Monday, May 29, 2006

Reflections upon a favorite story

Frontpiece illustration
Originally uploaded by chacal la chaise.
For Curtie's birthday, we sent to her the copy of Sara Crew, or What Happened at Miss Minchin's by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Years ago, when we lived in Santa Fe, we found the book, which was a shortened precursor to Burnett’s book, A Little Princess and bought it for her. This book, published by Scribner’s and Sons in 1888, is a romanticized remnant of its time and place. It also remains a sentimental favorite for both Curtie and me. Overall, it is the quintessential stoic Victorian child's story—a glimpse at their view of childhood. Along with Little Lord Fauntleroy, and The Secret Garden, the books epitomize how the British Victorian middle-class doted and romanticized their heirs.

Yet the irony of it all was that while all this doting went on at one level of society—while children were presented with such extravagance as Sara Crewe and her doll’s matching ermine-trimmed coats, silk stockings, and satin day dresses—the streets of every large urban city like London and New York, teemed with abandoned urchins living “hard-knock” lives. One only has to read William Blake’s The Chimney Sweeper from his collection of poems entitled Songs of Innocence and Experience to taste and feel the grim work such children toiled at for their so-called "betters." So much for thinking, that all Victorian children were a Fauntleroy, outfitted in blue-velvet breeches, or a silk-stockinged Sara.

Although, Burnett’s princess embodies both sides of this realm’s coin as it were for she describes with envious detail the sumptuous clothes, food, and education Sara received—that is however, until her father’s fortune was lost and he died greatly in debt to his daughter's headmistress. Now, the second existence jolts us into the reality of so many other children, the scullery maids, the chimneysweepers, the little ones begging in the streets.

It is this mirror image of Sara’s riches to rags story that shows how extremes can became but a puddle of debt due to mismanagement and lies—bad investments on the part of her overindulgent father. Helpless as we read on, we see her adrift, making her way in our minds—as she is lead away, wearing torn and ill-fitting clothes, cleaning the rooms of her former classmates—both rivals and friends. On the whole, we could see it as the dichotomy of Sara Crewe—a stoic little heart, an immense amount of patience and intelligence, grace, temperance, and logic—an exemplum for any young girl. And 'though she smiles though heartache, she finally breaks down from her malnutrician and maltreatment. Just in time, however, a new benefactor emerges to rescue her, saves her from the evil Minchin, and deposits her in his rooms next door. He reveals it was she whom he had been looking for all along and notes the irony that while seeking her in other locales, she only “on the other side of the wall.”

Many a modern YA reader today probably scoffs at such neat and tidy endings because there are no grey areas with Sara—she is not cranky or ornery like Mary of Secret Garden fame. Sara, no worse for the ware it seems, is still good and knowing. Although, The Little Princess is a true Victorian sentimentality, Curtie and I cherish the story for its metaphor of childhood imagination and story invention. In it, I believe we acknowledge Sara’s strength through improvisation—she is a Scheherazade for us and for Becky, her scullery-maid cohort.

We suspend belief that a Sara could have ever existed and while we try to forget that the world is over populated with too many Beckys. For us, it is the writing; the storytelling that helps us evolve; this I believe, allows us to accept the book and its sentimental look at children and their parents and lead us to more tales of a wider world, opening doors to worlds we never dreamed existed.


cindy hotpoint said...

What a lovely essay! You've captured the spirit of the book entirely. (:

I still read A Little Princess about once a year; it still carries a great amount of importance for me now, even as an adult.

carolyn rhea drapes aka chacal said...

thanks, ch. i'm going to find our copy here and read it has been too long. i actually read the book before i bought my first copy. i used to sit in the aisle in the book department that was next to my dad's area and read the book, a little everyday.

Sometimes you need to get away from it all.

And sometimes, it's time to return and be part of the larger world.  Between the first of 2023 and February 14, I painted many watercolo...