By guest blogger Lisa Francesca
I think it was Eleanor Roosevelt who said that a woman’s character is like a tea-bag—just put her in hot water and see how strong she gets. Sara Crewe, the main character of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, was thrown into very hot water and showed her strength in deeply satisfying ways. I read and reread my shabby hardbound copy (from 1906, with a few richly colored illustrations) so many times that entire passages are engraved in my brain.
Sara is a small child, about seven years old, when we first meet her. Her mother is long dead, and her father is dropping her off at Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies. At first she lives like all the other pampered boarders, but then something goes terribly wrong. I won’t give away the plot here, because if you haven’t read it, you must; but Sara is stripped of everything but her oldest and smallest black dress, and sent to wash pots in the scullery, and at night she must trudge upstairs to sleep in the drafty garret.
That’s when Sara’s character truly shows itself. She continues to be kind to everyone, honest and hardworking, even when she has to bite back her anger at many slights and injustices. “Whatever comes,” she says, “cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.” She did not let the actions of others reduce her, for “she could not be made rude and malicious by the rudeness and malice of those about her. ‘A princess must be polite,’ she said to herself. And so when the servants, taking their tone from their mistress, were insolent and ordered her about, she would hold her head erect and reply to them with a quaint civility which often made them stare at her.”
Sara was a role model for me during a difficult and often lonely childhood. When I was six years old my mother dropped me off at my father’s house and never came back, having quietly moved across the country. At Dad’s house I had an older brother and sister who teased me. Uncomfortable and disoriented, I clung to my doll, just as Sara had. And because she had made friends with sparrows and rats in her garret, I grew closer to the cats and birds in the garden. Rereading Sara’s story gave me comfort that I was not the only abandoned little girl — that she had been one, too. Later, in seventh grade, a teacher berated me for being too cheerful — like the cruel Miss Minchin! But because I knew by heart what Sara would do, I remembered that I was a princess inside, and that what this angry woman said could not touch me. I somehow left that scene with my dignity and self worth intact. Sara’s model of kind nobility—at my age!– was so directly described that it was easy for me to emulate, and her imagination inspired my own.
By the end of A Little Princess, justice is wonderfully restored and Sara is promised a very good future. But for many years the ending left no impression on me. More critical to my own life were Sara’s lessons learned in hardship: do your best; be kind; imagine better circumstances. I love my life now, married, happily working, and with grown children. Sometimes, when people comment on my optimism and high ideals, I think back to Sara, a character drawn more than sixty years before I was born, who, in the absence of attentive adults, taught me how to thrive.
Lisa Francesca is a writer in Campbell, California, who cherishes her small collection of old children’s books. She’s currently writing a nonfiction book about weddings. Find out more about her at www.lisafrancesca.com.