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A Little Princess

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We finally come to a close in this re-read. The final chapter provides a perfect conclusion to the overall plot shape. After the very intense conflicts and resolutions in the previous chapter, we have a chance to breathe and relax and enjoy the continuing “magical” delights of Sara’s return to “princess” status. But the structure of the moral accounts includes one more balance item.

In the second half of Chapter 18, we finally have the satisfaction of seeing Miss Minchin receive her just desserts, though it's a very self-inflicted and forgiving comeuppance. Miss Minchin, having heard from one of the housemaids that Sara had gone into Mr. Carrisford's house, comes in high dudgeon to fetch her back, only to find her worst nightmare has come true: Sara has turned out to be a "princess" after all, with a wealthy benefactor who knows the whole sad story of Sara's degradation. We see Miss Minchin's worldviews come crashing into each other.

Once Sara encounters the Indian Gentleman in person, everyone’s truth starts coming out fairly quickly, only drawn out by Carrisford’s stumbling reluctance to ask directly, lest he be disappointed once again. Sara refers to Ram Dass as a Lascar, leading to the revelation that she was born in India. Now, this on its own means little--no doubt all sorts of Anglo-Indian girls were sent to school in London. As Sara’s position at the school is teased out, Carrisford becomes more and more agitated and hands the questioning over to Carmichael.

Is it too much of a coincidence that Mr. Carmichael comes back from Moscow the very day that Sara needs to return the monkey to Mr. Carrisford? Perhaps, perhaps. Chapter 17 opens in expectation of this event, with three of the Carmichael children paying a friendly visit to the Indian Gentleman to cheer him up, such that they will also be conveniently at hand when their father (and later Sara) arrives. The scene has the feel of a carefully orchestrated stage setting, and so perhaps it is.

I have this image, in the weeks following the transformation of Sara’s attic, of Sara’s life splitting into a dual image: the magical, comfortable, secret life she shares with Becky “after hours”, and the continuance of the ostensibly miserable, down-trodden life she lives “downstairs”. The physical conditions of her labor remain identical, but it’s as if her spirit now floats above it all, knowing that a magical world is waiting for her, close at hand.

Chapter 16 is all about…well, let’s call it “comfort porn”. It’s the reflection of Sara’s “pretends” about warm clothes and hot food and a comfortable life. Only now it’s real. Both Sara and Becky have their practical moments. At first Becky eats quickly for fear the food might melt away like fairy gold. And they both have moments when they reassure themselves that even if The Magic had been a one-off experience—if it was just for that night and then disappeared forever—it was still a miracle to treasure.

The second part of chapter 15 might be thought of as the whiplash point. Lavinia, the head Mean Girl, has told tales on Ermengarde and sent Miss Minchin in an unprecedented second trip up to the attic to catch the girls in the midst of their pretend princess banquet. The extremity of MIss Minchin's anger can only really be understood as sparked by the disruption Sara brings to the proper order of things. Viewed from a distance, why should it matter that Ermengarde chose to share her food "care package" with Sara and Becky? Why should it matter that she shares her books?

In chapter 15, Sara (and the reader) enters an emotional roller-coaster of an evening. Fresh from the episode of the fourpence, the hot buns, and the beggar girl, she arrives back at the school only to become the target of secondhand rage. The cook has been berated by Miss Minchin--as we later learn, deservedly so for feeding Miss Minchin’s special dinner to her gentleman friend and then blaming the disappearance on Becky. Shit, as they say, rolls downhill.

While A Little Princess uses a very omniscient voice, it's also the case that the majority of the novel works through Sara's point of view and her experiences. So it's a bit of a break with the flow for Chapter 14 (What Melchisedec Heard and Saw) to stand entirely apart from her. It occurs to me, though, that in a way, Melchisedec the rat is standing in for Sara's connection to the events.

I think that Chapter 13 "One of the Populace" is my favorite part of A Little Princess. You know that tv commercial a couple years back--I think maybe it was for an insurance company but I could be wildly wrong--showing a long chain of people doing random kindnesses for a stranger in passing, which was witnessed by a third party who was then inspired to do a random kindness for a stranger in passing, which was witnessed...and so forth? Chapter 13 it a bit of that, showing how an act of selfless charity can touch and chance the hearts of others unknown.


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