Welcome to the twentieth-century

Bookhounders may remember that some time ago I wrote about the impact that a cover can have when making choices about what to read. I was shocked to spot this cover
advertised on Amazon. The problem I have with this, is that it doesn't reflect the nature of the book at all. It leaves you expecting some soft, soppy girlish tale. In fact Frances Hodgson Burnett's Edwardian novel A little princess may be written for children, but it's a tough story. It may be about little girls, but there is not much that's sentimental about the tale even allowing for the romantic ending.

First published in 1905, this is an extraordinarily prescient novel at the dawn of the twentieth century. A century that would see more booms and busts financially than ever before; and this novel telling the story of a little girl in 1905 could, with some changes, equally well be written about a girl during the Depression, or perhaps the victim of a more recent boom and bust.

Sara Crewe is the spoilt daughter of a wealthy Indian Army officer. Sara is brought from her home in India to be educated at a select boarding school in London. Captain Crewe, doting on his only child, gives vast sums of money to the school so that Sara can have every luxury. That this doesn't turn her head is down to Sara herself, who's a nice sensible child, with a robust imagination and a loving spirit. When Captain Crewe dies penniless after investing heavily in a diamond mine, Sara is turned into a skivvy at the school, but her irrepressible spirit keeps her going even when life seems to be at its worst; but there is a surprise in store....

This riches to rags to riches story is an extraordinarily well-written tale. But what I think I found most affecting about it is that it remains, sadly, as relevant today as ever. 1 in 5 people in the UK still live in poverty, if it isn't quite the grinding poverty of the Victorian age it is no less offensive. Many people, often with children, will have to make choices this winter between food or fuel. The period may change but the background to Sara's story remains. For a chilling look at the contrast between 1905 and today see the Independent's article on Dr. Barnardo.

It's also astonishingly ahead of its time when writing about race. Ram Dass, the central Indian character, comes across as a bit of a hero, with a magical imagination worthy of the Arabian nights. Unusually for this period, although he is both a servant and a foreigner, he is a fully-rounded character, who is the equal of any of the other characters surrounding him.

A little princess may have been directed at a child audience, but it's a powerful enough story to keep any adult entranced too. Frances Hodgson Burnett was one of my favourite writers as a child, A little princess still packs a punch even when read from an adult perspective.


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