Oscar Wilde wrote that all writing is merely re-writes. Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel, A Little Princess, first appeared in 1888 as a serialized novella titled Sara Crewe: or, What happened at Miss Minchin's Boarding School. Burnett then turned the novella into a three-act play in 1902 titled A Little Un-Fairy Princess. The success of the play led Burnett to revise it once more, expanding it to its present full version A Little Princess.
This novel is not as good as Burnett's classic The Secret Garden. The Secret Garden has a very convincing philosophy of personal renewal through creativity and nature. Grief and suffering are overcome by cultivating a beautiful personal garden away from the pressures of the world. The Secret Garden basically shows how people can heal themselves through the powers of their imagination and by putting things in a new perspective.
A Little Princess a Little Contrived, Yet Emotionally Satisfying
A Little Princess comes across as a more 'popular' kind of novel. Some of the plot devices are a tad obvious, and the character of the pint sized protagonist, Sara Crewe, is a bit syrupy and unbelievable. Plunged into penury when her adventurer-business man father dies as a result of stress induced by his speculative ventures, she sets herself the goal of living like a princess. This doesn't mean that she will live like she's frivolously rich, but rather that she will maintain her dignity and treat others magnanimously, even when she's being treated appallingly herself. And she is treated very badly at the seminary where she is living on charity, run by the mean headmistress Miss Minchin.
Happily, things come good in the end. Can you imagine differently when the book is titled as it is?
The little princess inherits a fortune from her father's diamond mine adventures when a business partner tracks little Sara Crewe down. Her father hadn't lost all his money after all. This gives Sara a fabulous opportunity to give a decent verballing to the nasty headmistress, Miss Minchin, of the seminary where she'd been barely eking out an existence.
No matter how much you know the plot is contrived, when this part of the novel comes around you can't wait to see certain characters get their just deserts. So despite some of the faults of the novel, it is very emotionally satisfying. Sara Crewe is so cute and her little world of dolls and fanciful dreams is very appealing.
Imperial Exploitation, Karl Marx and A Little Princess
One puts to one side the fact that Sara Crewe's wealth is based on the rather dubious business practices of her father, who is involved in plundering the wealth of the sub-continent. For the modern reader, influenced by the writings of Karl Marx, imperial exploitation comes immediately to mind. This is of no real consequence to the little princess, who starts up a charity with some of her money for poor, hungry street urchins. The novel actually finishes on this sentimental note. The reader may wonder if Sara Crewe's sympathy would extend to the Indian mine workers who slave away in dangerous conditions to ensure her fabulous wealth, which includes a penchant for stunning fur coats?
While A Little Princess is not on a par with The Secret Garden, due to the fact that it has not properly worked out an internal philosophical logic, it's an absorbing and emotionally satisfying read.
In fact, this is one of those popular novels that has all the right emotional ingredients, enough to over ride fussy rational thinking. Like, for example, when Sara Crewe relishes the opportunity to tell off the headmistress, Miss Minchin, this is technically against her set of personal ethics, yet who would want it any other way after all this little pint sized heroine has been through?
There was something visceral in this aspect of the novel that prompts the thought that maybe Frances Hodgson Burnett also experienced some hard times growing up in like circumstances.