A Little Princess

Francis Hodgeson Burnette

I first read this book while camping with a group of girlfriends somewhere in British Columbia. I don't remember much about the trip, maybe because I was absorbed in the bittersweet tragedies of young Sara Crewe. It might have been a birthday trip because the book was a gift from one of the girls.

I may not remember much about the whole thing, but I do remember someone telling me the light made it hard for them to sleep. So I took the flashlight into the woods, sat on a log, and read through the night. It was cold, but I didn't care. All I cared about was Sara, and Becky, and what would happen to the girls at Miss Minchin's Select Seminary.

There are three books, rightfully classified as classics in the English speaking world, that most women my age will recognize. Chances are, they identified with one of these characters: Leslie Burke from Bridge to Terabithia, Anne (with an E) from Anne of Green Gables, and Sara Crewe from A Little Princess. While all three have stuck with me throughout my life, Sarah is the character I identified with most strongly.

Many children's books rely on the circumstances to drive the narrative; children have little control over their own lives and are swept from one event to the next, relying on their ingenuity and the kindness of adults to keep them from ever experiencing true disaster. A Little Princess doesn't completely break this pattern, but it does give us a heroine who, when I was young, was everything I wanted to be.

Burnette spends the whole first half of the book bringing the reader into a world where Sara truly is treated like a little princess. Some would call her spoiled, but it never ruins her character. She is curious, intelligent, and kind to the other privileged girls. But her closest friendships are with the outsiders; Ermengarde, who is bullied for being stupid, and Becky, a mistreated orphan scullery maid. Her behavior is contrasted with the false kindness and saccharine insincerity of the adults around her.

In one unfathomable instant, Sara goes from privileged heiress to penniless chamber maid. She is given no time to mourn her beloved father before all her possessions are sold to pay his debts, and she is turned into a drudge for the school. In the second half of the book, Sara is always aware of the striking difference between her past and her present. She is now the pitied drudge, and eventually realizes the great irony of her circumstances when a privileged toddler calls her a little beggar girl, and offers her his six-penny piece. But before she allows circumstances to embitter her, she is saved by her old friends. Becky is a constant and true companion from the first, and Ermengarde eventually finds the courage to remind Sara of their friendship.

The adults in Sara's life, those who cossetted her and showed her off for her wealth, hoping to soak in some of the spare glory, are shown for what they really are. Miss Minchin is a grasping, greedy woman who uses Sara and Becky mercilessly. Amalia Minchin is weak and dishonest. The cook and housemaids bully and mock her. Through it all Sara maintains her calm, her manners, and the generous spirit that is part of her true nature.

Partially due to the era of it's publication, A Little Princess is both a feminist icon and completely stilted toward the patriarchal sovereignty. The majority of the characters are female, from heroine to villainness. But the male characters are all kind, honest, and end up saving Sara from her dreadful circumstances. Published in 1908, it can be forgiven some of the racist leanings and unrecognized (at the time) colonialist stereotypes. Not because it deserves credit for trying, but because Sara herself is a beloved character who transcends those criticisms. The book may be problematic in other ways, but Sara Crewe is a fully realized character who works to overcome her flaws of temper, bitterness, anger, and privilege induced blindness.

Sara herself poses the thematic question: It's easy to be good when you have everything, but what would I be like if I were truly tested?

The point of privilege is that we are not aware of it. Growing up, I never would have believed mine was a background of privilege. My family lived below the poverty line for most of my childhood. I got my first job during middle school, and worked two jobs all through college and university. It never occurred to me that working was, in itself, a privilege. That as a relatively attractive white girl, I was considered more employable than many others, even those who might have been better qualified. Then I started traveling, and my privilege became the focus of my whole world. A white woman, traveling alone in almost any country is practically the definition of privilege.

I reread A Little Princess when I need to be reminded of who I want to be. When I need to remember that change from privileged ignorance to loving understanding is possible.

“Everything's a story - You are a story -I am a story.”

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