And now, I shall blog about my favorite book. A daunting task, no? Given its far-reaching repercussions in my internal world, though, this is not likely to be the only time I write about this book.
In my memory, my mother and I watched a television adaptation of this book some time in the 1980s. In my memory, Charles Dance played Mr. Carrisford and Maggie Smith played Miss Minchin. IMDB begs to differ–in the 1986 adaptation, Carrisford was played by Nigel Havers and Miss Minchin by Maureen Lipman. Ah, well, so much for memories.
Some time in my childhood I was given a paperback copy of the book. I know that I had it for some time before finally, around the age of ten, reading it. It was probably, if you’ll call Frances Hodgson Burnett a Victorian author, my first Victorian novel–and it is the one to which every other novel has had to stand up. In the twenty years since I first read this book I have pretty well exhausted Victoriana’s stock of fiction, and I must say that while there are plenty of gems, there is still no other book that gives me more pure pleasure in the reading.
A gifted little girl is left at a boarding school by her rich father. She is doubly blessed in being a Very Good Girl, the kind that a Victorian novel needs as a heroine, and being alternately Very Rich (which Victoriana likes) and Very Poor (which makes Victoriana slobber all over itself). Sara Crewe is gifted in precisely the way a little girl reading this book is likely to be. She loves to read, she loves to pretend, she is solemn and affectionate about dolls, she is sensitive about sharing the things she imagines, and she never (bless her, and may we hope to be the same!) has cause to be ashamed of her behavior. She is not uniformly sweet, but when she angers, she does so for the right reasons, at the right person, to the right degree, for the right length of time. In short, she is a goddess.
And oh, the domestic accoutrements. Perhaps I got my luxurious materialistic ways from the early parts of this book. It includes a “shopping sequence”, which always makes me love a book:
There were velvet dresses trimmed with costly furs, and lace dresses, and embroidered ones, and hats with great, soft ostrich feathers, and ermine coats and muffs, and boxes of tiny gloves and handkerchiefs and silk stockings in such abundant supplies that the polite young women behind the counters whispered to each other that the odd little girl with the big, solemn eyes must be at least some foreign princess—perhaps the little daughter of an Indian rajah.
There are also plenty of lists of tantalizing food, which again make me love a book:
It’s got cake in it, and little meat pies, and jam tarts and buns, and oranges and red-currant wine, and figs and chocolate.
This is the description of Ermengarde’s “hamper” from her nicest aunt. As a result, I have spent many happy hours in my life imagining what I would send in a hamper to a child at a boarding school. Alas, no opportunities have yet presented themselves–but I encourage you to try the exercise. It’s especially lovely around Christmas time.
Another feature of this book that is calculated to make me love it is the aspect of dolls. Sara gets her doll Emily right at the beginning, and the central event of the story arc features Sara’s “Last Doll” at her eleventh birthday party. Of course there is yet another delightful list:
There were lace collars and silk stockings and handkerchiefs; there was a jewel case containing a necklace and a tiara which looked quite as if they were made of real diamonds; there was a long sealskin and muff, there were ball dresses and walking dresses and visiting dresses; there were hats and tea gowns and fans.
Anyone who was a little girl in the great era of American Girl, before Mattel bought it and ruined everything, remembers that the delicious descriptions of each doll’s historically accurate clothing and accessories were almost more enjoyable than having the things would have been. At eight and nine and ten I snagged the catalogues and read them again and again and again, with the keenest delight I have ever felt. To be a child, and to want and admire a doll, is a magical thing.
Just around the same time that I first read A Little Princess, Christmas of 1990, when I was ten years old, my mother bought Samanatha for me for Christmas. She bought the doll, all of the books, and the folio of patterns for Samantha’s clothes. She and my aunt together sewed all of Samantha’s outfits that were available at that time (the school dress, the Christmas dress, the sailor’s middy, the birthday dress, and the cloak with muff and hat). Every summer I went to a day-camp where we sat and sewed quilts and other little things for American Girl dolls. In the early 2000s, when I began to make some real spending money of my own, I bought most of the other available outfits. And my aunt made me one more dress for Samantha–a dark blackish-brown velvet one, made from an 18″ doll pattern rather than Samantha’s own, and which is a little tight and short on her.
This girl had her doll, her Emily, and by gosh–the doll had its own sumptuous wardrobe and its own “short, tight black frock”. Though I hadn’t explicitly connected the two in my mind until a few days ago when I began to re-read the book, it’s true that the two put together created a wonderful synergy in my childhood that follows me even today.
I didn’t play with Samantha very much. Mostly, I took her out of her box and changed her clothes every now and again. However, she means the world to me. She is the greatest Christmas of my childhood–my Red Rider BB gun, if you will. Every time I open her box and go through her things, I remember the delicious elation that I used to feel when reading the old catalogues. I get quite silly over dolly tea sets and doll’s dolls and bears. I even just bought myself a set of doll-sized chest of drawers and washstand, which I will convert into jewelry boxes, but oh–the desire to stuff Samantha’s things into those drawers is so very strong.
Ermengarde quite beamed with delight.
“Oh, Sara!” she whispered joyfully. “It is like a story!”
“It IS a story,” said Sara. “EVERYTHING’S a story.”