by Frances Hodgson Burnett
first published in 1905 (prior to that the story appeared as a serialized novella and a play)
201 pp., 19 chapters
Ages: (to be read to) 6 +; (to read) 8 +
Interests: boarding schools, girls, history, class, hardship
Also by this author: The Secret Garden, Little Lord Fauntleroy
Next: MOVIES – A Little Princess (1939) with Shirley Temple, A Little Princess (1995) both with significant plot changes. TV ADAPTATIONS – 1973 and 1986, both apparently very faithful to original book.
Little Sara Crewe is the prize pupil at Miss Minchin’s academy, in appearance and manner just like a princess. However when her father dies in India, leaving her suddenly penniless, Miss Minchin reduces her to a household drudge, banishing her to a cold attic room and working her mercilessly. Throughout her hardships Sara is sustained by her imagination and general goodness until finally a friend of her father’s appears to rescue her.
For a book published over a hundred years ago this is simply and accessibly written. The chapters are for the most part short and the action moves along nicely. Sara’s misadventures are still highly appealing after all these years. Great descriptive detail of her fine clothing when she is wealthy, and of her poverty later on.
This is a classic Cinderella tale (riches to rags to riches), with a turning point so dramatic it should grab the interest of even the youngest child. In the middle of Sarah’s sumptuous birthday party, at the height of her popularity at the school, word arrives of her father’s death. The venal Miss Minchin stops the party, seizes all of the girl’s belongings (to pay her bills), and sends her immediately to her new room in the attic. This scene is astonishing in its abruptness and what child will not be drawn in by the mere idea of a birthday party interrupted? Before the cake, even! For adults the heartlessness of Miss Minchin as she breaks the news to Sarah is the main event, but little girls will be gripped by the real moment of truth: Miss Minchin tells her to take off her fancy party dress and put on a plain black frock… that doesn’t even fit! It is testament to Burnett’s insight that she can zero in on what best drives home the reversal of fortune to a child – the birthday party interruptus and the change of clothing.
The character of Sara Crewe doesn’t have an arc, as such, she doesn’t change much, but her correct manners, good humour and kindness are severely tested by her tribulations. What it is to be overworked, to be hungry, to be cold, are all convincingly described. Through everything Sara strives to behave as a princess would, and consequently inspires everyone around her. Even before her fall, while still wealthy, Sara stands up to the school bully and befriends and champions the most downtrodden of the schoolgirls: the unpopular and academically challenged Ermengarde, and tantrum-prone Lottie.
As well, Sara’s friendship with household servant Becky is further evidence of her goodness and ability to look beyond social class distinctions. (A concept that children might find hard to comprehend – consider this a good history teaching moment.) Another interesting element is that Sara was raised in India (just like the heroine The Secret Garden), and has a rather sophisticated, tolerant view of different peoples and cultures, an extremely mature perspective for that or any time! This allows her to look past race or social position in a way that none of her classmates are able to.
In conclusion: A gripping Cinderella-story, full of melodrama and imagination. Many accessible points for children, despite the book’s great age – the simple language, the details of dress and finery, the schoolgirl politics, the evil school mistress, the pathos of Sara’s reduced circumstances, but also the reassuring presence of a good Samaritan watching out for her. Sara is a model of kind and generous behaviour, as well as of the transformative power of imagination.
Movie Versions: The two movies I watched go through contortions of plot to give the story a happier ending – neither seem content to kill off father, instead transforming him into that weary old cliché, the wounded soldier with amnesia. (In the book he is a flighty young man who dies of a fever abroad while speculating away their fortune. Not nearly admirable enough!)
A Little Princess (1939) – with Shirley Temple. This is a chipper, cheerful version, suitable for 5 and up. Father is a saintly fellow (his departure scene is a real tear-jerker) going off to fight in the Boer War. After much talk of the siege of Mafeking, he turns up back in London at a veteran’s hospital and Shirley discovers him with a little help from Queen Victoria herself! A romance is added, along with a ‘nice teacher’ at the school whom Shirley can befriend and help. The result is that the heroine’s dark days aren’t nearly as lonely and miserable as in the book, but what do you expect with a Shirley Temple movie? There are a couple of singing/dancing numbers, plus a florid fantasy scene ballet that small children will love. (This DVD available on amazon.)
A Little Princess (1995) – This version sends Captain Crewe off to the trenches of World War I. And for some reason Sarah is sent to a boarding house in New York rather than London. The theme of racism is also introduced as Becky is turned into an African-American servant girl. A lot of time and effort goes into the mystery and magic of India at the beginning and later on when the Indian gentleman next door enacts a strange magic on Sarah’s attic room. Throughout the ‘magic realism’ of this treatment the characters are wonderfully acted and believable. Reunion at ending is milked to the nth degree. Get out your handkerchiefs! (DVD available on amazon.)