All I could remember of A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, was that the heroine, Sara Crew, tragically lost her beloved Papa and her fortune and was reduced to a lowly skivvy in a girls’ school. I remembered an attic, a rat and a monkey. I remembered that the poor kid went through hell! And I remembered that it all came good in the end – otherwise I wouldn’t have gone there again, trust me – I’m a wimp about unhappy endings.
It’s an old-fashioned book to be sure. Burnett displays her narrator’s viewpoint unapologetically. (She describes tantrum-prone toddler Lottie as “an abominable child”, for instance). And the pathos is overwhelming. I found it so as a child and I admit, I cried buckets this time too. Take this, when Sara parts from her Papa early in the story:
‘“I know you by heart. You are inside my heart.” And they put their arms round each other and kissed as if they would never let each other go.’
As I read, the details came back full force, and amazed me in their richness and resonance for me personally. On page one Sara is described as “always dreaming and thinking odd things”. No wonder I related!
I’m a sucker for a fairytale and though there is no magic of the spells and wizards variety, it is full of what Sara calls The Magic – the power of life to transform even the darkest circumstances. The images and motifs throughout the book are fairytale-like – the rich colours of the Indian wall-hangings that mysteriously appear in her room, the diamond mines, the echoes of a far-off land.
About a year ago I bought a piece of the crystal chrysoprase. I didn’t know the name; I thought I’d never heard it before. But when Sara watches the sunset from the attic, I read this: ‘The clouds made… lakes of deep turquoise-blue, or liquid amber or chrysoprase-green.’ That’s not a common word to find in a child’s book! I would have loved it – I always loved unusual words, but it was lost from conscious memory.
Above all, I was struck by how the story maps onto my own most dearly held personal beliefs. Sara survives by ‘supposing’ – (imagining). She draws her courage from the heroes of stories. She cherishes any scrap of beauty or small blessings she can find in her dismal circumstances. Instead of being alarmed that there is a rat in her attic she befriends him, believing in the one-ness of all beings: ‘How it is that animals understand things I do not know, but it is certain that they do understand.’
‘He – he won’t run out quickly and jump on the bed will he?’ asks fearful Ermengarde. ‘No,’ answered Sara. ‘He’s as polite as we are. He is just like a person.’
Perhaps most symbolically, after Sara has lost everything from a worldly perspective, she finds her refuge in the rooftops. And in that different world, literally a higher place, salvation comes in the form of a mischievous monkey and a turbaned lascar. I love the poetry of that.
My values, coping strategies, spiritual beliefs… I thought I’d cobbled these together as an adult, but they’re all there in the book! Who knows what foundations were laid down in my subconscious? Whatever lessons I’ve learned through life I’ve acquired, it must be said, with a lot less grace than Sara displayed! And I made a lot more spectacular mistakes along the way. But then, Sara was a girl in a story and I am a real person (much though it pains me to admit it). Nevertheless, she’s quite some inspiration and example.
So, as a little bookworm, addressing a little princess, I want to say, Sara Crewe, I salute you. You are still my heroine.
Tracy Rees’s new novel The Hourglass is available to pre-order today, published by Quercus