How to Be a Princess: Sara Crewe

MAY / JUNE 2012: BY GINA DALFONZO

alittleprincess

IF THERE’S A little girl in your life (niece, daughter, granddaughter, cousin, goddaughter, neighbor, or in any other capacity) you know about the princess infestation.

In the world of little girls, princesses are everywhere. Toy stores and TV shows are full to bursting with sparkly tiaras, pink frills, and the like. And the little girls who want as much of it as they can get are legion. I’m not saying this trend is a bad thing. I enjoy buying princessy things for my young goddaughters and I love their reactions when they receive them. But I do wonder where these particular notions of princessdom came from, and many are concerned that the consumerist nature of the princess industry (analyzed in depth by Peggy Orenstein in her flawed but fascinating book Cinderella Ate My Daughter) may be offering a shallow and self-centered version of what it means, not just to be a princess, but to be a girl.

This is all the more reason to appreciate a classic children’s book from 1905. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (an expanded version of her earlier book Sara Crewe) may look at first glance like one more fluffy tale of a privileged, pampered little girl. But it’s much more than that.

Sara Crewe is a boarding school student in London at the turn of the century. The daughter of a wealthy army officer, Sara has always been given every-thing a little girl could desire, including a pony, a doll with a lavish wardrobe and enough dresses and books for fifty little girls. But none of this fits Sara’s definition of princesshood. The concept comes up when Sara is talking to Becky, a scullery maid whose life is as different from hers as one could possibly imagine. Becky is struck by Sara’s dress (which, in anticipation of modern princess fashions, happens to be pink):

For a few seconds Becky was almost speechless with admiration. Then she said in an awed voice: “Onct I see a princess. I was standin’ in the street with the crowd outside Covin’ Garden, watchin’ the swells go inter the operer. An’ there was one every one stared at most. They ses to each other, ‘That’s the princess.’ She was a growed-up young lady, but she was pink all over—gowndan’ cloak, an’ flowers an’ all. I called her to mind the minnit I see you, sittin’ there on the table, miss. You looked like her.”

“I’ve often thought,” said Sara in her reflecting voice, “that I should like to be a princess; I wonder what it feels like. I believe I will begin pretending I am one.”

It seems at first that the idea of princesshood is tied to the idea of pretty gowns. In Becky’s mind it certainly is. But Sara sees things differently. After a long talk with Becky, and after giving the destitute girl food and a chance to get warm by the fire in her own room, she muses:

“If I was a princess—a real princess . . . I could scatter largess to the populace. But even if I am only a pretend princess, I can invent little things to do for people. Things like this. She was just as happy as if it was largess. I’ll pretend that to do things people like is scattering largess. I’ve scattered largess.”

The beauty of A Little Princess is that, like so many other children’s books of its era, its focus is on the development of good character rather than the gratifying of self. Thus, once Sara has hit on her idea of a princess as one who gives freely of herself, it guides her toward greater wisdom, strength, and maturity. It helps her stay patient and polite even when provoked by bratty younger children, jealous schoolmates, and a schoolmistress who has never liked her.

When Sara’s father dies of a sudden illness, she loses everything and becomes a servant at the school. Yet now that she is in much the same position as Becky, she has more opportunities than ever to be a true princess. Dealing with systematic mistreatment, including near-starvation, this child keeps her dignity and her sense of decency to an extent that confounds those around her. The cook at the school says of her, “She’s got more airs and graces than if she come from Buckingham Palace, that young one. . . . I lose my temper with her often enough, but I will say she never forgets her manners.”

In one of the most memorable passages in the book, a wet, cold, hungry Sara finds a coin in the street, with which she plans to buy herself a few buns. But on her way into the bakery, she spots a beggar child, “a little figure more forlorn even than herself.” Questioned by Sara, the child says that she has not eaten all day.

Just to look at her made Sara more hungry and faint. But those queer little thoughts were at work in her brain, and she was talking to herself, though she was sick at heart.

If I’m a princess,” she was saying, “if I’m a princess—when they were poor and driven from their thrones—they always shared—with the populace—if they met one poorer and hungrier than themselves. They always shared. Buns are a penny each. If it had been sixpence I could have eaten six. It won’t be enough for either of us. But it will be better than nothing.”

It takes a heart of stone not to be deeply moved by the ensuing description of Sara giving all but one of her buns to this ragged little girl.

Eventually, Sara finds a happy ending, but by that time, our ideas of what makes a princess have been forever changed. That’s why Burnett’s book is one princess-themed product that anyone could be glad to give to a little girl. It may turn all her ideas about princesses upside down, but in ways that will do her nothing but good. ♥

mayjune2012

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