Waiting for the Party (the life of Frances Hodgson Burnett) by Ann Thwaite


Word PressHow the same author can have written That Lass o’Lowrie’s, Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Secret Garden is fascinating. The fact that that author grew up in Cheetham Hill and Salford, and that her family emigrated because of the financial problems caused by the Cotton Famine (my university dissertation topic, about which I can merrily waffle ad infinitum!) is even more fascinating :-).   This isn’t the world’s best-written book, but the subject matter’s really very interesting, and it’s well worth a read.

I hadn’t realised that Frances Hodgson Burnett had written so many books, having only come across the better-known ones. And there are such differences in her work – everything from Gaskell-esque works about the lives of the working-class (and written in local dialect) to Victorian slush (I do feel sorry for her younger son, labelled as “Little Lord Fauntleroy” for the rest of his life!) to much-loved children’s novels which are now regarded as classics.

And her own life was pretty interesting as well. Her father owned a furniture shop in town, and the family originally lived in Cheetham Hill. It’s fascinating how Cheetham Hill, along with many other districts close to the city centre, went from being a middle-class area to a working-class area so quickly in the second half of the nineteenth century. When Mr and Mrs Hodgson were first married, they lived in Moreton Street. By the time my great-great-grandparents were living in Moreton Street, towards the end of the century, it was a poor working-class area; and the houses there were pulled down during the slum clearances after the Second World War. The Hodgsons then moved to the area of Cheetham Hill Road near where Manchester Fort is now, and Frances was born there in 1849. Then they moved further up Cheetham Hill Road, towards where Temple School is now. Quite a posh area back then!

However, Mr Hodgson died in 1853, and his widow and children struggled to manage for money. They moved for a time to the Seedley/Pendleton area – near Buile Hill Park, which local tradition says is where Frances later wrote most of The Secret Garden, although that isn’t mentioned in this book – and then to a small house near Salford Cathedral. As best as I can work out, it was between Chapel Street and Oldfield Road, near that horrible junction where Oldfield Road and Adelphi Street aren’t quite opposite each other so you have to turn left on to Chapel Street and then immediately right!   Even in the 1850s, it was a relatively poor area, certainly by the standards that the Hodgsons were used to. They later lived in Chorlton-on-Medlock for a time.

I won’t write an essay about the Cotton Famine ;-), but that finished off the family business, and, in 1865, Mrs Hodgson and her children moved to Tennessee, to join her brother. So Frances had both British and American links – and crossed the Atlantic no fewer than 33 times during her lifetime! In later years, when her books had made her a lot of money, she had bases on both sides of the Atlantic, and also did a lot of travelling in Europe in later years.

Incidentally, what on earth is “one of those tight, forbidding Manchester faces” supposed to mean?! That’s a description of Frances Hodgson Burnett given by her first biographer – who was Marghanita Laski, niece of Harold Laski, daughter of Neville Laski, and therefore herself a member of a very well-known Manchester family! OK, let’s not go there …

In addition to travelling, Frances had quite a colourful personal and social life. She divorced her first husband, which caused quite a scandal at the time – anyone who thinks that the press reporting on celebrity break-ups is a modern phenomenon, think again!! – and remarried in rather strange circumstances, saying that she’d been blackmailed into it. She also mixed with all sorts of literary types and, with several of her books being made into plays, was involved in the theatrical world as well.   And she was involved in a landmark legal case over the copyright for Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Biographers are usually sympathetic towards their subjects and Ann Thwaite tries to present a positive picture of Frances. She does seem to have been a difficult person sometimes, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for her first husband, but a lot of her issues were caused by depression, especially after the early death of her eldest son from consumption. Also, this was the Gilded Age, and there’s always something quite annoying about it in general, and that isn’t specific to any one person! And she did a lot of charity work, as many middle-class Victorian women did, and helped out friends and relatives who were struggling for money.

The book’s called “Waiting for the Party”, and that’s because of the sense that Frances was never quite in there, that she was always just missing out on things. I’m not sure that that’s entirely true. She could have lived a quiet life with her first husband, but she got out there and she got in there!   The success of Little Lord Fauntleroy, whilst it’s seen as rather a joke today (and that’s more because of illustrations than the writing), was phenomenal; and The Secret Garden and The Little Princess are still well-known today. She achieved a hell of a lot. As for Ann Thwaite’s book, it’s very entertaining, and certainly worth reading.


6 thoughts on “Waiting for the Party (the life of Frances Hodgson Burnett) by Ann Thwaite

  1. Chris Deeley

    Another brilliant review! The Cotton Famine was a terrible blow to the cotton workers of Lancashire, many of whom were of Irish descent, whose forbears had emigrated to escape the potato famines.

    I wonder whether your thesis referred to that famous Punch cartoon (27 August 1864) showing “Jeff Davis” passing by Lord Punch and Lord Pam. When Lord Punch asks Lord Pam whether or not he recognizes Davis, Pam indicates that he may have to in the future. The title of the cartoon is “Very Probably”, implying that the UK might have to recognize the Confederate States in order to restore the cotton trade. What a dilemma! And what a dreadful outcome for the UK, later having to pay huge reparations to the Union on account of the Alabama warship debacle.

    I also wonder whether you might have a digital version of your thesis which you could make available to your regular readers? It’s such an interesting topic.


  2. Thank you for your kind words :-). We didn’t have digital stuff back then – it was all typed! Some people had computers at university, but most of us didn’t. The poor tutors had to read all my essays in my awful handwriting! Yes, Palmerston was keen to recognise the Confederacy, but Gladstone wasn’t, and it was reported that Queen Victoria wasn’t either.


    • Chris Deeley

      I’m digressing now, but the attitudes of Palmerston and Gladstone towards the Confederacy seem a bit counter-intuitive, given that the former was landed gentry and the latter nouveau-riche industrialist. Gladstone’s father had been one of the biggest slave-owners in the British Empire, a leader in the demand for compensation after abolition, and receiver of the largest compensation pay-out (over a million pounds in today’s money).


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