A Little Princess by Francis Hodgson Burnett

In A Little Princess (1905), Francis Hodgson Burnett creates a turn-of-the-century London-based Cinderella story. The protagonist, Sara Crewe, is a truly remarkable heroine. Although raised with extravagant wealth and spoiled with whatever servants, toys, clothes, and so forth she could desire, she remained kind, pleasant, sensitive, and polite.

But reading of a perfectly spoiled child, no matter how remarkable she is, does not make for a fascinating story; one needs conflict to drive the action. In Sara’s case, her adversary is the head mistress of her London boarding school, Miss Minchin, as well as a few other girls in the school who are jealous of her status. When Sara’s fortunes are unexpectedly reversed on her eleventh birthday, her life is placed squarely in the hands of the cross Miss Minchin, who now feels she has a right to put young Sara to work in order to get the unpaid bills covered.

I have compared Sara’s plight to Cinderella, and A Little Princess is a formulaic story. It did feel incredibly familiar, so maybe I did read it or watch a movie version of it at some point. But even if this was my first exposure to the story, it is pretty clear what will happen. This does not necessarily detract from the story. A Little Princess is a story about positive attitude, believing in oneself, and living with positivity and politeness, as if one were a “princess,” even in dire circumstances.

A Little Princess is the kind of book I would have loved as a young child. Sara has an adored doll she talks with (as had I as a young girl). Sara dreams she is a princess, something I likewise enjoyed pretending. She loves to read and to learn, and lives in the stories she imagines as I always have loved doing. I was a romantic, naive child, and in many ways Sara was the same. When her fortunes changed, she depended on her pleasant imagination to get her through. Sara was the perfect girl, the girl I wished I could be.

All that said, as an adult, I found Sara annoyingly too good. I am afraid I am like Miss Minchin: someone so “perfect” would have driven me nuts. I don’t want to be mean as Miss Minchin is, but I’m afraid that’s more in my character. To go along with my pessimistic view of human nature, I’ll add that Sara’s attitude just didn’t strike me as realistic. Personally, I don’t subscribe to the “positive thoughts gets you better” philosophy, so the convenient healing of ill old gentlemen, while it added to the charm for children, simply made me roll my eyes. The book was certainly not a favorite for me this time.

However, even with those inherent feelings of  “Oh gag me. No one is like this!”, I still can’t wait to read it to my little girl, when she gets a little older. There are important concepts in the story. I want my children to learn, like Sara did, that no matter what their circumstances, they can rise above them by remembering who they are, including being both my child and a precious spirit child of God. I believe in that in some respects, then, my son is a “prince” and my daughter a “princess”, and I hope I can instill that deep in their hearts, much as Sara’s father did for her.

 

Bleak House by Charles Dickens, Thoughts at the End

Bleak House (published serially 1852-1853) is a sweeping saga of epic proportions. Charles Dickens obviously planned the plot carefully, especially by providing introduction and characters for the bulk of the first third of the novel, so that the last third of the novel would swiftly move to a satisfying conclusion that ties all the previously unconnected threads together.

Because of its imposing nature (the novel in print is nearly 1000 pages), its abundance of memorable characters, and Dickens’ elegant writing style as he created the settings, Bleak House is not a novel for every reader. The beginning is confusing especially. But for the careful and interested reader who takes the time to sink into the details and immerse oneself in the foggy and confusing murk that is 1850s London, Bleak House provides a number of keen insights in to the impact of social class on life and the changing nature of social class in those years, especially in the context of a satiric look at the Court of Chancery and the practice of law in nineteenth century England in general.

Of course, the novel addresses a number of other social issues. For example, Dickens approaches gender roles to some extent (in Bleak House, Dickens writes with a female first person narration, and some of the women’s struggles are ones men probably would not deal with) and, as is typical of Dickens, the plight of the orphan and the poor is central.

But to me, the bulk of the issues he describes seem to hearken back to a changing upper class in Victorian England. One wealthy family has a secret to keep hidden, a secret that probably would not be detrimental to their reputation had they not been upper class. Another gentleman lives in poverty due to his own misguided hopes. The exaggerated and sometimes ridiculous caricatures of other supposedly upper class persons also bring more questions to the front of the reader’s mind: what makes a gentleman and a lady? Why? How do persons of the different classes differ?

Bleak House is crammed with rather depressing commentary on both the lives of the poor and of the rich, the hazy nature of the law courts (specifically Chancery), and a frank discussion of illegitimacy. This gives Bleak House a rather depressing tone: the marvelously written first chapters, which capture the fog and dirt of Victorian London, are a pretty accurate foreshadowing of the hopelessness many the characters will face. And yet, I personally found Bleak House anything but depressing. The residence of John Jarndyce which was called Bleak House was full of cheer, charm, and pleasantness. Further, as the story of Esther’s life became uncovered, her satisfaction in life seemed only to improve. And while there were, I admit, a number of unhappy ends in the novel, for the most part, I found the ending a satisfying resolution to a lengthy and deep story (albeit a satire-rich ending).

Although I not certain Bleak House will end up on my list of favorite Dickens’ novels (I believe that will still include Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol), it’s certainly one I will enjoy sinking my teeth in to again in a few years. There’s a reason it’s a classic, and it is certainly a novel that is meant to be reread and pondered and enjoyed time and again.

From this point, this post contains spoilers for Bleak House.Continue Reading

Germinal by Emile Zola

Germinal by Emile Zola (first published in French, 1885) is so much more than I can capture in a summary or in an opinion post or review or whatever it is I write. Germinal is 500 pages that immersed me in a world of starving and ill people in an obscure mining town living a life of dire poverty and violence, and it certainly must have happened, given the ways I was drawn in to the story of these people.

Although Germinal is packed full of sexuality and violence, tragedy and despair, Zola somehow caught me in his trap and I couldn’t put the book down. Once I was deeply engaged in the story of the desperate strikers trying to grasp on to some life purpose, it seemed I felt their pain and mourned with them as their never-ending tragedies took away all semblance of hope.Continue Reading

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

In The Grapes of Wrath (published 1939), John Steinbeck captured the lives of his contemporary Americans, those living at or below the poverty line in the midst of the Great Depression. While the Joads’ migrant story was moving and I came to love many of the family members, The Grapes of Wrath is so much more than the story of one family. In between the narrative sequences about the Joad family, Steinbeck writes more general descriptive chapters about the fate of masses of migrants uprooted from their homes during the Dust Bowl and forced to search for work in California amidst thousands of other displaced workers. The Grapes of Wrath is about an entire people of otherwise unrecognized poor in our nation’s history.

This is why we keep reading it, even 70 years later. While the plight of poor workers has hopefully improved by today, the unnoticed poor still need a voice. Reading The Grapes of Wrath gives historical perspective, but it also reminds us that there is a majority that is often not represented in literature. Continue Reading