The Poor Little Rich Girl, Eleanor Gates (1912) Classics Club Spin #29

I’m seven today,” Gwendolyn went on, “So I am going to walk. I haven’t walked for a whole, whole week. ” “You can lean back in the car,” said Nurse Jane, “and pretend you’re a grand little Queen!” “I don’t WANT to be a Queen. I want to WALK.” “Rich little girls don’t hike along the streets like common poor little girls.” “I don’t WANT to be a rich little girl…I don’t want to be shut up in the car this afternoon…” The Nurse gave a gasp of smothered rage, “Do you want me to send for a great black bear?”

This is a tough little read. Published in 1912 and considered a children’s classic I am hard pressed to understand why anyone would give or read this to a child. A common enough trope-the rich child who has all the material comforts, except attention from her parents and no agency over daily life-yet, the book is one long horror story of psychological abuse and emotional neglect of this precocious, compassionate 7 year-old girl.

Stuck all day in her nursery, Gwendolyn imagines herself a princess imprisoned in a tower. The wealthy neighborhood houses provide hours of creative mind-play in which she sees the faces through windows and imagines these strangers as her companions on sea bound journeys or, in another scenario, a loving safe home where her parents are always with her and she is “blissfully free of those whose chief design it was to thwart and terrify her-Miss Royle, Jane, [and] Thomas,” who are her governess, her nurse and the house footman, respectively.

Gwendolyn’s father is always at work and her mother is society-obsessed leaving the child in the care of these servants who take every advantage to abandon their duties toward the her, exploiting her childhood innocence and empathy to those in the world of whom she sees through her nursery windows. Gwendolyn longs to play with other children, to play outside, to walk and experience the world. Her wishes become fears as each servant in turn tells her she can’t go to visit her father as there are bears in the street, she can’t take a walk as there are kidnappers hiding to snatch little rich girls. The worst is when they threaten to call the doctor if she misbehaves, because she has memories of the awful tasting medicine she’s had in the past, awful enough that it is a big fear against calling the doctor when she gets sick which, later in the book, will have devastating consequences.

There is some comic relief, though. One of Gwendolyn’s endearing qualities is that she takes everything said to her literally. The use of everyday sayings, colloquialisms and idioms perplex her as she tries to figure out which foot is the best to put forward when visiting her parents in the dining room, or fearing that bee in her mother’s bonnet and how it got there. She is scolded over and over for being silly when asking about the little bird that tells things to people or why her German teacher is called Miss French.

A tragedy occurs when Gwendolyn becomes feverish after a day of crying because she wants to see her parents. She is so anxious and mentally confused that Nurse Jane calls the doctor for something to calm her. Jane gives her a spoonful of the medication, but becomes distracted when Gwendolyn takes it and doesn’t believe her when she says she swallowed it. So Jane makes her take another spoonful. This pushes Gwendolyn into an hallucinogenic overdose in which she meets all the fears the servants have scared her with: bears, doctors, policemen. But also in a way that helps her get over these fears as she finds resolution in this dream-like adventure.

She recovers and the neglect and abuse are revealed to her parents, but I was very glad to reach the end of the book.

Am I too sensitive? This book bothered me so much with the abuse going on for half of it without relief, that if the Classics Club Spin gods hadn’t chosen this book for me, I believe I would have dnfed it.

Now Gwendolyn,” whispered Jane, leaning down, “put your best foot forward.” “But Jane, which IS my best foot?” “Hush your rubbishy questions….” Gwendolyn glanced down at her daintily slippered feet. With so little time for reflecting, she could not decide which one she should put forward. Both looked equally well.

In each of the houses across the wide river she often established a pretend home. Her father was with her always; her mother, too—But her household was always blissfully free of those whose chief design it was to thwart and terrify her—Miss Royle, Jane, Thomas; her teachers; also, policemen, doctors and bears.

I tell you that if you run about on the street, like poor children do, you’ll be grabbed by a band of kidnappers.” “Are kidnappers worse than doctors?” “Worse than doctors! Heaps worse.” “Worse than—than bears?” “Kidnappers carry knives—big curved knives.” “Worse than a—a p’liceman?” “Yes, the kidnappers would take you and shut you up in a nasty cellar where there was rats and mice and things and”—Gwendolyn’s mouth began to quiver.


Title: The Poor Little Rich Girl
Author: Eleanor Gates
Publisher: Duffield & Company
Date: 1912
Device: Hardcover
Pages: 244

Challenges: The Classics Club, Mount TBR

A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett (1905). Illustrated by Tasha Tudor

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….

Thoughts

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
Publisher: HarperFestival
Date: 1905
Device: Trade Paperback
Pages: 324

Challenges: Classics Club

A Stitch in Time, Penelope Lively (1976) The #1976Club

Eleven year-old Maria Foster talks to inanimate objects. She has conversations with cats and trees, too. It is clear she is curious and smart and the conversations she begins with her parents, based on what she has observed in the world or something she read leave them bewildered, as if they just don’t know what to do with a girl so serious and deep. So only-child Maria has created a world where objects listen and engage, give her advice and solace in ways her family cannot.

We meet the Foster family on their summer holiday to Lyme Regis. They are staying in an old Victorian house for a month. It has a resident cat, furniture that has seen decades of wear and an old tree in the backyard perfect for Maria to sit in and ponder. Next door is a small hotel where families of holiday makers are spending the summer and from her perch she notices one particular family with one particular boy. Once they meet Maria and Martin, after some initial hesitation, find in each other kindred spirits interested in the larger questions of life. They roam the hills and beaches picking up fossils, observing the varied geology of the land, which leads to a discussion of evolution when they visit a nearby museum.

Lyme Regis fossils.

In a complementary story line, Maria has become obsessed with a girl her age named Harriet who lived in the house Maria’s family is renting a hundred years ago. A photograph of a piece of Harriet’s embroidery with an ominous signature has captured Maria’s imagination. She is convinced Harriet died young and is determined to find out her story. She keeps most of her thoughts to herself until she makes a small attempt to share them with Martin. Mostly, though, she is content to have found an exploring buddy who shares her new found interests in the fossils and geology of the hills and cliffs they wander.

There are wonderful supernatural elements in the story that affect only Maria besides the cat, the petrol pump and the tree that she has conversations with: there is an insistent sound of a barking dog and the creaking noise of a swing in motion. Maria scours the neighborhood for physical evidence of these to no avail and as this part of the story unfolds they play an important part in the mystery of Harriet.

As Maria explores both her inner and outer worlds she grows in confidence and acceptance of herself and can acknowledge that what she thinks about and what interests her are genuine and noble. She has become communicative and expressive with her mother who is finally able to see and understand this daughter who had always seemed so shut up within herself.

A really wonderful book about a smart, serious, curious kind of girl that should be celebrated!

And thanks to Simon and Karen for creating these various clubs that have helped me find books and authors I may not have discovered otherwise.

The cat sat down beside her, disposed, it seemed, for a chat.
“No,” said Maria, “I don’t think I’m going to let you talk any more. Sometimes you say uncomfortable things. Though actually I think I am getting a bit better at not being made uncomfortable.”

“P’raps” said Maria, “they turn into the kind of people they are because the things that happen to them make them like that.” Like I’m shy and I talk to myself because of the sort of family I live with and Martin’s like he is because he’s got a different kind of family.
“You are a bit peculiar sometimes,” [Martin] added, “You were talking to that tree yesterday. I heard. You were sitting in it and you suddenly said, ‘Oh, Quercus ilex…'”


Title: A Stitch in Time
Author: Penelope Lively
Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s Books
Date: 1976
Device: Trade Paperback
Pages: 221