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Problematic Favorites: A Little Princess – Part 25 Parallel Lives

Wednesday, August 10, 2016 - 08:00

When one has re-read this story as many times as I have, it’s easy to forget that at the beginning of Chapter 12 (The Other Side of the Wall) we haven’t yet learned just who the Indian Gentleman is and why it’s relevant that he will take an interest in Sara. This chapter is something of a deep breath and a regrouping. We get a series of vignettes revealing what an array of characters are thinking about each other--though in some cases without knowing that’s who they’re thinking of.

Sara has become attached to the Indian Gentleman in that way she has of feeling empathy for anyone with problems, though the only problem he seems to have is poor health and perhaps depression. She begins attributing stories to him, especially when she hears the gossip that he’d had misfortunes involving diamond mines. The similarity to Captain Crewe’s misfortunes is quite enough to attract her sympathy, and this sympathy will serve her in good stead when she eventually learns that the Indian Gentleman is the “wicked friend with the diamond mines” whose brush with ruin may have precipitated her father’s death. We might wonder that the coincidence doesn't strike Sara as curious and suspicious--she makes no direct connection in her mind with her father's friend. But let's not forget that Sara is, after all, a little girl, for whom the idea of diamond minds is an icon rather than a concrete reality. It's a source of romantic notions of fabulous wealth, and the question of just how many fabulous diamond mines there might be in India, and how many of them might have had disastrous financial problems, is not much to the point. The connection between Mr. Carrisford an her father is purely conceptual at this point, not something to be questioned as a practical matter.

And so Sara is free to sympathize with, rather than to resent, Mr. Carrisford. Resentment will be a brief blip in a later chapter between the moment when Sara learns that he is the "wicked friend" and when she learns that he's also "the magician". All that is yet to come, but it serves to set up a parallel narrative in this chapter, first with Sara imagining herself serving as “Little Missus” to Mr. Carrisford (the Indian Gentleman) just as she had for her father, and then with Carrisford recalling how Crewe had called his daughter “Little Missus”.

But before we get to the second part of that echo, we are introduced to the real people behind Sara’s imaginings of the “Large Family” (the Carmichaels), and their interactions with Mr. Carrisford. The Carmichael children evidently have a habit of visiting next door to cheer up their father's client, and to enjoy his curios and stories from India. This will make it plausible for them to be present in his house at the emotional climax later. It’s also in this context that we learn that Ram Dass speaks only Hindi, and that both he and the Carmichael children have been telling Mr. Carrisford about their encounters with, and observations of Sara. Except, of course, that none of them know her by name. She is “the little girl who is not a beggar”, identified by the contrast between her circumstances and her behavior.

Just as Sara has made a connection in her imagination between her father and Mr. Carrisford, Carrisford imagines a connection between the-little-girl-who-is-not-a-beggar and the little girl he is searching for. He wonders if the object of his quest could possibly have ended up in such abject circumstances. It’s interesting that Carmichael--who is portrayed as a kind, jolly, loving, fatherly man--discourages this line of empathy, pointing out that there are plenty of poor servant girls in the world and one can’t make all their lives better. I’m suddenly struck by a Christ allegory embedded here. “For I hungered and you gave me meat. ... Lord, when did we feed thee? ... Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it to me.” The story literalizes this: Carrisford believes he is offering charity to a random stranger for Sara Crewe’s sake, then eventually comes to know that it was Sara herself who benefitted. Carrisford as a "redeemed sinner" archetype hadn't occurred to me before--certainly Sara as a Christ figure hadn't occurred to me before! I may need to think about that more and see if there are other relevant bits.

Carrisford and Carmichael have been trying to trace Sara's whereabouts, hindered by the fact that Carrisford has somehow gotten the impression that she'd been sent to school in Paris because of her mother's French origins. This will cause them to follow a red herring all the way to Moscow (or rather, Carmichael will follow it). This quest is how Carrisford earns his eventual success: by undergoing the pain of failures. In the conversation about the Moscow trip, we see another one of those peculiar digs at pragmatic businesswomen.

Madame Pascal, head of a girls’ school in Paris, had a pupil who was orphaned when her father--an English officer named Crewe or Carew--died in India. The girl was then adopted by the Russian parents of her best friend at the school, who had died. But Carrisford and Carmichael seem to take it as a personal affront that Madame Pascal can’t provide further details of the adoptive parents. And Carmichael notes, “She was a shrewd, worldly Frenchwoman, and was evidently only too glad to get the child so comfortably off her hands when the father’s death left her totally unprovided for. Women of her type do not trouble themselves about the futures of children who might prove burdens.” Evidently Madame Pascal is to be understood as a duplicate of Miss Minchin, rather than as someone who facilitated an adoption that addressed the sorrows of both parties in a positive way. Of course, we aren’t privy to Carmichael’s discussions with Madame Pascal, but there’s that word “worldly” again--one we hear again and again applied to Miss Minchin. It makes me suspicious, that’s all. Wealthy people have the luxury of not being "worldly". The headmistresses of girls' schools need to be worldly to survive.

But before we gloss over it, it’s when Carmichael notes that the girl’s surname was Carew or Crewe that we are first given to understand that it’s Sara they’re talking about. Carrisford immediately confirms this by confirming the details of Sara’s history and berating himself for failing his old friend and the friend’s daughter, ending with the observation that he never learned the details of that daughter’s present situation, not even her actual name. Just the nickname she’d been given: Little Missus. And so the chapter closes, with Carrisford agonizing over his so-far fruitless search for Crewe's "Little Missus" and Sara thinking sorrowfully on the long-lost days when she was that very "Little Missus".

I may, at some point, digress on the topic of how this book fits into Victorian images of girls as "wives in training". From a modern point of view (and I try hard to suppress reading this through a modern point of view) there are some borderline-squicky echoes in how Sara is set up to imagine herself as Captain Crewe's "junior wife". (E.g., visualizing herself as returning to India to function as his hostess, in addition to the whole "little missus" thing.) Some of my own "what happens after" imaginings have asked the question of exactly what Sara's relationship to Carrisford will eventually be. Guardian, yes, but it feels like the door is left open for it to turn into something other than paternal. And the main reason that there are no direct hints in that possible direction is the complete absence in the book of any projection of any of the girls into adulthood. No question of what they will be doing when they leave school. No speculations on eventual love and marriage. It's very refreshing, to be honest. But it means that there are some big blind spots.