Somehow, something always happens just before things get to the very worst. It is as if the Magic did it. If I could only just remember that always….What next, now? Something will come if I think and wait a little…the Magic will tell me.
I was deeply touched by this book. The coping mechanism that helped Sara Crewe survive the cruelty thrown at her, tugged at my heart strings. She reminded me of countless children who find themselves in situations beyond their control, and figure out a way to rise above the physical pain and heartache. The ability to develop an imagination that becomes so visceral that you can feel warmth when you are cold or feel full when you are hungry helped Sara survive.
Her life is happy for her first seven years and though her mother died at her birth, she is very close with her father who gives her the best in material and emotional comfort. Sara was born in India, so it is with great sadness that she leaves her father and the surroundings she feels safe in, to come to London to finish her education. Her father believes Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies is the best place for Sara and is not disappointed when the two arrive at the school and he is promised Sara will be given everything he wants for her. Sara has her own room, a pony, dolls and toys and beautiful custom made clothes of the richest materials. He leaves Sara believing she is in good hands.
Sara is a kind and friendly girl and wants nothing more than the friendship of other girls that she lacked as a solitary child in India. Even at such a young age, though, she is intellectually more advanced than most of the older girls and this, coupled with the discovery of Mr. Crewe’s business in diamond mines makes Sara fodder for mockery as a princess who is too good for the other girls. Miss Minchin does nothing stop the growing distance between the various factions at the school and in fact encourages it with her obviously mean-spirited elevation of Sara’s position at the school. For four years, Sara lives in a liminal state of sometimes acceptance and sometimes suspicion among the school girls, but handles it with poise and the knowledge of her father’s love.
Sara’s fortunes literally change overnight when her father dies. She is immediately stripped of all her possessions and moved to an attic room that is dirty, bare of comfort and comes with a resident rat. Sara’s position is now that of drudge, errand girl and the object of abuse from the staff. Miss Minchin takes particular delight in Sara’s downfall believing herself magnanimous for not turning her out into the street. Sara’s misery is extensive as she is worked to exhaustion in all kinds of weather in clothes that are too small and with shoes with holes. The older girls also delight in Sara’s situation never missing the opportunity to humiliate or mock “the heiress” of the diamond mines as they taunt her.
…From day to day the duties given to her were added to. It was found she could be made use of in numberless directions. She could be sent on errands at any time and in all weathers. She could be told to do things other people neglected. The cook and housemaids took their tone from Miss Minchin, and rather enjoyed ordering about the “young one” who had been made so much fuss over for so long….it was frequently convenient to have at hand someone on whom blame could be laid.
But Sara has managed to hold her tongue throughout all this verbal and physical abuse by imagining herself as a secret princess of lost fortune, who will somehow be vindicated. As such she must maintain an even, if not happy, countenance, because that’s how a princess would behave. It is important to note that Sara doesn’t pretend to be a princess in order to pretend she has no troubles; she imagines herself a princess to get through her troubles. She is very well aware of her ill treatment and willful abuse at the hands of the adults around her who should know better; this mistreatment by the staff, who see her as a scapegoat for their own feelings of frustration and inequality. Instead, she has chosen her behavior, which is key. In seeing herself as a princess it is her coping mechanism, but also her morality. A princess might be mad inside and want to lash out, but she overcomes that negative emotion to be kind. She’s not stuffing down her feelings, but making a choice to act differently. This is what both amazes as well as infuriates the older school girls as well as Miss Minchin.
There comes a cold, rainy day when Sara’s hunger is burning more than usual in her belly and her holey shoes and thin dress have chilled her to the bone. The weather has made her late returning to the school and she is sent upstairs without dinner. This is truly a turning point for Sara as she climbs the stairs cold and hungry, her dinner being withheld when she is never given enough to begin with–she is unable to mount anything positive to get her through.
To tell anymore would give away the story, that in a separate story line an Indian gentleman moves in next door, with an assistant Sara gets to know after capturing his escaped monkey. And because they have India and various customs in common he takes special note of her….
This is my first reading of A Little Princess, though I knew of it (and ok, I’ve seen the Shirley Temple film several times!), but I was surprised by the details of overwork and cruelty Sara and her partner in abuse, the scullery maid, Becky were subjected to. Children like this are worked as if they are not human. And sadly, if one can’t take it or is worked to death, there are always others to take their place.
Burnett does a fine job with the contrast between rich and poor with Sara’s rise and fall and with the “Large” wealthy family that lives in the neighborhood. Peering through the windows at the well-dressed, well-fed children Sara knows there is still love in the world, even in her dark days. It is this and her imagination that allows her to live through all the humiliation and cruelty.
This is a children’s story, but I think there is something here for adults. At least there is for me.
During the first month or two, Sara thought that her willingness to do things as well as she could, and her silence under reproof might soften those who drove her so hard. In her proud little heart she wanted them to see that she was trying to earn her living and not accepting charity. But the time came when she saw that no one was softened at all; and the more willing she was to do as she was told, the more domineering and exacting careless housemaids became, and the more ready a scolding cook was to blame her.
I must say I’ve often thought it would have been better if you had been less severe on Sara Crewe, and had seen that she was decently dressed and more comfortable. I know she was worked too hard for a child of her age, and I know she was only half-fed…The child was a clever child and a good child–and she would have paid you for any kindness you had shown her. But you didn’t show her any. The fact was, she was too clever for you, and you always disliked her for that reason.
Perhaps there is a soul hidden in everything and it can always speak, without even making a sound, to another soul. But whatsoever was the reason, the rat knew from that moment that he was safe–even though he was a rat. He knew that this young human being sitting on the red footstool would not jump up and terrify him with wild, sharp noises or throw heavy objects at him…When he stood on his hind legs and sniffed the air, with his bright eyes fixed on Sara, he had hoped that she would understand this, and would not begin by hating him as an enemy. When the mysterious thing which speaks without saying any words told him that she would not, he went softly toward the crumbs and began to eat them.
Title: A Little Princess
Author: Frances Hodgson Burnett
Device: Trade Paperback
Challenges: Classics Club