“I’ve often thought,” said Sara, in her reflecting voice, “that I should like to be a princess; I wonder what it feels like. I believe I will begin pretending I am one.”
~ A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Chapter V. Becky
If it seems that the children’s novels I’ve been recommending have a similar tone—that of overactive imaginations, spunky orphan girls, etc.—I assure you that this pattern has only just now occurred to me as I’ve been making them. The truth is these are the classic children’s novels I loved as a girl, and if I loved them—before all my English Literature courses in college or reading all the documentations on how to classify and analyze and critique literature, back when I enjoyed it with a naïve enthusiasm that children tend to have for stories—then I’m sure other people will love them.
Maybe these books have been recommended to death. Maybe what I say about them is nothing new under the sun. Oh well. Nowadays for every plug for A Little Princess there’s five reviews of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. It’s all well and good for new books to be brought to readers’ attention. But it’s also good to remind them of the “golden oldies,” as it were. And that’s what I’m going to do today.
My mom read the two famous tales The Secret Garden and A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I could have read them myself—and I probably did, about a dozen times, when I was a girl—but she could do the voices, which is always an important consideration. On the surface the two novels are similar. Both are about an orphan girl living in an environment that is contrary to their nature. Both stories are connected to the British Raj. Both involve magic, and, without resorting to fairy godmothers or genie lamps, magical things happen.
This is where the stories differ: the two main heroines are polar opposites. Mary Lenox is the paragon of brats, raised in India where her parents die and she barely cares because her parents never cared for her. She is sent to her uncle’s in Yorkshire where she makes a total pain out of herself for a while until the brisk Northern air gets her healthy and she makes friends, deals with her even brattier cousin Colin, and gets into the hobby of gardening.
(Yes. The most secretest garden ever where you can totally see the door on the inside even though on the outside it is INVISIBLE.)
If Mary is the paragon of brats when her story begins, Sara Crewe is unrelentingly perfect. The daughter of a rich soldier stationed in India, she is enrolled in a boarding-school for girls and given anything money could buy…until her father dies, his fortune disappears, and the villainous schoolmistress decides to take the opportunity to vent her jealousies on the poor orphan. Sara is mature beyond her years despite her love of make-believe, and even when she is stricken with poverty and trials beyond what a normal child would endure she behaves as a princess, quietly supporting and leading her band of loyal friends. Her perfection can get kind of annoying at times, to be honest.
Both of these books influenced me greatly as a child. I tried to get healthy lungs by going out and playing in the rude, windy air of the autumn. (And all I got was strep. Guess you have to actually be in Yorkshire to have that health-cure work.) Whenever I found even a penny on the road I was reminded of the time a starving Sara finds money in the gutter, buys hot cross buns, and then gives them away to someone even more unfortunate than herself.
Although I never found either Mary or Sara a literary kindred spirit (both are on the extreme ends of the personality spectrum), Burnett had the ability to craft a tale where you root for the character, where you see the scene richly laid out before you, and where the people and places and events seem real and tangible. These are in many ways quiet stories about the events in a child’s life—and many of the events aren’t all that far-fetched considering how orphans were treated in Victorian England—yet Burnett paints a picture of adventure where goodness triumphs over evil, even in the smallest of ways.
RECOMMENDED READING AGE: Any age, unless a child is sensitive to the suffering of fictional characters and would be upset in particular by Sara’s darkest hours.
PARENTAL NOTES: None. Mary may be a bad example, but she’s presented as a singularly unpleasant person at first and I doubt any child would use her as a role model.
AVAILABILITY: There’s a collection of all three of Burnett’s famous children’s books (including Little Lord Fauntleroy). If you’re interested in getting individual volumes of each book, luckily there is a wide array of hardcover copies, from CRW Publishing’s cute “Collector’s Library” editions to Sterling Classics and Barnes and Noble Leatherbound. The best illustrator of both books is Tasha Tudor, who did watercolors for both A Little Princess and The Secret Garden.
ADAPTATIONS: Most adaptations of A Little Princess make some changes—having her father be secretly alive but with amnesia, and often playing up the Indian element in how Sara believes in magic—but for the most part keep true to the story. There is an adaptation starring Shirley Temple, a British miniseries from 1986 and a 1995 Warner Bros. production.
The most recent adaptation of The Secret Garden is from 1993 and although I’m sure I’ve seen it, I can’t for the life of me remember a thing about it. I’ll have to borrow it for the library and refresh my memory!