Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wizened look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer / reviewer / blogger Lizzie Skurnick reads 'A Little Princess', Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1905 story of Sara Crewe, who's both a princess and a pauper.
Once on a dark winter's day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night, an odd-looking girl sat in a cab with her father and was driven rather slowly through the big thoroughfare.There are very few works of modern literature that successfully manage to link the possession of a large fortune to an equally healthy moral compass — and fewer still that go ahead and make the correlation causative. Smoldering Mr. Darcy, whose just management of household wealth finally manages to earn the respect of Elizabeth Bennett (who then gets to live in that house!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) is rare standout amidst craven strivers like Becky Sharp or the hapless Hulots, who handle money as skillfully as a greased hand negotiates an egg. It's unworthy moneygrubbers who esteem Darcy for his money. Wiser personages, from his housekeeper to his dearest friend, esteem him for his money management. But in the wealthy, intensely bookwormish Sara Crewe, author Frances Hodgson Burnett — who earlier, we determined, had a rather poisonous view of the spoils of empire — creates a character whose goodness not only equals her good fortune, but brings her fortune itself. (And ermine!) Sara, like The Secret Garden's Mary Lennox, is a young girl brought up in Colonial India, but unlike Mary, she's bright, inquisitive, and the daughter of a young, wealthy officer who adores her completely. (Her mother has been dead for many years.) As the novel commences, he's bringing her to London to enroll her in a fancy girls' school (run by the odious, aptly named Miss Minchin, about whom we could write several essays alone), and you will forgive me for disgressing immediately into the wardrobe her provides her for her entry into formal schooling:
There were velvet dressed trimmed with costly furs, and lace dresses, and embroidered ones, and hats with great, soft ostrich feathers, and ermine coats and muffs, and boxes of tiny gloves and handkerchiefs and silk stockings in such abundant supplies that the polite young women behind the counters whispered to each other that the odd little girl with the big, solumn eyes must be at least some foreign princess—perhaps the little daughter of an Indian rajah.
Phew! Clothing porn, out of the way. At the school, Sara is distinguished from the other well-to-do girls not only by trouncing whatever finery they have with her epic wardrobe, private playroom and French maid, but by subtler characteristics — her strange, compelling looks, her love of books, her ability to speak French, her warm, empathetic nature, and most of all, by her strong sense of fancy, which is regarded at turns as charming, immature, eccentric, and, to her likable, slightly thick friend Emengarde, as simply miraculous:
"Yes," Sara answered. "...when I play I make up stories and tell them to myself...." ...Emengarde stopped short, staring, and quite losing her breath. "You make up stories!" she gasped. "Can you do that—as well as speak French? Can you?" Sara looked at her in simple surprise. "Why, anyone can make up things," she said...Have you never pretended things?" "No," said Ermengarde. "Never. I—tell me about it."
Sara's ability to tell stories doesn't only prove a powerful attraction to the other girls in the school, who love to gather around to hear her make things up by the fire. (Ah yes, that crackling, Colonial-India-financed grate!!!!!! Crumpets and tea and melted butter, oh my!) More important, musing on her own circumstances rather than smugly accepting them allows her to truly — which is to say, cynically — speculate that much of her good nature may result only from private financing:
Sara was praised for her quickness at her lessons, for her good manners, for her amiability to her fellow-pupils, for her generosity if she gave sixpence to a beggar out of her full little purse; the simplest thing she did was treated as if it were a virtue, and if she had not had a disposition and a clever little brain, she might have been a very self-satisfied young person. But the clever little brain told her a great many sensible and true things about herself and her circumstances, and now and then she talked these things over to Ermengarde as time went on: "Things happen to people by accident," she used to say. "A lot of nice accidents happened to me. It just happened that I always liked lessons and books, and could remember things when I learned them. It just happened that I was born with a father who was beautiful and nice and clever, and could give me anything I liked. Perhaps I have not really a good temper at all, but if you have everything you want and everyone is kind to you, how can you help but be good-tempered? I don't know"—looking quite serious—"how I shall ever find out whether I am really a nice child or a horrid one. Perhaps I'm a hideous child, and no one will ever know, just because I never have any trials."
OOOOOOOOOOO, WAS THAT A DARE? I think that was a dare!!!!! Poor child, she will need that imagination, and the ability to be rather dispassionate, in just a moment, for Sara is about to find out, in the midst of a lavish birthday party with "lace collars and silk stockings and handkerchiefs; there was a jewel-case containing a necklace and tiara which looked quite as if they were made of real diamonds"—ALMOST DONE—"there was a long sealskin and muff; there were ball dresses and walking dresses and visiting dresses;"—DID I MENTION THIS WAS FOR A DOLL?—"there were hats and tea-gowns and fans"....phew. Where was I? Ah, yes. The terrible news, which is that not only is Captain Crewe dead of brain fever in the jungle, but that his entire fortune is gone, invested a friend's diamond-mine venture that's gone smash. Shockingly enough, this does not go over well with Miss Michin:
"Where is Sara Crewe?" Miss Amelia was bewildered. "Sara!" she stammered. "Why, she's with the children in your room, of course." "Has she a black frock in her sumptuous wardrobe?"—in bitter irony. "A black frock?" Miss Amelia stammered again. "A black one?" "She has frocks of every other color. Has she a black one?" Miss Amelia began to turn pale. "No—ye-es!" she said. "But it is too short for her. She has only the black velvet, and she has outgrown it." "Go ahead and tell her to take off that preposterous pink silk gauze, and put the black one on, whether it is too short or not. She has done with finery!" Then Miss Amelia began to wring her fat hands and cry. "Oh, sister!" she sniffed. "Oh, sister! What can have happened?" Miss Minchin wasted no words. "Captain Crewe is dead," she said. "He has died without a penny. That spoiled, pampered, fanciful child is left a pauper on my hands."
So the same girl who, only weeks earlier, befriended the downtrodden, housemaid Becky by telling her, "...we are just the same—I am only a little girl like you. It's just an accident that I am not you, and you are not me!" now finds that she totally has to eat those words. While Miss Minchin does not quite reduce Sara to the Becky's level of wretchedness (Minchin's earlier verdict: "Becky is the scullery-maid. Scullery-maids—er—are not little girls") she puts Sara to work immediately, banishing her to live in the attic along with Becky, where she listens to rats scurry by night and by day, tutors the children in French, runs horrible errands, and is generally plagued by anyone with the authority to plague her. Still, Sara has finds that her ability to imagine, which gave her the ability to be compassionate to people like Becky in her flush days, now gives her the ability to muddle through. Looking around her bare quarters ("It's a good place to imagine in," she laughs bitterly), she does a quick Changing Rooms:
"You see," she said, "there could be a thick, soft blue Indian rug on the floor; and in that corner there could be a soft little sofa, with cushions to curl up on; and just over it could be a shelf full of books so that one could reach them easily; and there could be a fur rug before the fire, and hangins on the wall to cover up the whitewash, and pictures. They would have to be little ones, but they could be beautiful; and there could be a lamp with a deep rose-colored shade; and a table in the middle, with things to have tea with; and a little fat copper kettle singing on the hob; and the bed could be quite different. It could be made soft and covered with a lovely silk coverlet. It could be beautiful. And perhaps we could coax the sparrows until we made such friends with them that they would come and peck at the window and ask to be let in."
You said...a rose-colored lamp? Hold that thought Sara also engineers other flights of fancy to make her life bearable, like that she and Becky are in the Bastille or that she's a soldier who must tramp through mud on her way to pick up meat for the cook. But the one that sticks the most is a fancy she's always had—that she's a princess. Not the kind who lives among riches in a tower, but the kind whose quiet, polite bearing gives her power even when she's reduced, like in the classic fairy tale, to horrid circumstances. Knowing she's secretly a princess allows Sara to stand all of the abuse heaped on her by Miss Minchin and the other household, who seem determined to grind her face in her fall from wealth as much as they can. In fact, her imagination comes to mean life or death — because for the one brief moment she drops the charade that her doll, Emily, is her friend — one of her oldest and best games — she loses her faith entirely:
"I can't bear this," said the poor child, trembling. "I know I shall die. I'm cold; I'm wet; I'm starving to death. I've walked a thousand miles today, and they have done nothing but scold me from morning until night. And because I could not find that last thing the cook sent me for, they would not give me any supper. Some men laughed at me because my old shoes made me slip down in the mud. I'm covered with mud now. And they laughed. Do you hear?" "You are nothing but a doll!" she cried; "nothing but a doll-doll-doll! You care for nothing. You are stuffed with sawdust. You never had a heart. Nothing could make you feel. You are a doll!"
But luckily, in a stroke up luck, a man from India, very wealthy, and very ill, moves in next door, and Sarah is swept up in another tide of "supposing" about the mysterious gentleman that distracts her entirely from her rough circumstances, and reminds her again of how bizarrely her life has altered from the days when she herself was salaamed. Fueled by a rooftop friendship with the Indian man's attendant and his monkey, she is able to continue to imagine herself out of misery. In one of my favorite, most bun-like scenes in literature, Sarah trudges through the winter night, aching with hunger, and finds and four-pence. Though she's starving herself, she stands by the princess code:
"Suppose I had dry clothes on," she thought. "Suppose I had good shoes and a long thick coat and merino stockings and a whole umbrella. And suppose—suppose—just when I was near a baker's where they sold hot buns, I should find sixpence—which belonged to nobody. Suppose, if I did, I should go into the shop buy six of the hottest buns and eat them all without stopping." ....it was actually a piece of silver—a tiny piece trodden upon by many feet, but still with spirit enough left to shine a little. Not quite a sixpence, but the next thing to it—a four-penny piece. ....and then if you believe me, she looked straight at the shop directly facing her. And it was a baker's shop, and a cheerful, stout, motherly woman with rosy cheeks was putting into the window a tray of delicious newly baked hot buns, fresh from the oven—large, plump shiny buns, with currants in them.
..."If I'm a princess," she was saying—"if I'm a princess—when they were poor and driven from their thrones—they always shared—with the populace—if they met one poorer and hungrier than themselves. They always shared. Buns are a penny each. If it had been sixpence I could have eaten six....." ...See," she said, putting the bun in the ragged lap, "this is nice and hot. Eat it, and you will not feel so hungry." The child started and stared up at her, as if such sudden, amazing good luck almost frightened her; then she snatched up the bun and began to cram it into her mouth with great wolfish bites. "Oh, my! Oh, my!" Sara heard her say hoarsely, in wild delight. "Oh, my!" Sara took out three more buns and put them down. The sound in the hoarse, ravenous voice was awful. "She is hungrier than I am," she said to herself. "She's starving." But her hand trembled when she put down the fourth bun. "I'm not starving," she said—and she put down the fifth.
This small act — as readers know — changes the course of that girl's life entirely. But it hasn't wrought the titanic change because Sara has been good. Giving away the buns IS good, of course, but Sarah has only been able to do it for two reasons. First, her imagination has allowed her spirits up, which keep her heart open to others. Second, her imagination allows her to envision the circumstances of others — to feel them so strongly that she knows, even though she is wild with hunger, that the girl is starving. I've always disliked the title of this book, because it seems to evoke a girl swatched in cloying, mincing pink, as far from the intense, intelligent Sara as one can be. Princesses in fairy tales are saved from drudgery because of something "princessy" in their essential natures that is revealed as their birthright, but Sara acting like a polite princess changes little in those who would seek to destroy her. (Obviously, it completely enrages Miss Michin beyond belief.) And that's because being a princess is really only a vehicle for Sara. Although Miss Minchin thinks she puts on airs, Sara is not of the belief that she's inherently better than anyone else. Even if she was, what matters is that she's just able to imagine better than anyone else — which, in turn, makes her a better person. When a rat skitters out into her attic room, she doesn't kill it — she understands it: "I dare say it is rather hard to be a rat," she mused. "Nobody likes you. People jump and run away and scream out, 'Oh, a horrid rat!' I shouldn't like people to scream and jump and say, 'Oh, a horrid Sara!'..." The rat becomes her friend, and her imagination gives her power over others as well — not only to keep Miss Minchin at bay, but to be kind to others, and to make friends — the friends who eventually lead her to her new guardian, thus restoring her good fortune and her fortunes. So, are we the products of our circumstances or do our circumstances determine who we are? Do I look like a cognitive-behavioral therapist? What I care about is that holding a glass slipper in our hearts isn't the way to save ourselves. Telling stories is. • • • • • Hi, pretty girls! Well, last week's Plotfinder was dispatched with great dispatch by all of you, but with MOST dispatch by one Jaime B. into my inbox at exactly 4:04 p.m., with the correct answer of Us and Uncle Fraud by Lois Lowry, and WHY haven't I done any Lowry yet? What is wrong with me. She goes in the next cycle after this one! Jaime, please write me at email@example.com to claim your gift of ONE COLUMN DEMAND. Can you believe the summer is almost over? I'm dying. Anyway, this week's Plotfinder, from reader Molly E., has so many jarring details it's the only thing that has of yet successfully distracted me briefly from the gale-force winds of time's passage: There's a book about an American girl who is visiting England with her family, but she is somehow connected to another girl in the past, maybe it's her grandmother or great aunt as a girl, or maybe it was her nanny who told her stories, who was German or Austrian, but went to live with an English family. I think the girl in the present had been given, or had inherited, or had found, an emerald ring belonging to the girl from the past, and maybe her diary as well. There was a story about Satan/Lucifer falling out of Heaven and losing the jewel from his forehead, and that was where the emerald in the ring came from. Both girls came to believe that the ring gave them the power to make things happen, but this turned out to be terrifying for them rather than fun. I think one or both of them spent a tortured, sleepless night thinking she had killed someone with her power. The boy and girl in the English family the German girl lived with teased her and said she ate "noodle strudel". They had a doll that looked like an African prince. The doll was called "Nirob", which is Robin spelled backwards. The American girl gave a pound to a street musician, and her parents said "Do you have any idea how much money that was?" and she said "Yes, it was exactly..." (I don't remember exactly how much it was, but it was a little over $2.00. This was my first inkling that there was such a thing as an exchange rate.) The doll was called Nirob, which is Robin spelled...see, it's not TWO MINUTES from being September at all! As always, send your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave your answers in the comments. First correct answer wins one column request. Okay. Guess what? There is going to be a BOOK RELATED TO WHAT OCCURS IN THIS COLUMN. Would you like to know about fun things that relate to it, online, in-book and on-the-scene? Of course you do! If so, please send an email with the words HOT INFORMATIONAL BUNS in the subject line to email@example.com, and I will put you on it! (Related: I am trying to figure out how to do one of those one-click things that can help you sign up with more ease and alacrity, and as soon as I negotiate WEP with my router, which is to say, shave 10 mental years off my age, I will get on it.) Now, for the next cycle of books. As we descend into the last remnants of beach weather, get ready to READ.... Next week: Flowers in the Attic The week following: Bridge to Terabithia The next logical time I would be talking about: Sister of the Bride YAY I CANNOT WAIT!!!!!!!! As always, send your additional comments, desires and prognostications to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, cuz I loves to hear from you. I will immediately invest all communiques in diamond mines. A Little Princess Lizzie Skurnick [The Old Hag] Earlier: Tiger Eyes: Cuando Los Lagartijos Corren •Homecoming: A Dicey Prospect Go Ask Alice: Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
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•Stranger With My Face: Stop Projecting
•Happy Endings Are All Alike: The Price Of Fault
•The Pigman: A Day No Friends Would Die
•Julie Of The Wolves: The Call Of The Wild
• Deenie: Brace Yourself
•A Wrinkle In Time: Quit Tesseracting Up
•Love Is One Of The Choices: No, Not That 'Sex And The City'
•The Girl With The Silver Eyes: Little Pitchers Have Big Pharma
•Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself: Springtime For Hitler, Part II
•Summer Of My German Soldier: Springtime For Hitler, Part I
•From The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: City Of Angels
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•Are You There Crazy Psychic Muse? It's Me, Lois Duncan
•The Secret Garden: Still No Idea What A Missel Thrush Is
•To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie: No Telephone To Child Services
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•The Witch Of Blackbird Pond: Colonies, Slit Sleeves And Stocks, Oh My!
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•All-Of-A-Kind Family: Where I Would Put Something Yiddish If I Thought You Goyishe Farshtinkiners Would Farshteyn
•Island Of The Blue Dolphins: I'm A Cormorant And I Don't Care
•Little House In The Big Woods: I Play With A Pig Bladder Like It's A Balloon
•The Grounding Of Group Six: Have Fun At School, Kids, And Don't Forget To Die