Aug 19, 2010

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

A Little Princess is the story of Sara Crewe, who at the beginning of the novel is a solemn eight-year-old on her way to Miss Minchin’s Boarding School in London. Sara is the only daughter of the widowed Captain Crewe, and during her early childhood in India she was given everything a little girl could possibly desire. Likewise, it’s Captain Crewe’s wish that Sara be well looked after at Miss Minchin’s Academy – she’s to have a private sitting room, a personal maid, and all the comforts that money can buy.

Everyone is ready to think of Sara as an arrogant and spoiled child, but instead she’s compassionate, considerate, not given to putting on airs, and very much aware that her father’s great fortune doesn’t make her better than anyone else. Sara also privately wonders if her good temper is the direct a result of her privileged life, and whether she’d be a very different sort of person if she’d been less fortunate and had gone through privations. As I’m sure you can guess, before the end of the story Sara has the opportunity to put these conjectures to the test. But I won’t tell you how things turn out, in case you (like me) missed this lovely classic growing up.

A Little Princess is a sort of Cinderella story with a twist – no, Sara doesn’t marry a prince, and hers is not exactly a rags to riches story, but the main elements are still there. This is the story of a sympathetic heroine submitted to trials, hardships and great injustices, all of which readers can tell all along will be temporary. But the reason why the story works so well is because, temporary or not, Sara’s misery feels absolutely real as she’s experiencing it. I suppose that the inevitable happy ending is predictable, just like Daddy Long-Legs or The Blue Castle are predictable, but honestly, who cares? These are all charming stories, comforting exactly because of their identifiable patterns, and moving even if we can see their emotional climaxes coming from miles away.

One of the things I appreciated the most about A Little Princess was the fact that it was written with such respect for the psychological realities of childhood. I’m thinking of a scene in particular, when Miss Minchin asks Sara if she ever had French lessons. Sara says no, and Miss Minchin takes this to mean she cannot speak the language. What Sara really means is that she never needed French lessons because her mother was French and she grew up speaking French, but she finds herself tongue-tied and unable to explain the difference in the face of Miss Minchin’s impatience. I remember this feeling very well from when I was little – feeling small, powerless and devoiced, and being unable to correct an adult’s erroneous assumption even as you knew they’d get angry at you and think you had deliberately mislead them when they found out.

A Little Princess is also an absolutely fascinating story to think about in terms of class dynamics. I was surprised that Sara was so clearly aware of the arbitrariness of class boundaries, and of the common humanity that we all share despite them. There are several examples of this – the most telling being Sara’s kindness to Becky, the scullery maid, whom she can’t help but see as just another little girl:
“If you please, Miss Minchin,” said Sara, suddenly, “mayn’t Becky stay?”
It was a bold thing to do. Miss Minchin was betrayed into something like a slight jump. Then she put her eyeglass up, and gazed at her show pupil disturbedly.
“Becky!” she exclaimed. “My dearest Sara!”
Sara advanced a step toward her.
“I want her because I know she will like to see the presents,” she explained. “She is a little girl, too, you know.”
Miss Minchin was scandalized. She glanced from one figure to the other.
“My dear Sara,” she said, “Becky is the scullery maid. Scullery maids—er—are not little girls.”
It really had not occurred to her to think of them in that light. Scullery maids were machines who carried coal scuttles and made fires.
“But Becky is,” said Sara. “And I know she would enjoy herself. Please let her stay—because it is my birthday.”
Miss Minchin replied with much dignity:
“As you ask it as a birthday favor—she may stay. Rebecca, thank Miss Sara for her great kindness.”
Sara may be a rich heiress, but she lacks the sense of entitlement that many privileged people have even today, let alone in the early twentieth century. Her sense of compassion makes her acknowledge the humanity of everyone she interacts with. However, things are rarely clear cut, both in literature and in life, and what makes A Little Princess so interesting to think about and discuss is the fact that it only takes this egalitarian idea so far.

Sara is undoubtedly kind, but her acts of kindness are more often than not little charities that maintain the status quo, rather than actions that actually challenge the social rules she seems to be dismissing. This is only natural, considering her age and powerlessness for most of the story, but even as it humanises the working class characters, A Little Princess seems to suggest that Sara possesses some sort of born nobility that makes her more worthy of privilege than anyone else – or rather, worthy of a more refined kind of privilege. The gap between her and Becky never closes, even when Sara’s circumstances change. A servant like Becky is to be treated kindly, yes, but she remains a servant, and happy to be so.

Sara’s intrinsic nobility is part of what saves her in the end: even at her most wretched she’s not “one of the populace”; she does not have “the face of a beggar”. She is, in some ways, insulated from the poverty to which she descends by this aura of nobleness, and her destiny is to be a princess who can “give buns and bread to the populace.” I found all these apparent contradictions absolutely fascinating, especially in the context of the early twentieth century and all the social changes the century was to see. It’s like Frances Hodgson Burnett was overtly challenging the notion that social injustice is in fact fair, and that people should just be content with their “station in life”, and yet she kept slipping back into it in several little ways.

As I was saying, the story does absolutely work – first because Sara’s distress is real enough, secondly because she’s difficult not to love, and finally because even if it’s suggested that she stands above the “populace” by birth and education, she does remain aware of the arbitrariness of it all. A Little Princess presents a strange mix of social ideas, but for that very reason it paints a very interesting portrait of the early twentieth century.

Lest all my picking apart give you the wrong impression (as nerdy as it sounds, this actually is my idea of bookish fun), let me say again that I really loved this book – much more so than The Secret Garden, though I did like that one well enough. But A Little Princess was even more charming, and the story enraptured me so much more. Also, I loved it because at its heart this is a story about one of my very favourite themes: the power of stories and the imagination. It’s a story about how they help make us more compassionate by stepping into the shoes of fictional others, how they save us, how they can be a refuge, and how they give us hope.

I’m now more curious than ever to read Frances Hogson Burnett’s books for adults that have been reprinted by Persephone, The Shuttle and The Making of a Marchioness. Have you read them? Which one do you think I should get to first?

Favourite bits:
“Things happen to people by accident,” she used to say. “A lot of nice accidents have happened to me. It just HAPPENED that I always liked lessons and books, and could remember things when I learned them. It just happened that I was born with a father who was beautiful and nice and clever, and could give me everything I liked. Perhaps I have not really a good temper at all, but if you have everything you want and everyone is kind to you, how can you help but be good-tempered? I don't know”—looking quite serious—“How I shall ever find out whether I am really a nice child or a horrid one. Perhaps I’m a HIDEOUS child, and no one will ever know, just because I never have any trials.”

Anyone who has been at school with a teller of stories knows what the wonder means—how he or she is followed about and besought in a whisper to relate romances; how groups gather round and hang on the outskirts of the favored party in the hope of being allowed to join in and listen. Sara not only could tell stories, but she adored telling them. When she sat or stood in the midst of a circle and began to invent wonderful things, her green eyes grew big and shining, her cheeks flushed, and, without knowing that she was doing it, she began to act and made what she told lovely or alarming by the raising or dropping of her voice, the bend and sway of her slim body, and the dramatic movement of her hands. She forgot that she was talking to listening children; she saw and lived with the fairy folk, or the kings and queens and beautiful ladies, whose adventures she was narrating. Sometimes when she had finished her story, she was quite out of breath with excitement, and would lay her hand on her thin, little, quick-rising chest, and half laugh as if at herself.

“I dare say it is rather hard to be a rat,” she mused. “Nobody likes you. People jump and run away and scream out, ‘Oh, a horrid rat!’ I shouldn’t like people to scream and jump and say, ‘Oh, a horrid Sara!’ the moment they saw me. And set traps for me, and pretend they were dinner. It’s so different to be a sparrow. But nobody asked this rat if he wanted to be a rat when he was made. Nobody said, ‘Wouldn’t you rather be a sparrow?’”

“Oh, Sara!” she whispered joyfully. “It is like a story!”
“It IS a story,” said Sara. “EVERYTHING’S a story. You are a story—I am a story. Miss Minchin is a story.”
Other opinions:
Becky’s Book Reviews
You’ve GOTTA Read This

(Yours?)

56 comments:

  1. This book sounds soooooo good, it's definitely going on my reading list. I'm just surprised I've never heard of this book before.

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  2. I read this a really, really long time ago but I've been wanting to re-read it lately. Probably before I get around to reviewing the movie adaptation with Shirley Temple. I actually wasn't aware that she had adult books but somehow I remember hearing of The Making of a Marchioness somewhere.

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  3. Do you know what I have still not read this book ever! Isnt that shocking?

    I read The Shuttle and loved, loved, loved that so maybe I shoudl try some of FHB's childrens books. Lovely review Nymeth.

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  4. For years and years, my husband and I (even before the kids) watched the movie repeatedly, in love with Sara and the enchantment of the film. But then last year I finally read the book, and I was horrified at the liberties Hollywood took with the story, especially the end. I was enraged for a week. So that probably lessened my enjoyment of the experience. I'm always interested in your take on something I've read. You always have a perspective that I never consider!

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  5. Fascinating analysis of one of my beloved favourites, Ana.

    I take it you haven't seen either adaptation? The Cuaron one is actually very good and I saw the 1939 Shirley Temple one years and years ago but would love to re-watch it.

    I think you should read Little Lord Fauntleroy before the Persephones; I adored The Shuttle but have only read one book of The Making of a Marchioness as I read it in a different edition.

    Charming and comforting reads are the best kinds; since reading The Blue Castle I have been craving more of them.

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  6. I saw parts of the film adaptation when I was little, but I never realized it dealt with class on such a level. Interesting!

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  7. 'The gap between her and Becky never closes, even when Sara’s circumstances change. A servant like Becky is to be treated kindly, yes, but she remains a servant, and happy to be so.' I never thought of their relationship that way before. Was it common view of the time do you think, that social reform could only go so far?

    I think I only ever read the illustrated, abridged version of this when I was a kid, would love to read the full version.

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  8. I really enjoyed A Little Princess much more than The Secret Garden as well. You are absolutely right in pointing out how Sara stays above the general populace. Even when she is in misery she is still being served and helped, and it is more random charity than truly trying to change things. Lovely book though. Great review, it really make me think about a lot of things!

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  9. I read this so long ago that I don't even remember what I thought of it, outside of the fact that I did like it. It looks like I should read it again and see what I think now - I would still like it.

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  10. This was my favorite book as a child, I loved it. I always prefered this to The Secret Garden and I was also a huge fan of What Katy Did. Basically I loved books set in the victorian era.

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  11. There is so much literature that I have missed growing up! I think it's because I only started reading seriously in the last 10 or 15 years. When I was younger, instead of spending time on the classics, I read a lot of Christopher Pike and V.C. Andrews. I didn't really have anyone to shape my tastes. All that being said, I do have a copy of this book in the house that belongs to my daughter. I am going to have to try to get to it because it sounds like an excellent read that will give me a lot to think about. I think the class distinctions in the book sound fascinating. Thanks for such a comprehensive and thoughtful review, Ana!

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  12. I wasn't a huge fan of The Secret Garden. I liked the plot, but not the writing. Too syrupy. I never even heard of this one until a few years ago, and I'm afraid to read it, thinking it'll be the same saccharine type writing. But then I've seen several reviews that say it's better than The Secret Garden. I might have to set aside my bias and try it!

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  13. Not only did I miss reading this book - I missed hearing about it. Sara sounds like a fantastic character. I love the cover you featured.

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  14. There is also Little Lord Fauntleroy--nauseating in some ways, I'm afraid, but I was always rather fond of it. The little boy softens the heart of his curmudgeonly old grandfather. :p

    Also, Hilary McKay wrote a sequel to The Little Princess, about what happens after Sara leaves, called Wishing for Tomorrow. It could have been a nightmare, but it was surprisingly wonderful.

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  15. I never actually read this book when I was young, I think I'd like to go back and read it after your review!

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  16. What a joy to read your thoughts and the excerpts -- this was one of the books I read over and over again as a child, and loved to bits. It is full of interesting food for thought for grown-ups too!

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  17. Oh, Ana, THANK YOU for reviewing one of my absolute favorite children's books. I read this one on a late December night on a Greyhound bus, after finding it in a Scribner's bookstore in NYC. (I was 12) Talk about being under a spell - pure enchantment. Sara's magical denouement satisfied me more than any other story ending ever. Ladytink, DO NOT watch the Shirley Temple movie! Worst adaptation ever!

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  18. One of my favorite books growing up. Thank you for letting me relive some great memories!

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  19. I watched the 1939 Shirley Temple movie of this many times! :--) It seems like movies confronted class issue much more frequently and openly then. Maybe we're still suffering from the effects of the McCarthy Era...

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  20. I really loved The Secret Garden and if you enjoyed this one more than that says it all!!!

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  21. There is a wonderful film version of this, directed by Alfonso Cuarón which I love. It moves the setting to America, and changes some bits & pieces around, but I can't recommend it highly enough (you'll probably hate it now :) )

    As for the book, well, I haven't read it in ages and ages, but I do remember it being a good read.

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  22. It's funny I feel like this should be the kind of book I would love, but if just isn't grabbing me for some reason :(

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  23. Aw, sounds like a gorgeous little book! I love the fact that it's so innocent, and all about our childhood imagination. I've got to find this!

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  24. Wow, blast from the past! (Well, my past, at least...) I'm very curious to read Burnett's adult novels as well - loved Secret Garden as a kid and liked A Little Princess as well, although hadn't thought about it for years and years before seeing your post! The whole plot came back to me gradually as I read your entry; what fun to revisit it through your eyes. :-)

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  25. I've yet to read this one, but I really should. I loved the movie when I was younger and it still makes me cry. Have you seen it? I would definitely recommend it (that goes for The Secret Garden too).

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  26. She beat me to it, but I grew up on the movie version of A Little Princess and it remains to this day one of my favorites! You must see it if you haven't! Some of the scenes you describe in this post are in the movie and they sounded identical. I'm not sure how close it actually is, but I've always loved the movie version. Sara was played by an older actress, I believe.

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  27. I really really love this book!! I haven't read it since I was small, but I remember loving it so much!! And the movie was also so beautiful.

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  28. I loved this book as a child. Many of details have faded for me, but I remember loving it fervently and (at my lowest moments) feeling that perhaps I had mistakenly been given to the wrong family to be raised and I was really a princess like Sara Crewe. I remember telling this to my mother in one of my overly dramatic moments.

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  29. This is a book I read and reread over and over again as a child. Reading what you say about it makes me want to reread it yet again as an adult!

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  30. I LOVE this book!!! And I also found it better than The Secret Garden (Mary is so unsympathetic in the beginning, it's tough to warm up to her). The power of stories and imagination to comfort triumphs again.

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  31. I found this bit: " A Little Princess seems to suggest that Sara possesses some sort of born nobility that makes her more worthy of privilege than anyone else – or rather, worthy of a more refined kind of privilege." really interesting. One of the panels I attended at Comic-Con talked about how writers actually feel they must tell stories with everyman sort of characters because the idea of nobility also being super heroes or doing good might suggest class superiority. Very interesting!

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  32. What a lovely review! I have this book on my shelf but still haven't got round to reading it - your review has just persuaded me that maybe it's time I should get round to it.

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  33. I'm reading it. So I've just skimed your article. I loved the animated cartoon, when I was young ^^

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  34. This was (is) one of my favorite books growing up - definitely top three, if not number one. As a kid, I didn't really pick up on the nuances of social class that you've laid out so neatly here... if anything, I just remember thinking that Sara's so awesome that OF COURSE she deserves to be rich. :)

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  35. I just finished re-reading The Secret Garden which is one of my absolute FAVORITES, so if you found this to be even more charming, I can only imagine how much I would love it. I was considering putting it on my little e-reader for an upcoming trip. I'm in the middle of Elizabeth and her German Garden, another charmer.

    I love this era of children's novels SO MUCH. I will definitely have to check it out.

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  36. I absolutely loved this book when I was a girl! Even better that The Secret Garden.

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  37. Like many others have said, I loved the film adaptation when I was young and have always meant to read the book. Very interesting review, I loved reading your thoughts on the powerless, voiceless feelings of childhood.

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  38. I didnt realize this was a book, I used to love the film version with Shirley Temple, then later on they re-made it and it was also really good.
    I'm sure the book is better.
    Great review!
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  39. This is one I would definitely like to reread. It has been so, so long since I've read this one or The Secret Garden.

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  40. I have enjoyed The Secret Garden and it is in my to-do to read this one as well. I haven't read Persephone or the others you've mentioned, though.

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  41. Violet: It seems to be less well-known than The Secret Garden, which is a shame!

    Jen: I think the Persephone reissue of The Making of a Marchioness got quite a few blog reviews. I look forward to your thoughts on this and the movie!

    Simon: Thank you! The Shuttle does sound rather wonderful. I'll have to get myself one of FHB's books when I finally visit the Persephone bookshop.

    Sandy: I completely understand why you let down! I couldn't resist looking up the differences between the ending of the movie and of the book, and you know, at first I was convinced the book was going to end *that* way too.

    Claire: I haven't, but I'm quite curious about Alfonso Cuáron's, as I usually love his stuff. And adding Little Lord Fauntleroy to the wishlist!

    Clare: I had no idea either!

    Jodie: I suspect that if we could ask her, she'd maintain that she was taking it as far as it could go. It's easy to look back with our modern worldview and see the limitations of her attempts at subversion, but ideology tends to be invisible for those who are immersed with it, so I think she unconsciously thought that the things she didn't try to challenge were akin to forces of nature and could NOT be challenge. As many of us do now about countless other things, of course :P

    Amy: Thank you! Even with its limitations (which are understandable) it's a rather lovely book, isn't it?

    Meghan: I think you would too!

    Jessica: I still do! And I must read What Katy Did one of these days.

    Zibilee: So have I! But fortunately we can still catch up :P I feel bad that I missed out on all these books growing up, but at least I can still enjoy them now.

    Amanda: You might like this one better, as it's slightly less syrupy, I think.

    Kathy: Isn't that cover beautiful? And yes, Sara is adorable!

    Jenny: Hilary McKay! I'm so glad to hear it's wonderful! I'll look for it for sure.

    S. Krishna: It's never too late!

    Marieke: It really is!

    Mumsy: Eep, I think I'll stay clear of that adaptation! And that's lovely that you have such a clear memory of first reading it :)

    Linda: You're most welcome!

    Jill: I wonder why that is! I think that we have a bit of a tendency to, when we see any progress in any social justice issue, to assume that the problem is all fixed and therefore is not worth talking about anymore :\

    Staci: Well, I suppose you could disagree with me there :P But I do think you'll like it a lot.

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  42. Just about your comment: "These are all charming stories, comforting exactly because of their identifiable patterns, and moving even if we can see their emotional climaxes coming from miles away."

    One of the things that occurred to me as I read this is that I think writing this sort of story is harder than writing others with surprises and twists and confounded expectations and suitably realistic endings -- because if it is predictable, and not extremely well-written, then it's boring. Or worse, frustrating. I think it takes a special writer (Burnett being one of them) to pull off a really good happily-ever-after with a relatively predictable storyline. Otherwise the whole thing feels flat and tired.

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  43. Fence: I love Cuáron, so I'm quite curious about that version! And worry not, I don't think I'd hate it :P

    Rhinoa: Well, it's at least a quick read, so if you hate it it won't be a huge waste of time :P

    Emidy: It's actually less innocent and sugary than I'd imagined. Read it and find out :P

    Emily: I'm glad to have allowed you to visit it! :) And hopefully we'll both enjoy her work for adults.

    She: I haven't seen either of them, no, but I will one of these days :)

    Lu: Do you mean the one by Alfonso Cuáron or the older one?

    Elise: I wish I'd read it as a child! But fortunately I still got a lot out of it now.

    Jenners: lol, I think we all have moments when we think that as kids :P

    Jeanne: I'd love to hear what you think!

    ds: Very true about Mary, though I did grow to like her in the end. But Sara just charmed me right away!

    Amy: That sounds like such an interesting panel! That's definitely true of modern books, but up until the mid twentieth-century the idea of inherent nobility is quite prevalent - though I haven't read them yet, I keep hearing that the Tarzan books are a good example. I think A Little Princess is one of those transition books, stuck somewhere between one mindset and the other. And that's what makes it so interesting!

    Boof: Yes you should!

    Erato, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did :)

    Fyrefly: lol, I can see my younger self thinking the same :P

    Daphne: I do think you'd love it! And oh, I need to read Elizabeth and her German Garden - The Solitary Summer was such a delight. Edwardian literature really is wonderful <3

    Stephanie: I agree!

    Dominique: I remember that feeling so well! And Burnett evokes it wonderfully.

    Naida: The book is always better ;) But that never movie has me curious as well.

    Kathleen: I hope you enjoy the re-read!

    Alice, I've no doubt that you'd enjoy this!

    Kiirstin: That's an excellent point. Another thing I wonder about is why the books that do this successfully always seem to be older ones. I wonder if it's part the book, and part our own belief that perhaps that particular plot structure was never back then?

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  44. Oh, this is so wonderful. i'm sorry I came to the conversation late. I've loved The Little Princess and The Secret Garden since childhood, they even stand up to constant re-reads. I never really thought about the social implications of the story, and so I enjoyed reading how you picked it apart.

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  45. Love your analysis of the book! It's been a few years since I last read the book, but I can totally see what you mean about Sara's intrinsic nobility. It IS still a good book, though. I read it multiple times when I was younger.

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  46. I remember loving this book when I was younger. And not just the book, but the Shirley Temple movie, too. It's been a long time since I've read or seen either.

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  47. Jeane: Thank you for the kind words! I wish I'd read these as a child, but they were still such fun now.

    Emily: Thank you! It's definitely still a good book, yes. More than a flaw, I saw this as interestingly contradictory and revealing of the social dynamics of the time period, if that makes sense.

    Veronica: Sadly I missed out on both growing up, but it's never too late, right?

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  48. ah, I guess what I meant is that modern authors do not feel they can write noble characters for fear of being accused of the inherent nobility idea.

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  49. Nymeth that's a great point, thanks for expanding my thinking. I was thinking of her deliberately limiting her approach because of class prejudice, but it does seem more likely that she was so immersed in her culture she saw class structures as a natural aspect of the world.

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  50. I had giggle when you said that picking books apart was your idea of bookish fun. It's mine, too.

    I've read this several times, but not recently. I think it might be time to return to it.

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  51. I've always loved this book. In fact, it is my favorite book. That in itself has some interesting consequences. Whenever someone asks me what my favorite book is, I sometimes feel the need to refrain from saying, "A Little Princess," because I don't want to hear, "What, are you a pedophile?" ever again. It's good to know others like it as well, and thanks for putting up a very nice analysis of the book, which gave me some new insights on it as well.

    I've been trying to find a book similar to A Little Princess, but I've failed so far. What other book out there that is an innocent classic maybe for children, but adults can appreciate it on another level? By innocent, I mean no murders, romance, sci-fi, magic...it's what this book lacks that makes it good. And I don't mean true classics either because I have enough of those in literature class. :P

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  52. After watching the film so often that I knew ALL of the words to it I decided to hunt down the book, found one and bought it only as I read it I did not enjoy it as much, the book I have tells the reader that saras father dies and left sara at a boarding school because of gold mines whereas the film shows because her dad goes to war and in the end sara and her dad reunite, now I'm wondering if any of you know whether. 'A little princess wrote by Frances Hodgson Burnett and published 06 August, 2009, has the film plot of the same book that I have already read? Please help as I really want to find the right book! :)

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  53. Hi Megan - this is the right book, yes. I haven't watched the film yet, but I've been told it's a good but not very faithful adaptation - they changed the time and place where the story happens and just keep the bare bones of the plot. I'm sorry the book let you down! Expecting something different is always a bit of a disappointment. I guess this is one of those cases where it's good to think of book and movie as separate things.

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  54. i bought the buk "A Little Princess" wen i was seven. I loved it when i read it then i still love it now :)i luv the way you describe the buk

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  55. Hello, I've just read your preview and your analysis about A Little Princess and felt so interested by your writing. Actually, I'm in my last year in university now and I would like to make A Little Princess as my term of analysis to be my mini thesis. I am an English student in Indonesia.

    So, here is the point. I am full of question about what thing about this book that people really want to know more. My senior had told me that I should talk about the reason behind every bad behave of Miss Minchin to Sara and about is the relationship like Ms. Minchin and Sara really existing or just the imagination of the author. What do you think about them?

    If you have some good ideas for me, I would like to accept your news in my email: tellywulandari.20492@yahoo.com

    Thank you :)

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  56. Love this book!!!!! It is so good! I am reading it for a book report this year in 7th grade.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.