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Problematic Favorites: A Little Princess - Part 1: Introduction

Wednesday, February 17, 2016 - 11:45

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

I’m finding that the new Wednesday series of research squibs is being more creative work than I’m happy about currently, so I thought I’d jump the tracks to a different series that I’ve been contemplating for years.

Sometimes we like things that we know are problematic. Sometimes it takes us a while to realize many of the problematic aspects of things we like. And sometimes we aren’t sure how to engage with that aspect of things we like. For a number of years, I’ve been promising myself to expiate the problematic aspects of one of my favorite comfort-reads by dong a detailed examination and dissecting what it is about it that appeals to me, and what parts of it make me wince and why. So for the foreseeable future, my Wednesday blog is going to be a detailed, chapter-by-chapter critique and celebration of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel A Little Princess.

It’s a story with some really delightful themes: I love the way the entire world of the story centers around female characters, and the way the protagonist is shown to struggle to follow her better impulses, and the overall symbolic structure of how the protagonist earns her happy ending. And it’s a story with some seriously problematic shit: like orientalism and colonialism, and some peculiar gaps in its critique of class, and a rather nauseating equation of being fat with lower intelligence, and some plot holes you could drive a coach-and-four through.

And yet I come back to this story again and again. Back when I was in grad school and avoiding fiction that made me work too hard (because my academic reading sucked up all my reading energy), I’d do a Little Princess re-read any time I needed a pick-me-up. When I started having massive problems with insomnia and discovered that running audiobooks was the best mitigation I could find, the recording of A Little Princess read by Karen Savage went into heavy rotation (with its only flaw being that it doesn’t run quite long enough to cover the whole night). So rather than simply calling it my “guilty pleasure” (a term I hate), I decided to do penance by acknowledging the flaws while explaining why I keep coming back.

This first installment is going to be a bit of background, and then I’m going to begin working through the book chronologically (though I’ll be bouncing around when discussing themes and plot-holes). Spoilers will abound, but dammit the book was published over a hundred years ago. Statute of limitations and all that.

The Wikipedia entry on the novel gives some interesting background, including that it was an expansion of a previous, much less detailed novella, and may have been inspired by an unfinished fragment by Charlotte Brontë. Burnett was a prolific writer of both children’s and adult fiction, though she is best known now for the former. In addition to A Little Princess, the works people are most likely to have heard of include The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy, all of which have a continuing theme of children who have lost their parents (although in the case of LLF, the loss of his mother is temporary), are massively displaced from their original place of residence, and eventually are beneficiaries of wealthy and privileged men with some indirect family connection to them.

One suspects a certain amount of authorial wish-fulfillment, given that Burnett’s father died when she was very young, and her family moved from England to the USA in impoverished circumstances when she was a teenager (she began writing to help support her family). She never relied on a wealthy benefactor, however, and even though her husband became a physician early in their marriage, she was the primary breadwinner of the family, enabling them to enjoy international travel and rather lavish socializing.

The basic plot of A Little Princess involves the riches-to-rags-to-riches story of motherless Sara Crewe, who is sent from a life of colonial privilege in India to boarding school in London and, after establishing her place in the schoolgirl pecking order, loses everything when her father simultaneously loses his fortune and his life. Sara is demoted from “princess” to scullery maid at the school and struggles to maintain a positive approach to life until, as a reward for her inherent virtue, she is discovered by her late father’s business partner who restores her fortunes and whisks her away to a life of comfort and affection.

Next week, I’ll lay out the basics of why the story appeals to me and begin Chapter One.