots of essays that include something like “I was 8 when I. . .” or “I discovered this book. . .” and they remember all the details. My brain is just fuzzy around those kind of details.
Consequently, I don’t remember when I first read A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I do know it was post-Little House and pre-Anne. I remember really liking the Shirley Temple movie and then seeing a two-pack of books in the Scholastic catalog–Princess and Anne. I didn’t know who that Anne person was, but I had to read Princess.
However, unlike a lot of the other books I loved as a kid, I haven’t picked this one up in a very, very long time. At least 15 years, probably more. But I remembered really liking it–enough to see the more recent movie version and pick up interesting older editions of the book. It was past time for a reread.
Because it can be more fun to read beautiful old editions rather than 1980s paperbacks, I pulled this version off my shelf. And then I was completely blown away. I had forgotten how good it was–how much was packed into this book. How dark and scary it was. How Sara, while incredibly good, is still far from perfect.
For those not familiar with the book (and seriously if you’re not–get to the library immediately!), it’s the story of a motherless little girl sent to a boarding school. It’s not a horrible school, just not perfect. However, she’s protected because her father is rich. But he dies penniless and she becomes an overworked servant. Burnett’s writing frequently carried me away. I stayed up far too late one night, because once the Magic happens, I just couldn’t put the book down.
This is a book that I really need to see if my neices have a copy of it. They are obsessed with all things Disney Princess, which annoys me to no end. But Sara’s thoughts about being a princess are very different from the schlock Disney puts out. Check this passage out:
Sometimes, when she was in the midst of some harsh, domineering speech, Miss Minchin would find the still, unchildish eyes fixed upon her with something like a proud smile in them. At such times she did not know Sara was saying to herself:
“You don’t know that you are saying these things to a princess, and that if I chose I could wave my hand and order you to execution. I only spare you because I am a princess, and you are a poor, stupid, unkind, vulgar old thing, and don’t know any better.”
This used to interest and amuse her more than anything else; and queer and fanciful as it was, she found comfort in it and it was a good thing for her. While the thought held possession of her, she could not be made rude and malicious by the rudeness and malice of those about her.
“A princess must be polite,” she said to herself.
Now, isn’t that a much better way for a Princess to behave, rather than waiting around for a Prince to rescue you?
As I read, I also couldn’t help but think of Anne Shirley. Can you imagine if Anne and Sara had gotten together, what stories they could create? Both girls used their imaginations to escape a harsh, unloved life. But Anne’s time of escape is just a memory in her book. For the reader, they’re right in the midst of Sara’s need to escape. Terrifying things happen to Sara–she had known love and safety and privilege, and it’s all yanked out from under her. Not only is she left by her father at boarding school and apparently doesn’t seem him again (even though 4 years pass before his death), but then the money vanishes and her entire world goes topsy-turvy.
One of my favorite passages is when she meets the beggar girl, a girl in much worse shape than she is because at least Sara has a bed and a roof over her head.
It was a little figure more forlorn even than herself–a little figure which was not much more than a bundle of rags, from which small, bare, red, muddy feet peeped out, only because the rags with which their owner was trying to cover them were not long enough. Above the rags appeared a shock head of tangled hair, and a dirty face with big, hollow, hungry, eyes.
As an adult, my heart breaks for these children, just as I’m impressed that Burnett doesn’t just talk about Sara’s plight, but other poor, abandoned children. But what would I have thought as a child? This is what I wish I remembered. I think I would have been startled. Kids aren’t supposed to be in situations like that. I was safe and warm and well-fed in the Dallas suburbs.