I’m surprised that I made it through my childhood without reading A Little Princess (1905) by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I did remember watching the 1995 movie when I was babysitting, and I cried like a baby at the end. I guess it never occurred to me to read the book until I saw it on my List of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40, which will be dominating my reading for the next four months or so.
Sara Crewe is a precocious and imaginative girl who has spent her childhood in India with her wealthy father, Captain Crewe. She has been given everything she could possibly want or need, but is smart, generous, and kind as well. When Sara is seven, her father brings her to Miss Minchin’s Boarding School for Girls in London to escape the India heat and get an education.
Sara hates the idea of leaving her father, but she imagines she is a soldier at war enduring short-term hardships to get through the separation. Eschewing the popular, mean girls, Sara befriends: Ermengarde; the plump, class dunce; Lottie, the four-year-old prone to temper tantrums; and Becky, the overworked and underfed servant girl of the house.
Miss Minchin runs the school with the help of her sister. Although Miss Minchin appreciates the money Sara brings to her school, she doesn’t like Sara. She is jealous of her gift with the French language and doesn’t understand her unique personality and imagination. When Sara’s father dies in India after losing all of his money in a bad scheme involving a diamond mine, Miss Minchin is furious that she is now responsible for Sara and out all the money she’d spent on her. She takes Sara’s things away from her, takes her out of classes, assigns arduous chores, and puts her up in the attic in a small dreary room.
Sara has to deal with losing her father, her education, and all of the creature comforts she’s never been without. Following the lead of Miss Minchin, the servants yell and abuse Sara depending on their mood. The mean girls relish Sara’s downfall, but her three closest friends don’t change.
After a couple of years, a sickly Mr. Carrisford and his Indian assistant Ram Dass move in next door. Sara meets Ram Dass when his monkey scampers over their joined roof to her window. Ram Dass tells Mr. Carrisford about the sad little girl in the attic room, and the two eventually concoct a plan where Ram Dass sneaks food and luxuries across the roof at night, much to Sara and Becky’s amazed and perplexed delight–because they don’t know where it all is coming from. The extra food and nice clothes have a demonstrably positive impact on her life. Yet Sara doesn’t know that Mr. Carrisford is actually an old friend of her father’s. He’s been looking for her, as soon as his health allowed, after her father’s death. Sara sneaks over to Mr. Carrisford’s house one day to return the runaway monkey and everything is discovered. It turns out the diamond mine was not a bust in the end, and Sara is a very rich, little girl with a guardian who was desperately looking for her.
This book is a very sweet story with many lessons about generosity, goodness, and treating people kindly no matter their station in life. In addition, Sara’s imagination and how it transforms her life, especially during her hardships, adds a lot to the book and Sara’s character.
Originally written in the late 1800’s, it was a little uncomfortable to read about British colonialism in India and Sara’s father getting rich off diamond mines. I guess it’s not surprising that the movie chose to make her father a Captain fighting in WWI. There was also something about the language used to describe Sara in the beginning of the book that felt off to me: it wasn’t sexual, but almost seemed fetishistic. I’m afraid I don’t have the book anymore to give examples, but it felt like language that would be used to describe an adult heroine and not a little girl. The most drastic difference between the movie and the book, though, is that Sara’s father survives in the movie and comes back to London with amnesia, keeping him and Sara apart. It’s a much happier (and dramatic) ending that I had no problem accepting when watching the movie, but I am surprised they made such a significant change in the story.
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