Sunday 3 July 2011

Review: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I hate to say it, but I was disappointed with this book.

I should note before I go any further that my opinion was probably doomed from the outset by high expectations, and it was pretty much impossible for me to be fair. Because, you see, while I never read this book as a child, I watched the 1995 movie adaptation obsessively and also enjoyed the 1939 version, PLUS have a special place in my heart for Burnett's The Secret Garden - both the book and movie versions. So, like I said, my expectations were pretty damn high - and it was hard for me not to compare this book to all those other things.

While it told the story I was expecting - of a kind little girl named Sara being sent to a boarding school by her loving father, who then finds herself suddenly friendless and penniless, having to use her inner strength and imagination to overcome her lot - I was surprised at how different it was from the movies. There was one glaring plot point that I'd assumed was an intrinsic part of the story, because it appears in both film versions (despite them being very different in other ways), and I was shocked and disappointed that it was actually absent from the book. But I tried to be fair and get over that (after all, it's not the book's fault the movie versions changed its story) and instead focus on the magical and whimsical aspects of the plot that I love. Occasionally I succeeded, but unfortunately more often than not my attention was dragged back to things that really annoyed me.

For instance, the way the book dealt with race and servants. I know I shouldn't judge it by modern standards, but it was hard not to get irritated at the way poor Becky was treated - even by those who were supposedly kind to her. Similarly, it was difficult not to be disgusted by the descriptions of India and its inhabitants, and Sara's reflection that they were once her slaves - this, coming from a supposedly noble girl!

Which brings me to Sara herself. The little princess drove me nuts. Which in itself annoyed me - I wanted to like her SO badly (She reads! She loves stories and imagining things! She's smart! She's brave!) - but the more time I spent with her, the more I disliked her. She was just so perfect that she didn't seem real; on the rare occasions she showed "wickedness" (the few times I started to like her again), she quickly reined herself in. I know she's supposed to be an admirable character, with traits to aspire to, and I did like the message that positive thinking and kindness can be their own rewards, but it was just rammed down my throat so hard that I almost sympathised with the awful Miss Minchin. Who could blame her for wanting to bring Little Miss Perfect down a peg or two?!

I feel terrible saying all this because, like I said, I loved the story growing up and I'm surprised at how little I loved it after finally reading it. Of course, it wasn't awful - there's still the magic and whimsy there, and the story itself is enchanting. But with such an archetypal heroine, what should have been just my cup of tea was way too sweet for my tastes.

Rating: 3/5

Spoilery Talking Points
  • I've already touched on this, but I felt so bad for Becky. I hated the way that, even when she was receiving kindness, it was only as a result of being in Sara's orbit, and then all she got was basically Sara's crappy castoffs. Literally - Sara gets a fluffy new mattress because her old, hard one is looked at as too cruel for her - and yet this is the mattress that Becky gets as a gift?! Likewise, when Sara gets new clothes from her mysterious benefactor, and the package is specifically addressed to "The little girl in the attic on the right", I couldn't help thinking, "what about the little girl in the attic on the left?!"
  • I was gutted by what happened to Captain Crewe. I'd much rather focus on the happily-ever-after presented by the movies.
  • I thought it was interesting to note the differences between Sara and Mary from The Secret Garden. They both have similar backgrounds - raised in India, spoiled rotten and waited on hand and foot before being thrust into cold, harsh England - and yet were such different characters. I wondered if this was down to the one significant difference in their upbringings - Sara was extremely loved, while Mary was basically ignored. It's interesting that Sara is thus a kind, imaginative, too-perfect girl from the beginning, while Mary is pretty darn horrid to start with, and it's only once she starts to feel love (both given and received) that her kindness, gentleness and imagination come to life.
Eye Candy/Who I "Cast"
With the movie cast scorched into my mind from repeated viewings growing up, I basically couldn't picture anyone else. I did, however, manage to slip James McAvoy in as Captain Crewe and Michael Fassbender in as the Indian gentleman. (Can you tell I watched X-Men: First Class recently? I loved their bromantic chemistry).

Books to Movies (Movie reviews to come!)


  1. I adored both the movie and the novel to The Secret Garden and I remember seeing The Little Princess when I was really young as well. I haven't read the novel though. It's a shame it didn't live up to your hopes. So sad when that happens.

  2. Hi, just wanted to let you know I've added your entry to the literary blog directory:
    Hope you find some great blogs through it and also get some new readers. There's a button on my blog for you to use.

    It's a shame you were disappointed by A Little Princess. I read it first when I was about eight and will therefore always love it. I do agree with you that Becky gets a rough deal - especially when she has to work all day and then wait on Sara in the evenings.

  3. Oh, I'm disappointed to hear your frustrations with this one--it's coming up on my to-read list! I loved The Secret Garden, but did struggle with the issues of class and race that seem to crop up here, too.

    And Sara seems to suffer from the same perfection issues that annoyed me in Heidi. It's interesting how making a character too perfect can make them utterly unlikeable!

  4. Lan - I know, I tried so hard to like it but I just couldn't. Well, I couldn't love it, anyway.

    Tiny Library - Awesome, thanks so much! I already found some great new blogs, it's such a good list. Yes, I have a feeling that if I'd read this as a kid I probably would have liked it a lot more.

    Stephanie - I'm so interested to see what you think of it! I'd like to know if I was just being too picky. But I tried so hard not to be! ;)

  5. James McAvoy as Captain Crewe--good call! The 1995 version is excellent. I was an adult when it came out, but I must have watched is several times with my daughter because I feel like I have it memorized!

  6. Oh sorry that it was a disappointment for yo. I have never watched the movie. But I think I should. And thanks for the eye candy :)

  7. I'm going to watch the movie this week for the first time in years, so it'll be interesting to see if it's stood the test of time. :)

  8. LOL, I can tell how bad Sarah must have been if you started related to Ms Minchin! :P I loved the 1995 movie version. Too bad the book doesn't live up to it.

  9. I loved the '39 movie. That was my fave because I loved Becky in that one. Loved the accent she had. :) Never read the book and don't think I'd like it either. Great review!

  10. Small Review - I know, it's a bad sign when you hate the heroine more than the villain! lol

    Melissa - Thanks! I adore Shirley Temple so I loved the '39 version too, although I didn't watch it as much as the 1995 movie.

  11. +JMJ+

    What's funny is that I had the opposite experience, reading A Little Princess first and finally getting to The Secret Garden much later, and also found the second book lacking when held up to the first.

    Since then, however, I think I'd say--without doing a reread of either book--that Mary is definitely the better heroine, if only because she changes. Sarah doesn't change at all! Her circumstances change, and she goes from riches to rags and then back to riches again, but she herself stays essentially the same.

    I love that you bring up the rather shabby treatment of Becky, not because I've always agreed, but because I've never thought of it before. It does seem totally awful that she gets Sara's used mattress while Sara gets her entire bedroom redone so beautifully. I honestly wonder what was going on in Burnett's mind when she wrote that. =/

  12. Enbrethilliel - How interesting! You're right, Sara doesn't change at all, and that's just not very interesting - and also not very realistic. It's impossible to think that anyone could go through all that and remain unchanged. That's one of the reasons I like Mary and her story so much more.
    As for Becky, well I suppose Burnett was a product of her times and back then they looked at class separation differently. It's crazy to think about now, though.

  13. I am sad but unsurprised. Secret Garden was my favorite book as a child, but when I read it recently I couldn't handle the racism, even though it makes a little more sense as Mary is a thoroughly unpleasant child.

  14. If anything, it's worse in A Little Princess :-/

  15. I tried to post a detailed comment but Blogger ate it. Bottom line - I can relate to your experience books vs. movies. And thanks for entering the Classic Bribe!


  16. But don't forget to link this review post to the Mr. Linky on the Classic Bribe challenge page to be officially entered for the gift card drawing...

  17. Molly - Bloody Blogger! Thanks for reminding me to put it in the linky! :)

  18. Oh my GOSH, I would just DIE if they remade this into a movie with James MacAvoy as the Dad. But seriously, being a fan of the 1995 movie, I always LOVED Sara's dad in that movie. Anytime I see him in other films, I wipe an imaginary tear and think about how much I LOVED him in a Little Princess. Little bit of idol-worship I think lol... I think most of us 90s kids look back on that guy and see him as our imaginary dad lol. I haven't read the book but I cannot imagine a tragic end for him... Thanks for your thoughts on this book/movie! ~mya S.

    1. I definitely have a soft spot for him thanks to A Little Princess!

  19. The 1986 UK TV version of A Little Princess is much better than both US movies, in my opinion. I hate it when they change the story so significantly that it becomes a different story... Sarah's father dies in the book. That's fundamental to the story so why change it? Oh yes... to give little girls a sugar coated mushy ending. The original ending is far far better, and much more believable. Check out the UK version (it's available on DVD) as it's far superior, and Maureen Lipman's portrayal of Miss Minchkin is truly wonderful! :)