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Problematic Favorites: A Little Princess - Part 2: What I Love

Wednesday, February 24, 2016 - 09:30

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

I really want to emphasize that I’m doing this extended re-read/review of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess because I love the book (despite its flaws). So I thought it makes sense to start out by talking about why I love it.

One of the things that really strikes me is how thoroughly female-centered the story is. There are significant male characters, of course: Captain Crewe, Mr. Carrisford, Ram Das. But they are external to the core of the story. The friends, the enemies, the supporters, the antagonists, the authority figures, the followers--all of them are women and girls. And we get to see a wide variety of characters, such that none of them has to support the concept of femaleness on her own.

One might point out that this is not at all peculiar in a story set in a girls’ boarding school, but it is a rather strong contrast with the usual structure of current children’s literature. There is never any sense within this book that a girl can’t be a hero, or a faithful friend, or a jealous rival, or a redeemed guttersnipe. And with one sole exception that I can think of, the female characters are not interacting with each other, for good or ill, in relation to men. (The exception that comes to mind is the incident toward the end of the book when Cook has been treating her boyfriend the policeman from the school kitchen, and then blaming the missing food on Becky.)

In appreciating this, it can be important to read the book by its own lights and not look for meanings or implications that would feel off if it were written today. Some of this is purely in the use of language. So, for example, when the text describes Sara and her father as being “the greatest friends and lovers in the world,” one is not to understand that any inappropriate relationship exists. Only that an archaic sense of the word “lovers” is being used that does not necessarily imply romantic love. There are other plot points that might have a less innocent spin today, but which are innocuous taken in a context where the characters are simply not sexualized in any way. So it is, to some extent, unremarkable that interactions within the school are untroubled by tensions between the sexes. Unremarkable, but refreshing.

The other major thing I love about this story is the way in which Sara’s redemptive arc is constructed. This book came immediately to mind when I was in grad school and we were discussing the concept of “moral accounting” as a way of analyzing and studying literature. (Or, for that matter, any sort of story.) The basic idea is that our culture has a theory that the “accounts” of a person’s moral experience should balance. And specifically in a literary context, that a story tends to “make sense” when the accounts balance. (The metaphor of “moral accounting” is laid out in Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh. A concise and focused presentation of the component parts of the metaphor can be found here.)

What does it mean to have a moral balance? Having good things happen to you is to acquire “wealth”. Having bad things happen to you removes “wealth”. But taking good actions creates credit--something the person is owed. Alternately one might think of it as giving away wealth. However viewed, it reduces one's overall balance. Conversely, taking bad actions is the equivalent of acquiring a debt, or of stealing wealth, in either case creating a situation where something must be paid out to create balance.

Taken all together, there is a drive toward a balance of zero. So, for example, if a person starts from a neutral position and does lots of bad things, they’ve acquired debt that must be balanced out either by having something awful happen to them, or by having them repent and “make up for it” by doing good deeds. If someone is favored by fortune without having “earned” that acquisition, the story expects them to balance it either by doing good deeds, or by suffering calamity. Whereas the character who suffers from misfortunes--and especially one who does nothing but good at the same time--builds up a massive negative balance that can only be zeroed by having really wonderful things happen to them.

Sara Crewe starts off life with the handicap of a positive balance. She’s wealthy, talented, and beloved by her father. She balances this somewhat by always behaving well, but Accounting demands that she suffer some calamity. The magnitude of the calamity (losing her father and her fortune, and being forced to become a servant), combined with her determined insistence on behaving well (even when she struggles to do so), drive her even farther into a negative balance than the positive one she started with. This makes it possible for her to “earn” the reward of gaining a benevolent guardian (which isn’t quite as good as having a loving father) and regaining an even larger fortune than she started with. As the story ends, Sara is continuing to balance the weight of her good fortune by finding good deeds to perform. The moral balance is in constant motion, with adjustments and hyper-corrections, until it finds an equilibrium that brings Sara the reward she deserves. But if she hadn’t suffered so badly, or if she had given in to circumstance and become bad-tempered and spiteful, she wouldn’t have earned the same ending.

One of the consequences of looking at stories through the lens of moral accounting is that if you assume that a character’s accounts must zero out at the end of the story, you can work backwards to identify the moral “value” placed on their characteristics and actions. Fairy tales are an interesting exercise for this approach. For example, if you run the accounts for the witch in the Grimm Brothers’ story of Rapunzel, the only way you can make the accounts balance is if you consider the fact of being a witch to create a significant moral debt, regardless of any actions the character takes.

But I digress. What it comes down to is: I love A Little Princess because of how thoroughly Sara earns her happy ending through her own agency. While the overt facts of the story appear to return her fortune to her through a somewhat improbable chain of events, on an accounting basis, the ending is not merely probable, but actively required.

I'd meant to begin chapter 1 this week, but I think this is enough. Next week I’ll start the actual analytic review with The Mystery of Captain Crewe’s Money.