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.

 

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevens

Miss Buncle is an aging old maid in a boring town in the suburbia of London, 1930s. When she finds herself in need of funds, she decides to earn some money by writing a novel. Miss Buncle’s book causes waves in the careful social fabric of the small town because she has written about the people she knows, albeit with different names, of course. Those who have not been portrayed nicely certainly do not appreciate the caricatures by the anonymous “John Smith” and vow to find out who has written the book. As Miss Buncle watches the chaos, she can only find inspiration for more fiction!

Miss Buncle’s Book (to be published September 2012 by Sourcebooks; originally published 1934) by D.E. Stevens is a laugh-out-loud experiences as one considers proper and shy Miss Buncle overhauling her small town’s social order. It is in part an humorous portrayal of the old-fashioned traditions in a tight-knit community of the early twentieth century as well as a mingling of various amusing personalities. But it also seemed to me to have a deeper perspective on self-realization. As some of the people of the town viewed themselves through the caricatured view of the unknown author, they changed their own actions: the “mean” person tried to be more kind; the old bachelor allowed himself to think in terms of falling in love, and even shy Miss Buncle found herself loosening up. (Did she really leave the tea party without politely excusing herself?!) If I were in a novel, how would I be portrayed? What faults and strengths would be caricatured in myself?

I was delighted to see that Sourcebooks is republishing this lost classic (to be published in September). It has been previously republished overseas by Persephone Books, and it was about time that it made it’s way to America as well! People who enjoy the humor of The Help by Kathryn Stockett or those who enjoy a look at a small town community, such as that in the much older Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, may also enjoy this book. It is, after all, a book about a woman writing a book about a woman writing a book. Satire abounds, but there is also plenty of subtlety hiding amidst the humor.

Note: I read a digital copy from the publisher via netgalley.com for review consideration. I was not compensated for this review.

Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson (to be published October 2012 by Basic Books) captures not just culinary history but cultural history, describing the foods eaten throughout history based on the tools available to prepare them. Continue Reading

The Maid and the Queen: A Secret History of Joan of Arc by Nancy Goldstone

I really enjoyed reading Shakespeare’s Henry VI part 1 in January, mostly because it include Joan of Arc and mentioned Margaret of Anjou, who married Henry VI. Joan of Arc has fascinated me since I dressed up as Joan for my sixth grade Medieval feast, and Margaret of Anjou is an ancestor of mine. Shakespeare’s version obviously portrays the War of the Roses from England’s perspective, and it fails to give depth to the internal struggles of France during this era. Obviously, it’s fiction, but I became intrigued by the era as I read Shakespeare.

To my delight, this spring Netgalley provided me with a review copy of a new biography about Joan of Arc and others in her era. The Maid and the Queen by Nancy Goldstone (March 2012, Viking) is subtitled “A Secret History of Joan of Arc,” but this subtitle fails to encompass the scope of the book. Because much is unknown about Joan, her unique story and her impact on French history is only understood by considering the French political situation, the locale in which she lived, and the political leaders who supported her, thereby enabling a poor peasant (albeit one who spoke with angels) to rise to power in the French military.

Interestingly, Ms Goldstone begins by discussing the romantic legends prevalent in the era, particularly the story of Melusine. Ms Goldstone argues that because of these superstitious traditions and folkloric legends, when a peasant woman named Joan claimed to speak with angels and declared she could bring military victory to France, local leaders listened to her, considering her the fulfillment of prophecy.

Yolande of Aragon is the queen of the title, the mother-in-law to the dauphin of France, the man who would become Charles VII after the English were driven out of France. One of her other children, Rene, was also an influential leader of the era; his daughter Margaret of Anjou became queen of England when she married the young Henry VI1. Because Yolande was widowed at a young age, she and not her husband wielded power among the royal leaders of the era. She was directly influential in helping Charles VII regain his throne at the end of the Hundred Years’ war.

I was not at all familiar with the history of the Hundred Years’ War. Occasionally, I felt a little lost as to the unfolding events, especially if I set the book aside for a few days. But in general, Ms Goldstone’s book was written for the general reader who is not a historian. I enjoyed the complicated account of an insane French king (Charles VI) and the drama of the opposing political leaders. Although I can’t say I will certainly remember all the details, because of the breadth of the book, I feel I now better understand France in this era, and I look forward to following up with a more general history of the Middle Ages.

In sum, I found The Maid and the Queen to be a nice follow up to the obviously fictional Henry VI part 1 by Shakespeare. It helps that it also is about my ancestors, Yolande of Aragon, Rene of Bar, and Margaret of Anjou, as well as about the intriguing and unknown Joan of Arc. These are subjects I want to learn more about, and this book certainly piqued my interest further.

Note: I read a digital copy via netgalley.com from the publisher for review consideration

  1. Her influence on that marriage caused the territory conquered in France to be lost to the English and restored to France. She is my ancestor on my father’s side.