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A Little Princess Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Posted by j128 in Children's Literature.

Cover of

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

A Little Princess is a 1905 novel by English-born American author Frances Hodgson Burnett – for some reason, I’m always surprised when I read that she is actually American as I’ve always envisioned her as being British…! Anyway

It is one of those unforgettable classics and one of my favourites, next to another of Mrs. Burnett’s books: The Secret Garden. It has been made into film and television several times; see below for more information.

A Little Princess is actually an extension (and revised) edition of a novella by Mrs. Burnett entitled Sara Crewe: or, What Happened at Miss Minchin’s Boarding School. I will include a summary of both Sara Crewe and A Little Princess.

A Little Princess may also be known by the alternate title The Little Princess in some sources and some publications of the story.

Summary of A Little Princess

Sara Crewe, the heroine and protagonist of the novel, has arrived at Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies in London, England with her father and they have come all the way from India. She has short black hair with a curl at the ends, big green eyes, and is thin – she thinks herself as ugly in comparison to a colonel’s fair, blonde daughter, yet that is far from the truth. Her mother died when she was born, thus she doesn’t remember her or miss her, but as such, she and her father have grown a strong bond with one another. She is very rich and is soon revealed to be a heiress of a large fortune, which she will attain when she comes of age.

As she is very rich, she has more privileges than the other girls at Miss Minchin’s boarding school; having her own pony, private sitting room, and a personal French maid. She is quite popular and gains the status of a show student (almost a teacher’s pet) as she is very clever and has good marks in her studies; the French teacher is quite impressed with her French; she also speaks Hindustani. She learns quickly, loves to read books of all kinds, and will remember everything that she reads without hardly any effort. While she is popular and revered by many of the girls, there are some who are spiteful such as Lavinia Herbert – who was the richest pupil in the school until Sara came along and replaced her.

Sara’s behaviour, defined as “queer”, is part of her character’s attractiveness; she is kind and takes the scullery maid, a young girl named Becky, under her wing and smuggles food to her. Becky is at first surprised and wary about this strange act of kindness as she has never been given a kind word by anyone before and quickly befriends Sara. The servants and Miss Minchin come to learn of this kindness.

Finally, Sara pretends a lot and “supposes” things. She pretends that she is a princess and acts as if she were one with airs of politeness, hospitality, and generosity. She does admit that pretending to be a princess while being rich is quite easy; it would be more of a challenge if she were poor. Her pretend royal position is the core of Lavinia and other similar spiteful girls’ scorn and bullying; yet they can never pin down Sara no matter how they try. When diamond mines are discovered and her father invests in it, her popularity is increased.

Her eleventh birthday proves a fateful day. Again, as she is the richest girl in the school, she is presented with a lavish birthday party and many presents from her father including books and a doll that is only known as the Last Doll, almost the size of Lottie – a little girl who is also motherless and Sara has become her adoptive mother. Upon Sara’s request, Becky is allowed to stay yet to keep away from the other girls. Yet soon after the party goes to Miss Minchin’s room where there are cake and refreshments, the headmistress is visited by a solicitor who informs her that the diamond mines were non-existent and that Sara’s father has died from jungle fever (a type of malaria that is contracted in the East Indies) and he was raving about seeing her until he died. It was the loss of his financial wealth and his illness that killed him. As such, Sara is destitute and Miss Minchin takes advantage of this as, contrary to appearances, has always had an intense dislike for Sara, and turns her into a lowly miserable-looking servant – a drudge. To say miserable-looking is well-suited as she wears an outgrown black frock that is too short and too tight for her, revealing her slender, yet thin, legs, and while she is at first feeling low due to the treatment she receives from the other servants and Miss Minchin and Miss Amelia (Miss Minchin’s younger sister) she eventually brightens by supposing she was a princess still or a soldier in battle, “a long and weary march”, and she is a prisoner of the Bastille.

While this pretending helps her, her two true friends from her former school life can’t believe her living conditions, yet she consoles them that less fortunate people than her have been in even worse living conditions, giving examples such as the prisoners of Bastille and the Count of Monte Cristo in the dungeons Chateau d’If. Her duties as a servant are to run any errands that the servants, cook, and the Minchin sisters give her; she studies in an empty classroom with old books in the night, for she fears of not being able to remember things she learned if she is not “going to school” anymore.

Her “supposings” and pretend games eventually materialize into reality when she comes across the Indian Gentleman and his lascar, Ram Dass, who owns a pet monkey, and she speaks with the lascar in his native language. He takes an interest in her circumstances and comes to learn of her living conditions; he and his master surprise Sara by refurnishing the attic so much that eventually it is no longer worth being called an attic and she is fed more than enough food, Becky as well. Everyone wonders at the physical changes in Sara and Becky, yet they have no idea how this change occurred. The biggest surprise of all arrives one day in many parcels, addressed to “The Little Girl in the Attic”, and they are full of beautiful, rich clothing for her, and she joins her classmates again as a new person. Not long after that, she sees Ram Dass’ monkey and brings him in from the cold; the next day she returns him to his master, and it is discovered she is the lost child that the Indian Gentleman’s solicitor had been searching for, for almost two years. They adopt her and she never goes back to Miss Minchin’s school again and Becky becomes her personal attendant.

Sara also learns that the diamond mines have in fact doubled and she is still heiress – there was never any loss at all.

At the start of the story, Sara was seven years old, and by the time she is rescued she is nearly thirteen.

Summary of Sara Crewe: or, What Happened at Miss MInchin’s Boarding School

Sara Crewe follows very much the same storyline as A Little Princess yet it is different in respects of attention to detail and storytelling. At the start of the story, Sara is already poor and a servant. Her history is briefly described: before she had been a student and her father a wealthy, young man yet when he died and his fortune dissolved, she was reduced to the state she is in now.

The schoolgirls are mentioned rather in a group and are never mentioned by name except for Ermengarde. There is also never any mention of Becky and Sara lives in the attic next to the cook. As her status as a show student is only mentioned as history, her acts of kindness remains unmentioned and is only displayed by her giving the five out of six buns to the homeless girl outside the bakery.

It is almost a short story, being over one third of the more well-known story, and it is almost its own story – there are many passages throughout the story in which it is almost verbatim in similarity to A Little Princess.

While both versions are in print, the revised and expanded edition known as A Little Princess remains more well-known.

“It’s Like Magic!”

Throughout the novel Sara Crewe pretends and “supposes” things, included is her pretending being a princess. When a sudden turn of fate makes her penniless, her pretending and “supposing” is put to the test especially when appearances are contrary to her visualizations of comfort.

While she is a servant, her pretends become so strong that they materialize into reality, first by the mysterious refurnishing of the attic and by her new clothes, and her unexpected rescue by her father’s friend’s solicitor who had been searching for her for two years.

This sort of magic is common in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s books including The Secret Garden in which the protagonist’s sickly cousin Colin heals himself through a similar magic: by positive thinking and affirmations in the form of mantras to keep himself in the right – “magic” – frame of mind as well as simple physical exercise. While Sara’s circumstances are vastly different from Colin’s, they both intensely practiced magic. This magic is most often described as New Thought.

In the Media

A Little Princess has been adapted into three movies and television shows multiple times. The first two starred Mary Pickford and Shirley Temple as Sara Crewe. The third one, released 1995, was directed by Alfonso Cuarón. All of the movie adaptations to date have transfered the geography of the novel to New York and Sara’s father is in the British army and is allegedly killed in action, yet actually survived. In the 1995 version, he served in the British army to fight in World War I and suffers from amnesia and doesn’t recognize his daughter until the climax. I have not seen any of these films; I have only read reviews and in my personal opinion, none of them live up to the original story.

As far as television goes, it has been made into an anime (Princess Sarah) by Nippon Animation and a few other shows. The only media adaptation I have seen of A Little Princess is a 1986 miniseries and it is very faithful to the original story (see image, left), including that it is set in London. The edition I saw was on two VHS tapes, it could also be available on DVD.

See Also

The Count of Monte Cristo


Sara Crewe: or, What Happened at Miss Minchin’s Boarding School on Project Gutenberg

A Little Princess on Project Gutenberg

The screenplay of the stage play adaptation of A Little Princess

Full length feature film A Little Princess starring Shirley Temple



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