Despite its age, A Little Princess has a lot of elements that will sound familiar: Mean Girls, a new face on the scene who gets undue attention and is resented and punished for that attention, then a fall from grace at which point the heroine shows her character, and is rewarded for her virtue by an incredible reversal of fortunes. But while all those things are there -- the difficulties of negotiating the nastiness that girls can show other girls, for example -- that's not what makes me love this book.
Now, I'll just say this up front: If you think the plot in A Little Princess is absurd, I won't be able to convince you otherwise. I can well see how people might react that way. I love it, but not everyone has to love what I love. (No, really!)
Sara Crewe is the pampered only child of Captain Ralph Crewe. As the book starts, he brings her from India to London when she turns seven so that she can be a "parlor-boarder" at Miss Minchin's Select Seminary for Girls, which was recommended to him by friends. He buys her an absurd amount of clothes, and a special doll, Emily, who also gets an absurd amount of clothes. When he leaves, she's bereft but determined to be brave like a proper soldier.
School is a bit of a mixed bag for Sara. She loves books and studying, but she doesn't like being singled out by Miss Minchin as the "star pupil." There's a wonderful scene when Miss Minchin assumes that Sara will resist learning French when, in fact, she's already fluent in the language. Miss Minchin won't let Sara explain herself so, when the French master shows up, she speaks to him in French. He's thrilled with her, and Miss Minchin is furious.
For four years, Sara is the rich student liked by some and despised by others. Then, on her eleventh birthday, her father's solicitor arrives to say that Ralph Crewe has died . . . penniless. (Diamond mines, good friend from Eton, lost everything, yadda yadda.) All the clothes are gone, as is the French maid, the private parlor, and the rest of the trappings of wealth and privilege.
At this point, I need to explain about the title. While she is still rich, Sara imagines that she is a princess. It's pretty clear this is intended to convey both superiority of class but also character; that a princess -- a real princess -- would be gracious, calm and generous no matter what her personal situation. The Mean Girls find out about this and mock her, but their barbs don't have the desired effect. When all the money is gone, Sara is turned into an unpaid teacher's aide and errand-running drudge at Miss Minchin's, and she has to draw upon her imagination and her inner resources to keep her composure. (Which makes her sound like a prig, but Burnett sticks in just enough age-appropriate emotional outbursts to keep Sara this side of insufferable.)
When I was a child, the loneliness in A Little Princess was its emotional core: the feeling of being forsaken and yet still determined to survive even as the people around you undercut your efforts. (I can really relate to that.) But re-reading it for this post, I was struck by the following passage, where Sara is alone with her doll, Emily, who never answers Sara's questions:
"As to answering, though," said Sara, trying to console herself, "I don't answer very often. I never answer when I can help it. When people are insulting you, there is nothing so good for them as not to say a word -- just to look at them and think. Miss Minchin turns pale with rage when I do it, Miss Amelia looks frightened, and so do the girls. When you will not fly into a passion people know you are stronger than they are, because you are strong enough to hold in your rage, and they are not, and they say stupid things they wish they hadn't said afterward. There's nothing so strong as rage, except what makes you hold it in -- that's stronger. It's a good thing not to answer your enemies. I scarcely ever do. Perhaps Emily is more like me than I am like myself. Perhaps she would rather not answer her friends, even. She keeps it all in her heart."I love both the determination to be good and the reality of what it costs her to accomplish it. What really grabbed my attention was the very Zen notion that the only thing stronger than rage is the ability to hold it in. There's a lot to be said for the judicious use of anger, and a lot to be said for the deliberate decision to refrain from anger -- particularly in response to someone else's outburst.
But though she tried to satisfy herself with these arguments, she did not find it easy. When, after a long, hard day, in which she had been sent here and there, sometimes on long errands through wind and cold and rain, she came in wet and hungry, and was sent out again because nobody chose to remember that she was only a child, and that her slim legs might be tired and her small body might be chilled; when she had been given only harsh words and cold, slighting looks for thanks; when the cook had been vulgar and insolent; when Miss Minchin had been in her worst mood, and when she had seen the girls sneering among themselves at her shabbiness -- then she was not always able to comfort her sore, proud, desolate heart with fancies when Emily merely sat upright in her old chair and stared.
I won't keep you in suspense. After some very Dickensian scenes of hunger and corresponding generosity by our young heroine, she is the beneficiary of some lovely gifts, and then the restoration of her fortune. (Diamond mines pay off, Ralph's good friend finds her, etc., etc.) But no amount of money is as good as having family again. And at the very end, you get a glimpse of what Sara is likely to do with her wealth. (No, tearing down Miss Minchin's Select Seminary is not on the list.)
When I was much younger (and desperately unhappy), I gobbled up the happy ending that comes only after all that despair. Now that I've had my own happy ending(s), I find Sara's character, her efforts to be a better person than those around her, are elements I'd not noticed before. Of course, it's an absurd image of childhood; a real life child in Sara's position would almost certainly have been unable to keep it together the way Sara does. But there's a Sara inside of me: a lost child in need of rescuing. I learned after many year that the role of rescuer often falls on the person needing to be rescued. (Being loved helps a lot.) I think Sara rescues herself emotionally; although I admit it's a good thing someone showed up with some food just in time.
Three additional points: First, if you want to get this book for yourself, please look for an edition with Ethel Franklin Betts' illustrations. (Her cover art work is shown above.) I feel really strongly about this -- she so perfectly expresses the darkness of Edwardian London. (Tasha Tudor also illustrated A Little Princess. I will refrain from saying what I think of her illustrations. And while I haven't made an exhaustive study of more recent illustrators, I find it hard to imagine anyone has improved on Betts' art work.)
Second, there are those who prefer The Secret Garden by Burnett. (I suppose that someone might love both books equally, but it seems unlikely. As I like to say: The world is divided into two groups -- those who think the world is divided into two groups and those who don't.) I suspect The Secret Garden addresses very different emotional issues, ones that have nothing to do with my personal situation. Thus I respect the preferences of others, and I don't suggest that either book is "better" than the other.
Finally, the edition I have has the same typography as the original, and it's an interesting lesson in the evolution of written English. Contractions are used, but only as two words where the second is shrunk down with the use of an apostrophe. Thus, I wouldn't is shown as I would n't. The possessive use of the apostrophe is as we know it today: Miss Minchin's, Sara's -- and there's even I don't without the space -- but it's striking to realize that all those contractions we don't find in Jane Austen's books are here presented in the form of an evolutionary "missing link" -- written as they sound when spoken but not yet single words.