Although Frances Hodgson Burnett is most famous for her book The Secret Garden, I suspect everyone knows the basic plot of A Little Princess. Originally published as a serial novel in 1888, it was first published in book form in 1905. It is a reversal-of-fortune-Cinderalla type story. The twist, though, is that, while the main character is privileged and truly loved by her father, she herself is not spoiled. One of the first things we learn about young Sara Crewe is that she "did not care very much for other little girls, but if she had plenty of books se could console herself. She liked books more than anything else, and was, in fact, always inventing stories of beautiful things, and telling them to herself." While love of books always bodes well in a character, what I loved most about A Little Princess as a child was Sara's doll Emily. Raised in India by her doting father (also described as being "young, handsome and rich" by Burnett) Sara is taken to London for a proper education when she is seven. Before leaving her at Miss Minchin's Select Seminary for Young Ladies Captain Crewe takes Sara on an extensive shopping trip that includes the search for the perfect doll who will be her friend in the absence of her beloved papa. Sara tells Captain Crewe that she wants a doll (to be named Emily) to "look as if she wasn't a doll really. I want her to look as if she listens when I talk to her. The trouble with dolls, papa, the trouble with dolls is that they never seem to hear." After much window shopping Emily found then taken to a "children's outfitter and measured for a wardrobe as grand as Sara's own." Really, Emily was the first American Girl Doll, some 81 years before of Pleasant Rowland had her brilliant idea and, sadly, about ten years too late into my childhood for me to enjoy. Did I mention that I loved dolls as a kid? I collected Madame Alexander dolls and made my own dolls, their clothes and their furniture and lodgings in some cases. They were my companions, my friends and, like Sara, I was sure they moved when I wasn't looking and might one day reveal themselves to me. Sara tells her French maid Mariette that she believes dolls can,
do things they will not let us know about. Perhaps, really, Emily can read and talk and walk, but she will only do it when people are out of the room. That is her secret. You see, if people knew that dolls could do things they would make them work. So, perhaps they have promised each other to keep it a secret. If you stay in the room, Emily will just sit there and stare; but if you go out, she will begin to read, perhaps, or go and look out the window. Then if she heard either of us coming, she would just run back and jump into her chair and pretend she had been there all the time.
In fact, in a fit of sentimentality I posted a week of reviews of Books About Dolls a year ago. As a child, Sara's assured and detailed world of pretend (and of course her extensive collection of accoutrements for Emily) was fascinating to me. As an adult reading A Little Princess I can see that there is so much more to Sara Crewe and the melodrama that was her childhood.