Before I mustered my courage to write my first novel, I studied books in the genre that I wanted to write. I knew I had to revisit one of my favorites, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Sara Crewe was one of my childhood heroines because she was able to keep her spirits up during adversity, because she realized that she could make any situation infinitely better by actively using her imagination, because she was a champion of the underdog, because she loved animals, and because she was kind and generous with anything she had. I would have been very surprised, rereading the book, if I came to a different conclusion about Sara's character, and I didn't. I still adored her. But what I didn't realize early in life was how much I could learn from this book as a writer.
Let's start with Chapter 1, the third paragraph, where Burnett first tells us about Sara:
She was such a little girl that one did not expect to see such a look on her small face. It would have been an old look for a child of twelve, and Sara Crewe was only seven. The fact was, however, that she was always dreaming and thinking odd things and could not herself remember any time when she had not been thinking things about grown-up people and the world they belonged to. She felt as if she had lived a long, long time.
In The Little Princess, Sarah Crewe, a girl whose mother had died when she was very young, now must also say goodbye to her father. She is of the age where girls of her class go to boarding school. Her father will be returning to India to pursue his business ventures, while Sara will study at Miss Minchin's Select Seminary for Girls. Here, Burnett has encapsulated the strengths that this character will need to get through her troubles in this story: an incredible maturity, an adult perspective on situations, and an ability to imagine and think out of the box.
Later in this chapter, when describing where Sara will be spending her days, Burnett gives us a sense of the harshness of the world and the headmistress in Sara's new life.
Sara often thought afterward that the place was somehow exactly like Miss Minchin. It was respectable and well furnished, but everything in it was ugly; and the very armchairs seemed to have hard bones in the them. In the hall everything was hard and polished—even the red cheeks of the moon face on the tall clock in the corner had a severe varnished look. The drawing room into which they were ushered was covered by a carpet with a square pattern upon it, the chairs were square, and a heavy marble timepiece stood upon the heavy marble mantel.
Sadly, the father doesn't pick up on this cruelty. He leaves his beloved daughter here while he returns to his business. But, as the reader, we are forewarned. We know this will be a dangerous world for Sara.
This book is written from an omniscient point of view, which Burnett uses to her advantage at various times in the book. For example, on the occasion of Sara's eleventh birthday party, Burnett goes back and forth from the party scene, a sumptuous celebration, to an unexpected meeting between Miss Minchin and Sara's father's representative, where Miss Minchen learns that Sara's father has died, and that Sara is now penniless, and all the money Miss Minchin spent on this party, fully expecting to be refunded, is now her loss. For a while, the gaiety and the horror stay in separate rooms, switching both and forth from one to the other, but, after the representative leaves, Miss Minchin exits her office, and the scene becomes one of complete desolation.
Later on in the story, in Chapter 14, Burnett chooses to tell the story from the point of view of a rat, Melchisedee, who Sara has befriended in the desolate attic where she now lives. We first hear of the strange goings-on in the attic through the rat's observations—how two Indian gentlemen made their way through the skylight into the attic and began discussing how they could transform this little girl's garret into a kind of a paradise. Their employer lived next door, and he had heard stories of Sara and had dreamed up this idea to comfort this child. Sara's dreams of a comfortable room, one that she had imagined to make her life bearable, was now coming true.
When I closed the book this time, I also marveled at the title and its many meanings throughout the book. Before her father's death, Sara would imagine herself to be a little princess, someone with a fortunate life who helps others. It is used as a term of disparagement by Miss Minchin and Lavinia, one of the older girls at the school, implying that Sara has frivolous clothes and manners and puts on ridiculous airs. But at the end of the book, Sara becomes in her own way a little princess. The kindly Indian man next door turns out to be her late father's business partner. He becomes Sara's benefactor, and she once again lives a life of privilege, one in which she is always thinking of others and behaving in a manner that befits the graciousness of a truly benevolent young woman of fortune. A Little Princess remains a great read.