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Problematic Favorites: A Little Princess - Part 11 Blinded by Diamonds

Wednesday, April 27, 2016 - 12:30

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

Following the “moral accounting” scheme of plotting, it should be obvious that the element introduced in Chapter 6 “The Diamond Mines” is setting Sara up for her fall. After all, what greater moral debt could one accrue than to fall into the opportunity for the fabulous wealth associated with investment in a diamond mine? And what better example of how wealth and privilege breed greater wealth and privilege than to contemplate just who would be in a position to have an old school friend casually offer them the opportunity for such an investment?

As the story notes, it isn’t even so much the business aspects of the investment as the sense of glittering enchantment that the phrase “diamond mines” conjures up. Sara plunges into expanding on this image in her story-telling for her friends…and here she has an uncharacteristic failure of empathy.

Sara is perfectly capable of recognizing and disapproving of how hard the school scullery maid is worked. But in her stories about “labyrinthine passages in the bowels of the earth, where sparkling stones studded the walls and roofs and ceilings, and strange, dark men dug them out with heavy picks”, it never seems to occur to her to consider that her anticipated wealth will come at the cost of the sweat and blood and often lives of those “strange dark men”. Although we seem to be led to believe that the diamond mines are in India (where Sara’s father is), it’s impossible not to visualize the origins of the De Beers diamond empire and its founder Cecil Rhodes.

I don’t know that Burnett intended us to factor in that associated moral debt. Probably not, since the question is never really even alluded to. (And eventually when the mines retrieve themselves and the wealth is realized, the exploitative nature of the industry is never touched on.) This (although with the issues of orientalism) is one of the foundations for me considering my love for this story “problematic”. Stories about how virtuous people are rewarded with fabulous wealth rarely acknowledge that most sudden wealth is created at a great cost to some set of unfortuante people behind the scenes.

At any rate, it is in the context of the school Mean Girls stirring up jealousy of this new development in Sara’s life that they turn the “princess pretend” into a weapon and start taunting her with it. And this section of the chapter brings in two major bits of foreshadowing: Sara’s fascination with the French Revolution (showing her immersed in a book about the freeing of the prisoners from the Bastille), and a demonstration of how Sara uses the “princess pretend” as a self-control mechanism. I love that Sara isn’t automatically good. She gets angry and feels spiteful. She has self-centered impulses (as when she resents having to come out of her book to soothe Lottie). She responds to Lavinia with sharp words. But she brings herself back to her center by reminding herself that she is a princess, and princesses don’t slap each other like “gutter children” and fly into rages.

Sara has an oddly idealized image of what it is to be a princess—something that particularly comes out in her historical hero-worship for Marie Antoinette—but that’s a discussion for a later point in the book. Suffice it to say that the “princess pretend” is not about actual royalty, but about an idealized image that Sara has associated with the role of princess. Princess as a job, rather than an inheritance.