A Little Princess

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A Little Princess
A Little Princess Warne 1905.png
First edition cover
Author(s) Frances Hodgson Burnett
Original title A Little Princess: being the whole story of Sara Crewe now told for the first time
Illustrator Harold Piffard
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Children's literature
Publisher Frederick Warne and Co.
Publication year 1905
Pages 302

A Little Princess, subtitled being the whole story of Sara Crewe now told for the first time is a 1905 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. A revised and expanded version of Burnett's Sara Crewe: or, What Happened at Miss Minchin's Boarding School, which was serialised in St. Nicholas Magazine in 1888, A Little Princess looks at the life of Sara Crewe, a favored pupil at an elite London boarding school for girls, who is left in poverty when her father dies, but is later rescued by a mysterious benefactor. The true meaning of nobility is a key theme. The novel has known continual popularity from the time of its publication, and is a classic of children's literature. it has been adapted into several films and television series, including an anime, A Little Princess Sara in 1985 as part of Nippon Animation's World Masterpiece Theater.


The story opens with the arrival of the widower Captain Ralph Crewe and his daughter, Sara Crewe, at Miss Minchin's Select Seminary for Young Ladies, a boarding school catering to children of the wealthy. A precocious girl, Sara is seven years old, but enters wearing "a look on her small face" that "would have been an old look for a child of twelve".[1] Immensely wealthy, Sara had lived a pampered existence in Bombay prior to her journey to London,[2] and has arranged to have a room all to herself in the new school. Already an avid learner, Sara is a devourer of grown-up books, in French and German as well as in English, leaving Captain Crewe hoping she will get to spend more time with children her own age, and play with dolls. Sara, in fact, already has a doll in mind: Emily, whom she has never seen, but will know upon seeing. Captain Crewe remains with her at a hotel for several days before classes begin, buying her a great wardrobe, and after much searching Sara recognizes Emily in a shop, and the doll is thereafter a constant companion.[3]

The headmistress's kind-hearted sister, Miss Amelia, thinks Sara "a funny, old-fashioned child" and takes to her,[4] but Miss Minchin develops a grudge against the new student after she reveals herself a fluent speaker of French, a tongue the headmistress never mastered.[5] Due to Sara's wealth and intelligence, however, she continues to try to flatter her, and makes her "the show pupil".[6]

Sara discovers Becky asleep by her fireplace, by Tasha Tudor.

A bright student, Sara's kindness and imaginative storytelling quickly win over her classmates. Sara warms to relative outcasts of the school, Ermengarde, the school dunce, and Lottie, the youngest girl at the seminary, whom Sara consoles when she has a temper tantrum about having no mother. She even makes friends with Becky, the scullery maid, after discovering her asleep by the fireplace in her room, exhausted from work, and is the first person at the Select Seminary to treat her with kindness and dignity. However, she also excites the jealousy of Lavinia, who at thirteen is the eldest girl at the seminary and was formerly the favorite, and Jessie who is close to Lavinia. Students begin to think of Sara as a princess, which Sara happily embraces and Lavinia mocks.

As Sara's eleventh birthday approaches, she learns that her father has entered a diamond mining venture bound to multiply their wealth, wowing her peers. Miss Minchin makes preparations for a great party, for which her father had ordered a doll from Paris. As arrangements are made Sara, still ten, writes to him, "I am getting very old… you see, I shall never live to have another doll given me," and dubs the coming doll the 'Last Doll', revealing an acute awareness of time and fate.[7] However, Captain Crewe's solicitor arrives unexpectedly, and tells her his client has died, the diamond mines a failure and completely bankrupt. Furious she will not be reimbursed for recent expenditures on the star pupil, Miss Minchin almost throws Sara on the streets, but Mr. Barrow convinces her that it would make for an "unpleasant story" connected with the establishment,[8] after which she breaks

Sara with her doll Emily in her attic room, by Ethel Franklin Betts.

up the party, seizes all of Sara's possessions save an outgrown black frock and Emily, and banishes her to the attic, where she inhabits the room across from Becky. A musty room with an unlit hearth, the attic nonetheless has one window which, when Sara peers through by standing on furniture, affords a beautiful, inspiring vista of London.

Put to use as a servant and an instructor of her former peers, Sara endures several years of abuse at the hands of Miss Minchin, the cook, and other servants. Besides the warmth afforded by her loyal friends Ermengarde, Lottie, and Becky, her imagination provides her sole consolation in her harsh new life. Comparing her fortunes favorably with the Count of Monte Cristo in Château d'If and prisoners in the Bastille, she role plays as an inmate in the Bastille, with Miss Minchin the jailer, to romanticize her lot.[9] In addition, she makes friends with a rat, whom she names Melchisedec and nourishes with crumbs remaining from her scant meals.

Despite her impoverishment, Sara retains her well-bred manners. For some time, she fancifully observes a family with eight children in the same square as the Select Seminary, calling them the Large Family and assigning them fanciful aristocratic names. When she encounters one of the boys on an errand, he pities her hunger and offers her a sixpence, which she accepts only on his insistence, stoking the family's curiosity at her refusal to beg.[10]

After some time, with Sara nearly succumbing to despair,[11] a sickly Anglo-Indian gentleman moves in next door, piquing Sara's interest and eliciting her sympathies. She meets his Indian servant, the lascar Ram Dass, when the pet monkey escapes across the roofs into her room, and impresses him by addressing him in Hindustani.[12]

It is revealed that the new neighbor is Mr. Carrisford, Captain Crewe's former partner in the diamond mine scheme; while his health never fully recoverd from the misfortunes that befell them and led to Captain Crewe's death, his fortunes later changed and his prosperity returned. As most of the fortune belongs by right to Captain Crewe's daughter, Mr. Carrisford is horrified that she may be in misery as great as the talked-about girl next door,[13] and his agent had lately been searching for Sara as far away as Moscow.[14]

Sara feeds a starving beggar, by Tasha Tudor.

While on an errand in the midst of winter, Sara finds a fourpence in the streets; having gone without dinner the day before, she is elated that she can buy a hald dozen hot buns from a bakery. However, she encounters "a little figure more forlorn even than herself,"[15] ragged and barefoot, and gives her five of the six buns she purchases; this makes an impression on the baker, who invites the beggar in a feeds her.

Not long after, Ram Dass and Mr. Carrisford's secretary cross the roofs into Sara's attic, and plan an overnight transormation of the chamber. That night after Ermengarde presents Sara with several books too difficult for her, including Carlyle's French Revolution,[16] she hatches a plan for a clandestine party for Sara and Becky, and carries up a box of cake, meat pies, and other

Sara awakens to find The Magic, by Tasha Tudor.

snacks from her aunt, which Sara leads them into pretending to be a formal banquet. But Miss Minchin breaks up the party when Lavinia informs her of Ermengarde's actions, leaving Sara alone with her doll Emily again. When she awakens, a feast is prepared, and a fire roars in the grate. At first thinking herself still asleep, she fills herself and attends to the day's duties with surprising joy.[17] "The Magic" continues night after night, and soon Sara even receives parcels in the mail filled with good clothes to replace her rags, agitating Miss Minchin, who believing Sara may yet have powerful relations condescends to treat her generously once more.[18]

The next morning, the monkey from next door escapes onto the seminary's roof, and Sara brings him next door to return him. Mr. Carrisford sees her, and when he asks how she knew Ram Dass was a lascar because she was born in India, he realizes her identity, and explains her situation. When Miss Minchin comes looking for Sara, Mr. Carrisford's solicitor, the father of the Large Family, explains that Sara has inherited a great fortune, and the headmistress returns to the seminary defeated and in disbelief. Miss Amelia at last finds strength to stand up to her sister, and recognizes Sara's nobility and superior perception.[19] Living next door Mr. Carrisford, Sara often calls on Ermengarde and Lottie to visit, and remembers Becky in her new fortune, making her her personal attendant.[20] When Sara encounters the baker again, she learns that the former beggar-girl, named Anne, has been taken in and is well cared for, and Sara makes a deal to cover the bills for the baker to feed other hungry children.


"If Sara had been born a boy and lived a few centuries ago," her father used to say, "she would have gone about the country with her sword drawn, rescuing and defending everyone in distress."[21]

“Whatever comes,” [Sara] said, “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. There was Marie Antoinette when she was in prison and her throne was gone and she had only a black gown on, and her hair was white, and they insulted her and called her Widow Capet. She was a great deal more like a queen then than when she was so gay and everything was so grand. I like her best then. Those howling mobs of people did not frighten her. She was stronger than they were, even when they cut her head off.”[22]

Sara, as others see her, and as she remains on the inside.

Throughout the book, Sara's princessly nature is described as innate, rather than a product of her upbringing. The narration clearly establishes "Nature having made her for a giver" concerning her magnanimity toward Becky before her change of fortunes.[23] Contrasts are established between her conception of nobility as consisting in character while antagonists equate it with pomp and money. Jessie and Lavinia accurately describe Sara's attitude: "She says it has nothing to do with what you look like, or what you have. It has only to do with what you think of, and what you do. I suppose she thinks she could be a princess if she was a beggar. Let us begin to call her Your Royal Highness." On questioning, Sara confirms, “It’s true. Sometimes I do pretend I am a princess. I pretend I am a princess, so that I can try and behave like one,”[24] revealing that her pretending involves character building; on the other hand, Miss Minchin told parents about Sara's reputation as Princess Sara "more than once to visiting parents, feeling that it rather suggested a sort of royal boarding-school."[25]

The theme of nobility as understood by the different characters may be seen in their usage of the word "vulgar", which is used by characters four times in the book. In chapter 11, while Miss Minchin is lecturing the pauper Sara, Sara is imagining she is a princess and thinking, "I only spare you because I am a princess, and you are a poor, stupid, unkind, vulgar old thing, and don’t know any better,"[26] using the word to denote ignoble behavior demonstrating her knowledge of her inner superiority despite her destitute circumstances. In chapter 15 Sara reproves Ermengarde for intending to deceive her father into thinking she had read them, Sara says, "That’s almost like telling lies. And lies—well, you see, they are not only wicked—they’re vulgar. Sometimes,” she digresses, explaining the rationale for her restraint, “I’ve thought perhaps I might do something wicked—I might suddenly fly into a rage and kill Miss Minchin, you know, when she was ill-treating me—but I couldn’t be vulgar.[27] When Lavinia uses the work in chapter 16, she equates vulgarity with mere contact with the poor: "Not that I care, but it’s rather vulgar of [Ermengarde] to share with servant girls in attics." [28] After the Select Seminary loses the again-wealthy Sara in chapter 18, the sympathetic Miss Amelia admits "we were both of us vulgar and mean enough to grovel on our knees before her money, and behave ill to her because it was taken from her," equating vulgarity with the mercantile mentality and failure to rise above money.[29]

As in Burnett's subsequent novel The Secret Garden, the relationship between race and geography play an important role, first in that the climate of India, "very bad for children," was a key reason Captain Crewe sent Sara to England for her schooling,[30] and later in the doings of Ram Dass,

Liesel Matthews as Sara (left) and Vanessa Lee Chester as Becky (right) in the 1995 film A Little Princess.

a lascar servant living in London. When he transforms Sara's miserable attic room with sumptuous food and gifts, Mr. Carrisford's secretary remarks, "It will be like a story from the Arabian Nights. Only an Oriental could have planned it. It does not belong to London fogs."[31]

Child labor and child poverty also figures prominenty as themes through the plights of Sara, Becky, and Anne, and in Sara's efforts to aid street children at the novel's end.

While the 1985 anime A Little Princess Sara is true to the intentions of the original despite significant alterations to the story, not all adaptations have been so faithful. Alfonso Cuarón's 1995 film A Little Princess gives the story an egalitarian message, with Sara telling Miss Minchin "I am a princess. All girls are." In addition, the scullery maid Becky's race is changed to Black, confounding the attention to ethnoracial character in Burnett's original, and adding a racial slant to the issue of poverty.[32]

See also


  1. Frances Hodgson Burnett. A Little Princess. HarperCollins Publishers: China, 1999, pg. 1.
  2. Burnett, pp. 2-3.
  3. Burnett, pp. 9-13.
  4. Burnett, pg. 15.
  5. Burnett, pp. 25-26.
  6. Burnett, 53.
  7. Burnett, pg. 81.
  8. Burnett, 99.
  9. Burnett, 129.
  10. Burnett, 153-156.
  11. Burnett, 160-161.
  12. Burnett, 172-175.
  13. Burnett, pp. 188-189.
  14. Burnett, pg. 193.
  15. Burnett, pg. 203.
  16. Burnett, pg. 225.
  17. Burnett, pp. 262-263.
  18. Burnett, pp. 271-273.
  19. Burnett, pg. 305.
  20. Burnett, pp. 308-310, 315.
  21. Burnett, pg. 29.
  22. Burnett, pg. 177.
  23. Burnett, pg. 80.
  24. Burnett, pg. 76.
  25. Burnett, pg. 77.
  26. Burnett, pg. 178.
  27. Burnett, pp. 226-227.
  28. Burnett, pg. 260.
  29. Burnett, pg. 305.
  30. Burnett, pg. 3.
  31. Burnett, pg. 219.
  32. See A Little Princess (1995) clip on YouTube.

External links