A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I’ve found that stories have a way of finding you, and therefore lending you their magic, at the best times.

The last several weeks have been difficult for me, mentally and emotionally, and I’m about to get a little personal here, so bear with me.

I work two jobs to support myself, one that I like all right because it gives me writing experience and another that requires me to stand almost eight hours a day, where there is constant noise and a lot of people. If I’m not in a good place mentally before I walk into that job, it is almost bound to be worse by the end of the day. 

One dark, rainy day, I walked into work in a dark, dark place, so dark that when I took my breaks, I quietly cried. The noise was extra loud and there was no place I could go to thoroughly escape it for a whole shift. I felt alone and sad as I had not felt in a long time. So while I worked, I pretended that I was a wrongfully imprisoned queen who, at the end of her sentence, would run into the arms of her beloved king and hear the cheered shouts of her faithful subjects.

And then, I remembered a book character who employed similar tactics to cope with a harsh reality: Sara Crewe, from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic A Little Princess.

Sara Crewe is a kind and imaginative girl who leaves her life in India to go to boarding school in England, run by the strict and no-nonsense Miss Minchin. Sara’s father is so wealthy that he asks for extra luxuries for her, including a maid and a private chamber. She quickly makes friends with her peers with her kindness and magical stories. But when her father suddenly dies and her money is seized by the British government, Sara loses her place at the school and becomes a maid. Though she makes friends with the other servant girl, Becky, Sara’s life is still difficult, and the only way to get through is to use her imagination and pretend that she is an imprisoned princess.

I liked A Little Princess fine when I was a kid. I admit that I was not thoroughly captivated by the story until I watched the 1995 film, which is one of the most tender, magical family films I’ve ever seen. But the story hits a little harder when you become an adult and life’s hardships make it difficult to hold on to magic.

Don’t get me wrong, I could thoroughly empathize with Sara and her hardships as a child. But now that I have a front-row seat to some adult hardships, Sara’s struggle to hold onto hope and magic feels way more potent. Sara comes close a few times to giving up on her magical stories, which is heartbreaking because I’ve had moments, especially recently, where it feels as though that magic is hanging by a thread, and pretending can only do so much against the growing tide of reality.

Sara comes close to starving and freezing, but she never stops pretending. Nor does she stop being kind to people. One really has to admire Sara’s character. Throughout the book, people call her “queer” (this was the early twentieth century, mind you), and they wonder how she manages to not break under the circumstances.

In today’s climate, I can only imagine there are people who would bemoan Sara for spending her time daydreaming when she could have just run away or done something more “active” about her situation (because let’s face it, if a main character is not “active” or “strong”, they are not “good characters”). To those people, I say, shut up and listen.

The point of Sara’s story is to show you that imagination and kindness are valuable during hard times. Sure, maybe Sara could have run away or spoken more directly to Miss Minchin, but she would have left behind some wonderful friends and she might have ended up in a worse situation. Sara is just a young girl doing the best she can under the circumstances, in a place where she had some support and at least a roof over her head. Plus, she was making a difference in these young girls’ lives by telling her stories and remaining kind. Sara did not need to stick it to Miss Minchin or make any grand statements. She made a big enough difference by being a good person and quietly showing her strength just by making it through the day.

Like I said, we could all learn something from Sara. She may not be tough or strong in the way that we think of it today, but she proves that seeing the world in her own special way is a tremendous strength. We have here another example of why a quiet or soft character can be just as great as the “active” characters we tout today.

Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox.

Sara’s situation is indeed bleak, but it is peppered with moments of hope and light. When Sara finds a fourpence in the street, she comes across a beggar girl whom Sara is astonished to discover is even hungrier than she is. Sara kindly uses the fourpence to buy hot buns for herself and the girl, with the baker woman giving Sara more than she paid for, just out of kindness. I won’t spoil the ending of the beggar girl’s story, but let’s just say it gives you a little more hope for humanity.

I think one reason this book has endured is that it reminds you just how powerful your imagination can be in dark times. Sara, Becky, and their other friends frequently wonder what it would be like to have royal feasts and fine clothes, like real princesses. They even make-believe it, and you yourself forget that you are in the same dusty, dreary attic as these girls. These scenes are effective because they provide levity to a previously sad scene, but you also know in the back of your head that these scenes may segway into something even sadder.

It just shows you cannot appreciate the light without knowing that darkness is always a looming threat.

I forgot, though, how cartoonishly evil Miss Minchin is. That’s not to say that she does not feel like a threat—she does. She has complete power over Sara and Becky’s fate, completely lacking empathy for either girl. She represents the cruelty and harshness of the real world, which tests the lengths of Sara’s ability to cope with it. Combine Miss Minchin with Lavinia, a jealous classmate of Sara’s, and you have two quite nasty characters to contend with.

Shortly after Sara becomes a maid, the book introduces a subplot about the family living next door to the school. They encounter Sara one day and are instantly fascinated by her, calling her the girl-who-is-not-a-beggar and a fairy princess. The man of the house, Mr. Carrisford, has come into a large fortune from a diamond mine expedition and is looking for a girl who is supposed to inherit the fortune alongside him. That’s as far as I go before venturing into spoiler territory. It may seem a little out of place at first, but trust me, it has a payoff.

It’s been almost twenty years since I last read this book, and it’s become even dearer to me as time goes on. While the movie will always be more familiar, the book’s story is still as magical and comforting. I will forever defend Sara as a strong main character and her ideology: that imagination is a stronger coping mechanism than we give credit, and kindness makes a difference.

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