Now, I know what you’re thinking—A Little Princess? Isn’t that the movie with the little girl who tells stories about India and tells the evil Miss Minchin that all girls are princesses? Yes, dear reader, yes it is. And while that movie is near and dear to my heart, today I’m going to tell you why the book is so much better (fair warning—this review is spoiler-rific, but the book was published in 1905).
In the 1995 movie, the big message is that all girls are princesses, whether they be poor or rich, ugly or beautiful. Being a princess is something that all girls are; it’s an automatic result of being female. One of the more powerful scenes in the movie is when Sara practically shouts at a speechless Miss Minchin, “All girls are princesses! Didn’t your father ever tell you that? Didn’t he?” And while this sends a pretty good message to young girls about their inherent human dignity, it’s a very different characterization of what it means to be a princess than in the 1905 novel. In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s original version, pretending to be a princess is Sara Crewe’s favorite private daydream. She is embarrassed when her nasty classmate Lavinia tries to make fun of her for it, but Sara stands her ground and defends her pasttime. For Sara, being a princess is about being kind to everyone she meets, being courteous and polite even when people are rude or cruel to you, and being generous to those who are less fortunate than she.
Much of the plot of the movie follows the book. Sara’s father is very rich, lavishing her with gifts and dolls and dresses. When the political climate in India becomes “unsuitable for children,” he brings Sara to London so she can begin her education at Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies. Miss Minchin turns the wealthy Sara into her show pupil, allotting her a pony, her own parlor, and a French maid. Instead of the wealth and attention spoiling Sara, she remains a good-natured child. Sara is an incredibly talented storyteller, and shares her stories with the other students. She befriends the social outcasts: Ermengarde the dunce, Becky the scullery maid, and becomes a surrogate mother for the temperamental, four-year-old Lottie. During Sara’s eleventh birthday party, Lavinia asks Sara if she thinks she could be a princess if she didn’t have her wealth. Before she can reply, Miss Minchin informs her that her father died, and his fortune with him. Sara is allowed to remain at the school as an errand girl and tutor for the younger students, but her only remaining possessions being a too-small black dress and her beloved doll, Emily.
Over the next few years, we see Sara demonstrate the moral character of a true princess. She is kind and polite to the vulgar serving staff. She uses her imagination and storytelling talents to help her and Becky cope with Miss Minchin’s abusive treatment. In an almost Disney-esque fashion, she befriends the rat that lives in the wall. One particularly cold afternoon, Sara finds a fourpence in the muddy street. Ravenous with hunger, she walks into the first bakery she sees, asking if anyone lost a coin. The shop owner (a woman, interestingly) says Sara should keep the coin, and Sara buys some hot rolls. The shop owner takes pity on Sara’s starved demeanor, and adds two extra rolls to her bag. On the way out the door, Sara sees a girl looking even more starved than herself, and gives her all but one of the rolls. It is here that Sara shows the true character of a princess—no matter how little a princess has, if she meets someone in need, she always shares.
Much of Burnett’s story is concerned with the issues of living in a classed society. Sara is clearly a member of the upper class. Miss Minchin and the unnamed female bakery owner are solidly middle class. Becky the maid and the starving girl are of the lowest class.
While it would be easy to jump to some kind of “prosperity gospel” (aka God will bless the chosen people with wealth and other good things as a sign that they’re chosen for Heaven, and thus a life of virtue) conclusion about riches being tied to virtue, Burnett paints a more complicated picture. On more than one occasion Sara thinks about how her wealthy upbringing gives her the luxury of being able to act like a princess, and that those who are poor are most often never given the chance to even imagine such a thing. Becky and the starving girl are completely and utterly dependent on others for survival. Sara herself nearly starves at the hands of Miss Minchin’s maltreatment. And after a particularly nasty episode, Sara would have lost her faith in playing princess completely if it had not been for the kindness of the “Indian Gentleman” surprising her with soft blankets, a fire in the furnace, and a hot meal in her attic room.
But the most interesting contrast is between Miss Minchin and the unnamed baker woman. Both are referred to as successful businesswomen. However, Miss Minchin uses immoral tactics to exploit her pupils; the thought of scandal damaging her reputation the only thing stopping her from turning Sara out into the street. On the other hand, the baker is touched by Sara’s kindness to the starving girl, and is inspired to give food to any children who come and sit on her doorstep. Over time, the starving girl returns to the bakery, and the woman gives her a job in the storeroom. The dichotomy between the two women shows that wealth does not dictate one’s morality.
While the 1995 movie version is still one of my favorites, the original version of A Little Princess is much more satisfying—though it’s not without its faults. There is the rather racist portrayal of Indian servants. But this, I think, is more due to its author firmly residing within the turn of the twentieth century. And it’s handled rather well—Sara speaks to the servants respectfully in their native language (having grown up in India herself), and a named servant, Ram Dass, is given full credit for the idea of filling Sara’s attic room with treasures.
A Little Princess is full of good, strong female characters, and shows its readers that being a princess isn’t about being beautiful rich daughter of a king, trapped in a castle, waiting for her prince. It’s about being a virtuous, kind and generous person, no matter what your circumstances. Unlike other “Princesses” in favorite modern movies and fairy tales, Sara is different. While she is a victim of unfortunate circumstances and is under the control of an “evil stepmother” type character, her response to her situation isn’t passive. While Cinderella is a friend to animals and is kind to others, she doesn’t stand up to her stepmother’s or stepsisters’ maltreatment. Sara uses her social graces to make Miss Minchin look like a fool; Sara confidently knows she’s in the right, but doesn’t angrily shove it in Miss Minchin’s face (as much as she would like to). Sara lets the truth speak for itself. Her blunt honesty allows her to stand up for herself in a way that isn’t violent or even aggressive. Sara feels anger and frustration at all the injustice surrounding her, but doesn’t let that get the best of her. Sara is a kind of strong female character that is sorely missing in most princess literature today.