This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.
(Starting this while waiting to board my flight to Chicago, but I see people lining up, so I'm guessing I won't post it until the other end of the flight. Maybe not until I get to the hotel this evening.)
I have a tendency to create timelines and genealogies and whatnot when analyzing books. There are no genealogical puzzles to sort out here, but I had to draw up a detailed timeline to figure out exactly when various things occur, how old various people are at the time, and how long certain situations are in place. A Little Princess contains 19 chapters. The first six take Sara from her arrival at the school at age 7 to the eve of her 11th birthday. Chapters 7-12 take her from the day of her disastrous 11th birthday to The Day of The Magic, which by my best evaluation appears to be about one and a half years later. Chapters 13-15 all take place on a single day (The Day of the Magic). Chapter 16 seems to cover several months., then 17-18 occur on a single day (the day of Mr. Carmichael's return from Russia), and the final chapter covers an unspecified period of at least several months. The passage of time is vague and only tentatively anchored by references to weather and sometimes general mentions of "holidays". It doesn't help that the text often ranges ahead and then circles back, making it hard to pin down the chronology of the individual events.
Plotting out a timeline also points up several places where the static nature of the background characters borders on absurdity. So let's lay out both the chronology of the chapters and the estimated ages of some of the girls.
Chapters 1-3: We are told explicitly that, at the beginning of the book, when Sara first arrives at the school, she is 7 years old, Lavinia is "nearly 13", and Lottie is "just 4 and the baby". Ermengarde's age is never specified, but it's implied that she's been at the school for at least one year previous, and if we take the age of 7 as the typical age of entrance, then she must be at least 8.
Chapter 4: The story does one of the "ranging ahead and circling back" things, talking about "the next few years" of Sara being at the school, but then returning to her first interactions with Lottie when Lottie is still identified as being 4.
Chapter 5: We are told explicitly that Sara has been at the school for "about 2 years" when Becky is hired and that Becky is 14. If we take "2 years" in absolute terms, then Sara is now 9, Lavinia is nearly 15, Lottie is 6, and Ermengarde is at least 10.
Chapter 6-7: Chapter 6 must cover a period of about 2 years, because it takes us up to Sara's 11th birthday. So at the end of this chapter, Sara is 11, Lavinia must be ca. 16-17, Lottie is 7, Ermengarde perhaps 12, and Becky 16.
Chapter 8-9: The chronology of these chapters is very confused. First we get a description of Sara's life for "the first month or two" after the disaster. Then we circle back to her first night in the attic. Then we get mention of Ermengarde being called home for "a few weeks" (presumably right after the party) and then after her return it's several more weeks before she gets desperate enough to venture up to the attic to confront Sara. In chapter 9 we circle back to scenes with Lottie right after the party and Lottie's eventual visit to the attic, and then up through the taming of the rat, Melchisidec and a few weeks later to Ermengarde's introduction to the rat. It's impossible to sort through this to figure out exactly how much time has passed. Certainly several months, possibly more.
Chapter 10: We get bits of language indicating the passage of time. Sara is out-growing her clothes. The weather is turning toward winter. And we get one clear date reference in the encounter with young Donald and the incident of the Christmas Sixpence. At some later date Mr. Carrisford moves in next door. It seems likely that several months have passed, perhaps even nearly half a year...
Chapter 11-12: ...because Sara's encounter with Ram Dass occurs in a weather context that suggests high summer. Chapter 12 discusses the Carmichael children getting to know Mr. Carrisford, among other events, and must take us up to wintertime again.
Chapter 13-15: These chapters cover the Dreadful Day that ended in The Magic. The weather definitely indicates winter, and Ermengarde's reference to presents from her father and to the coming holidays suggests that we're shortly before Christmas. But this is also the day that Mr. Carmichael leaves for Moscow, and given the description of his stay there (as well as the range of events that have to happen during his absence), the fact that "it had been snowing all day" on the day he returns suggests that either the author has lost track of her own timeline, or it was a very very late winter that year.
Chapter 16: This chapter covers the entire period between The Magic and the day of Mr. Carmichael's return. It's long enough for Sara and Becky to lose their half-starved look under the benefits of Mr. Carrisford's secret charity. I can't seem to make it longer than about 3 months, which may be just barely both long and short enough for everything to make sense.
Chapter 17-18: When Sara's identity is finally revealed to Mr. Carrisford, he claims to have been looking for her for two years. There's an implication that there was some delay after Captain Crewe's death before Carrisford had his act together enough to start searching. But even if he started searching the day of Crewe's death, I can't make the elapsed time into two years without a certain generous rounding up. But if we take it as a reference point that this is exactly two years after Sara's 11th birthday, then Sara is 13, Lottie is 9 (and yet still with the emotional behavior she had at age 4), Ermengarde is perhaps 14, and Becky is 18. Curiously, Lavinia is ca. 18-19 which seems a dreadfully advanced age at which to still be attending the school. And yet Lavinia is still there, still playing Mean Girl, and still caring about Sara's relative place and status rather than eagerly looking forward to getting out into the world and being treated as a grown-up woman. This is what I mean by the curious unchanging nature of the secondary characters.
Chapter 19: And we conclude with an interlude of an unspecified several months after Sara is adopted by Mr. Carrisford before she decides to return to the bakery that figured prominently in The Dreadful Day, and to set up her charitable program to distribute bread to hungry children.
There, that's out of the way. Later, I'll make a similar digression into linguistic issues, covering clues spread out across the book.