I bought this book at my city’s book fair last year, in a tiny little tent that sold used books in English. Its pages are yellowish and it has that wonderful old book smell, the perfect combination for the fairytale inside it. I had never read anything by Burnett before, only heard of The Secret Garden, but now I think I should try some of her other stories and see if they are as wonderfully written as this one.
It tells the story of Sara Crewe, the daughter of a rich Captain stationed in India, and her times at Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies, where she made friends and foes. Throughout the book she seen as a queer child, with the adult way she spoke and her incredible ability to tell stories. Quickly, half of the seminary is in awe of her while the rest is bitterly jealous of the beautiful things her father sends her. Miss Minchin herself doesn’t like her at all, but spoils her in fear of losing her ‘show pupil’ and Captain Crewe’s money.
When suddenly her father dies (I’m not spoiling anything since this is written on the back cover), leaving her homeless and penniless. Miss Minchin now has to take care of her and begrudgingly lets her live there while making her work all hours of the day. This little description doesn’t come close to making Burnett’s wonderful prose justice, everything she writes feel ethereal and magical. The way she describes Sara’s own little pretend world reinforced that I was reading a fairytale, also warmed me to know that no matter how bad things seemed for her, there would be a happy ending. Like when Lottie, a young child who adores Sara, first comes up to her new servant room on the attic:
Sara lifted her up and the stood on the old table together and leaned on the edge of the flat window in the roof, and looked out.
Any one who has not done this does not know what a different world they saw. The slates spread out on either side of them and slanted down into the rain gutter-pipes. The sparrows, being at home there, twittered and hopped about quite without fear. Two of them perched on the chimney-top nearest and quarrelled with each other fiercely until one pecked the other and drove him away. The garret window next to theirs was shut because the house next door was empty.
“I wished someone lived there,” Sara said. “It is so close that if there was a little girl in the attic, we could talk to each other through the windows and climb over to see each other, if we were not afraid of falling.”
Sara is an interesting character, yes, young and imaginative, kind and understating, willing to put others before herself, but I was also very interested in Miss Minchin. She comes across as a horrible woman, with little patience with children and a greedy spirit; she treats Sara, and the other servant, a girl called Becky, like objects to do her biding or to starve whenever she thinks they deserve it. Despite all that, we are shown throughout the book that she does sometimes realize how unfounded her hatred of Sara really is. Many times she gets angry because Sara does not scream and cry as the other children do, even though she hates when they do it, and so does not know where her annoyance comes from.
I have to admit Miss Minchin puzzled me even in the end, when she saw herself rid of the girl she hated so much and still attempted to have her back in the seminary, though she knew the situation to be hopeless. She made me react, made me angry and I believe that to be what good characters do to readers, and through Sara, I even pitied her a bit for her lack of imagination.
The character’s themselves are not overly layered and things are often seen as either black or white in the book. The bad guys don’t have many redeeming qualities and neither do the good guys have any bad ones, only Sara has any growth in the novel. She becomes much more self-aware, also aware of the difficulties of those who ‘go hungry’, as she knows what it feels like.
In the end, A Little Princess is very much like Cinderella, because it has basically the same premise. If we change Miss Minchin with the horrible stepmother, Lavine, a pupil who is jealous of Sara, with the two stepsisters and the Indian gentleman with the Prince, everything fits together. It’s a simple tale with a rich language and two big twists in the heroine’s luck. Very much not for people who dislike happy endings.