BOOK REVIEW: “A Little Princess” by Frances Hodgson Burnett

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“What does it matter if something is old? Charles Dickens said any book you haven’t read is a new book. What does it matter whether it’s old?… I don’t understand what this lemming-like dementia is about constantly having new stuff. When was the last time you read the totality of Steinbeck or Faulkner or Katherine Anne Porter or Shirley Jackson? Everybody always wants something new, new, new – and that’s what’s killing life for writers. This dementia for ‘new’ is ridiculous. It turns everybody into a back number… We’re dealing with a more and more illiterate and amnesiac constituency. It’s impossible to get a readership that will follow you, because all they know is what they knew yesterday… And so when I hear this what-are-you-doing-lately thing, or that the Edgeworks books are bringing back all of my older books, I say, ‘Yeah, they’re real old books – like five years old!’ See, I do go off on these things. And if you ask the wrong question, I get real cranky.”
- Harlan Ellison
 

After I became a fan of Frances Hodgson Burnett, I did a little research on her. She lived to be 79 years old from 1849 to 1924. Turns out that back in her time, she was an incredibly popular author. I don’t mean she was merely successful. I mean she was a celebrity. Famous. One article I read called her the “J.K. Rowling of her age.”

I find that easy to believe. Her work is rife with verisimilitudinal descriptions. My favorite thing!

There are three things I love in a story. Great dialog. Poetic prose. Poignant verisimilitude. Notice I made no mention of plot or characters. Great characters and amazing storylines fall flat without those other things.

Since the original publication of the book in 1905, A Little Princess remains immensely popular and has been made into a motion picture 5 times between 1917 and 1997 and there have been nearly an equivalent number of television versions; Not to mention, approximately 8 theatrical productions.

The premise of the story is that a little English girl named Sara Crewe, living in India, is sent to a boarding school in London while her father returns to India to run a diamond mine. The 1997 movie version changes the school location to America with the father going off to fight in WWI, which I think is far more perilous and compelling, but of course, WWI didn’t begin until 1914, a full 9 years after the book was written. So, there was no way the book version could have incorporated WWI into the storyline because WWI hadn’t existed yet. In the movie, during that scene where Sara is saying goodbye to her father, I cry like a little girl everytime I see it. Seriously, I refuse to watch that film in the presence of other people, because because I sniffle like a baby. It’s emasculating and pathetic. I’m Indiana Jones. I’m Han Solo. I’m James Bond. I can’t be getting all weepy when a little girl says goodbye to her dad. But I do. Everytime.

Due to the changes in language and slang and the idiosyncrasies of the evolution in literary trends, books that are a century old can often become difficult to follow. However, once you start to read some older novels, you discover the problem isn’t the language, it’s just bad writing. Have you ever read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain? Obviously, Mark Twain is revered as one of the greatest American authors of all time, but that book is horribly written. Within the first ten pages, Tom’s Aunt Polly recites an entire page of exposition aloud, while standing in the yard, to absolutely no one. At least I think it happens in the yard, Mark Twain doesn’t seem to like to write descriptions of locations. Aunt Polly just starts talking out loud, explaining all sorts of details about the story, to herself. There are no other characters around. Then a few pages later, Tom is talking to his aunt, then he’s getting into fistfight which I think might be happening in front of his house. But since Mark Twain doesn’t bother to give any description of where Tom is at, I really have no idea where the heck the fight takes place. Mark Twain deserves his impeccable reputation as an essayist, but he’s one overrated novelist.

Obviously, this is not a review to criticize Tom Sawyer, it’s a review to praise A Little Princess. I’m only citing Mark Twain to prove a point. The point I’m trying to make is, I was once of the mentality that many old classics were terrible books. What I have come to learn is, great writing is timeless. Bad books will always be bad books. Great books will always be great books. Don’t be like I was. Never presume a book will be bad, just because it was written 100 years ago. Never presume a book will be good, just because the author is considered a national treasure. Some of the so-called “classics” are complete crap.

Classics like A Little Princess are golden milestones in the history of English literature. A priceless treasure that shall remain of value until the demise of humanity itself.

Frances Hodgson Burnett is an enchanting author. Like all my favorite writing, she just weaves the perfect tapestry of language to describe the emotions and thoughts of her characters. She writes in a way that makes me jealous because she so readily captures the human heart in such simple words. Perfect words. Words that could not be rearranged with synonyms and find the same meaning. For that is the ultimate alchemy of gifted authors, their sublime talent at finding exactly the right words, for exactly the right feelings, and arranging them together in a canvas so flawless, that to displace a single syllable would make the entire image dissolve into dust.

One such sentence reads:
 
“But what does anything matter when one’s Magic has just proved itself one’s friend.”
 
Without any further explanation, we know exactly what that means. That single sentence gives me chills. To think that just one other person understands that feeling and can put it into words is astonishing.
 
“It’s true,” she said. “Sometimes I do pretend I am a princess. I pretend I am a princess, so that I can try and behave like one.”
 
That is one of those passages I have never forgotten since the moment I read it. To think that even for one moment in this world there was a single soul who thought with such nobility in her heart is inspiring in a way I am incapable of articulating. Were I ever to become the father of daughters, they will all read that and be taught they must take it to heart. And of course a son would learn he must behave as no less than a prince. But of course, that would first require courting a mother who already held such integrity and well, there’s not much hope of that. Those girls only exist in stories. That’s why we write them.

When the first girl I ever loved, Michelle, was a child, her mother Brenda forbade her from playing with a troublemaker down the street, because Brenda feared this naughty girl may be a bad influence on her daughter. Michelle, at the time only 4 or 5 years old, looked at her mother and said, “Did you ever stop to think that maybe I might be a good influence on her?”

Brenda never tried to stop my love from playing with that girl again. Michelle is the kind of girl who was the embodiment of Sara Crewe. As Michelle died more than 20 years ago, there no longer exist princesses of such integrity. Nowadays, such girls only exist in myth and legend.
 
“How it is that animals understand things I do not know, but it is certain that they do understand. Perhaps there is a language which is not made of words and everything in the world understands it. Perhaps there is a soul hidden in everything and it can always speak, without even making a sound, to another soul.”
 
There. The words that everyone knows. The words everyone understands. Yet I’ve never seen it described so perfectly.
 
“And there Sara would stand, sometimes turning her face upward to the blue which seemed so friendly and near – just like a lovely vaulted ceiling – sometimes watching the west and all the wonderful things that happened there: the clouds melting or drifting or waiting softly to be changed pink or crimson or snow-white or purple or pale dove-gray. Sometimes they made islands or great mountains enclosing lakes of deep turquoise-blue, or liquid amber, or chrysoprase-green; sometimes dark headlands jutted into strange, lost seas; sometimes slender strips of wonderful lands joined other wonderful lands together. There were places where it seemed that one could run or climb or stand and wait to see what next was coming – until, perhaps, as it all melted, one could float away. At least it seemed so to Sara, and nothing had ever been quite so beautiful to her as the things she saw as she stood on the table – her body half out of the skylight – the sparrows twittering with sunset softness on the slates. The sparrows always seemed to her to twitter with a sort of subdued softness just when these marvels were going on.”
 
That is beauty so grand it soothes like warmest waters yet skewers the breast with knitting needle heartache. How can it be? How can it be to find others of my tribe upon pages a century old? With such paragraphs you begin to wonder, is this a ruse? Could it be a coincidence? Are these cruel tricks of the light shimmering across a mischievous universe of time and space? Are such words the only ones this person could ever speak to my heart? Or is there something real? Is there a magic to the workings of the world that I have merely forgotten?

For me Sara Crewe is so much more than a fiction. She is a daughter child, a sister comrade, a wise mother and a companion bride. There are no real humans who see life the way she and I do. Only the ones of which I can dream.

A Little Princess is about something that no living soul possesses. This is a story about kindness and fortitude and compassion. And it is about holding onto those things in the face of cruelty and hopelessness and loneliness and death and barren places where we sit imprisoned.

A Little Princess is better than anything I’ve ever written and I fear better than anything I will ever write. This story is a beacon for our tribe. This story is one of the markers. You found this review because it’s time for you to meet Sara Crewe. You need to read her story. You need her to accompany you right now. This point in your life is when you were meant to become friends with A Little Princess. She might be a good influence on you.