What happened at Miss Minchin’s to… A Little Princess
was a late Victorian child. When I asked her what had been her favourite reading at that time she named a book by Frances Hodgson Burnett called Editha’s Burglar, pronouncing the name with a long ‘i’ as she must have done when first she read it.
But was it a book all on its own?
The story, about a little girl who persuades a burglar to do his work very quietly so as not to disturb Mama, is quite short and was first published in that peerless American children’s magazine, St Nicholas. There was hardly enough of it for an independent existence and when it did appear as a book it was joined by a longer Hodgson Burnett story, also from St Nicholas: Sara Crewe; or what happened at Miss Minchin’s.
This dramatic tale
(I’m surprised my mum didn’t prefer it to Editha) brings Sara Crewe from India to London with her widowed father, who places her in Miss M’s ‘Select Seminary for Young Ladies’ as a posh ‘parlour boarder’ before returning to the sub-continent where, alas, some time later, he is bilked by a friend and dies penniless. Thus Sara Crewe is removed from her comfortable suite and, from being star pupil, is reduced to maid-of-all-work, banished to the attic with its fireless grate and iron bedstead. Miss Minchin, who is perforce her guardian, for there is no one else, works her to the bone, although Sara, a child of much character, survives by persuading herself that she is a lost princess who will one day come into her own – and that indeed happens. An invalid, back in England from India, with his Lascar servant (and a monkey) takes the house next door and proves (of course) to be Papa’s old friend – recovered financially but racked by guilt over the latter’s death and the disappearance of his daughter.
Burnett was good at this sort of drama
as witness Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Secret Garden, the centenary of whose publication we are celebrating this year. It’s not surprising therefore to find that Sara Crewe came to be converted into a play, as The Little Princess, running with acclaim in both New York and London. Both the author and her publisher thought this an opportunity too good to miss, and Burnett – a pro if ever there was one – set about reconstructing Sara Crewe as a full-dress fiction. And it was published in superior style, begirt with colour plates, as A Little Princess in 1905.
‘The story tells itself so well,’
she wrote to her son, speaking of the ‘lightning rapidity’ of its composition, that it proved no hack job, no mere bulking out of a superannuated text. In a chummy preface to her readers she expressed one of the great thrills of fiction, that ‘between the lines of every story there is another story, and that is one that is never heard and can only be guessed at by those who are good at guessing’. With the conversion of Sara Crewe into a play she had discovered more about the goings-on in Miss M’s seminary than she had formerly known and she felt it very blameworthy of the new characters who had appeared on the scene, such as spoiled Lottie, and the half-starved scullery-maid, Becky, and grey-whiskered Mr Melchisedec (who lived behind the wainscot) for their ‘slouching idle ways’ in not presenting themselves to her earlier.
These narrative extensions
effect radical changes to the nature of the story. To begin with, Sara’s traumatic reduction from riches to rags occurs only after some ninety pages in which her privileged status and her relationship with her admiring or jealous classmates is dwelt on with a degree of detail impossible in the five introductory pages of Sara Crewe, The same applies to her life in the garret through whose skylight begins her friendship with her neighbour’s Lascar servant which will lead to her happy end. But this time, the gentleman’s illness and its cause are revealed long before the denouement so that the reader (who may well have guessed it in the shorter book) is now constrained to watch how the storyteller will bring the two together over a longer time-span.
to which may be added a rather less credible treatment of the transformation scene, where the Lascar secretly converts Sara’s attic into what she at first believes to be a room in Fairyland, give a depth to the story which has held readers continuously from the time of its first publication. (The Puffin edition, which dates back to 1961 is especially commendable for its sensitive line drawings by Margery Gill – or ‘Hill’ as a recent printing called this disgracefully forgotten illustrator.) Nevertheless, there remains much to be said for the earlier Sara Crewe, whose comparative brevity sharpens the intensity of the tale. Before long, it seems, you will be able to Google it up and do some comparative criticism on your own account.
The illustration by Margery Gill are taken from the 2009 Puffin Classics edition (978 0 1413 2112 7, £6.99 pbk).
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times.