Today’s discussion springs off of the later part of Chapter 11 (Ram Dass) but ranges backward and forward to examine Sara’s concept of what it means to be a princess. After the encounter with Ram Dass, and being reminded of what it was like to be treated as someone rich and privileged, Sara contemplates her current expectations and makes a resolution. “If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.”
But what does that essence of princess-hood mean to her? It wouldn’t be easy to extract from the next passage, where she imagines the final days of Marie Antoinette in prison and sees her as an inspiring figure of strength, dignity, and nobility. I don’t know—maybe Marie Antoinette did become a tower of strength and dignity at the end, but she seems a very odd sort of role model, especially given the behaviors Sara invests with royal meaning. But conversely, having chosen Marie Antoinette as her icon of royal behavior, the imagery of revolution and the Bastille and all the rest provides a framework for turning the school garret and Sara’s menial duties into a Story.
It is in the behaviors that Sara performs when she is “being a princess” that we truly see her touchstones.
A princess is polite to everyone, high or low, no matter how rude or harsh other people are to her. When she was riding high, Sara always said please and thank you to the school servants. When she was riding low, she continued to do so, even when they were rude to her and mocked her.
A princess performs her duties without external complaint, even when those duties have been thrust on her without her consent. And even when she is seething inside. When Princess Sara took on the role of mothering Lottie, she didn’t always enjoy it, but she carried through. Now that her duties involving cleaning and running errands in all weather and following whatever orders the other servants give her, Sara takes pride in performing everything asked of her as best she can.
And “pride” is a good word for it. Not just the pride that one assigns to the downtrodden who have nothing left but pride, but a privately smug, self-satisfied pride. This is one of the things that humanizes Sara consistently: she is not inherently and reflexively “good”, she works hard to perform goodness no matter what she feels. We see this in Sara’s silent internal dialogue directed at Miss Minchin, “You don’t know that you are saying these things to a princess, and that if I chose I could wave my hand and order you to execution. I only spare you because I am a princess, and you are a poor, stupid, unkind, vulgar old thing, and don’t know any better.”
It’s clear that Miss Minchin accurately senses that hidden pride and smugness. There’s a point later in the book when Miss Minchin describes it as “defiance” and the authorial voice contradicts this, saying it was nothing like defiance. But I disagree: Sara is defiant. And we applaud her for being so. She uses her politeness and calm demeanor as a sword and shield to maintain her integrity in the face of circumstance.
A princess is generous; she grants largesse. When Sara was rich, she expressed her generosity through tangible gifts, such as the food she sneaks to Becky., but also through the generosity of spirit that led her to tutor Ermengarde, and to invite the younger students to play with her dolls, and to share her stories with anyone who wanted to listen. Now that Sara has so little to give of tangible benefit, she comes to understand the nobility in giving until it hurts, simply because you can. Because you have the ability to give and the insight to know another’s need. We will see this later on “the dreadful day” when Sara’s lucky fortune in finding a coin to buy bread turns into a challenge to her Princess Nature when she is faced with a starving beggar.
And with Sara’s rededication to this model of princess-hood, understood through a new lens, she is ready to enter the next phase: earning her reward.