I’ve no idea why I’d never read this before. I’m always 🙂 reminding people that Frances Hodgson Burnett was originally from Cheetham Hill, and that her family lost their money in the Cotton Famine; and I read “The Secret Garden” when I was 8. Oh well, better late than never. What a lovely book! I was half-expecting it to be one of those awful Victorian stories in which the heroine’s either too good to be true or bursts into tears every five minutes, or both, but it isn’t like that at all. Sara Crewe is very sweet, but in an appealing and believable way, and I genuinely liked her. And, hooray, she’s best friends with the fat girl! Being the fat girl at school is not easy, and (the unfortunately-named) Ermengarde is lacking in both friends and self-confidence until Sara turns up, but Sara genuinely isn’t bothered about what she looks like. The book would be worth reading for that sub-plot alone, but it’s just a really nice book all round.
OK, the ending isn’t particularly realistic, but a) it’s a children’s book and b) the sudden rescue from poverty is very typical of Victorian books – think of how things turn out for Oliver Twist, or even for Jane Eyre. Overall, I was very impressed with this. And a book about trying to make the best of a difficult situation, using your imagination to help you cope if need be, is definitely not a bad thing to be reading as we head towards our eighth week of lockdown. #BeMoreSaraCrewe – maybe that could be a good slogan for coping with it all!
Sara Crewe is the seven-year-old only child of a young widower living and working in India. He brings her home to England and leaves her at a London boarding school run by a Miss Minchin – one of those small “seminary” type places, like the one Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley went to in Vanity Fair 65 years earlier (this was published in 1888). As Captain Crewe is rolling in it, Sara is a “parlour boarder” – she gets her own suite of rooms and a maid to look after her, and wears much fancier clothes than anyone else. I think Harriet Smith in Emma was also a parlour boarder, but we never actually see her in that setting, and it’s very interesting to think how this would have worked, with one pupil being so differentiated from the others.
Some of the girls are jealous, and sarcastically nickname Sara “Princess Sara”, but she’s so nice to everyone that it becomes a term of endearment. She picks up all the waifs and strays – Ermengarde, a very young girl called Lottie, and the put-upon skivvy, Becky. And she’s good at her lessons. And Miss Minchin quite likes being able to show off by having this pupil who’s dripping in furs and jewels and so on.
Then, news comes that Captain Crewe has dropped dead, having first lost all his money, persuaded by an old friend to invest in a diamond mine which turned out to be a disaster. So Sara is destitute, and apparently has no other relatives or family friends. Miss Minchin can’t chuck her out on the street because it’d look bad, so Sara has to become a servant, living up in the attic in the room next to Becky’s, running errands (she doesn’t seem to do any actual cooking, cleaning, washing, etc!) and hardly getting anything too eat. Miss Minchin is a Very Nasty Person.
Sara, who’s always been very imaginative – a bit like Anne Shirley was to be, later on – copes with it by pretending that she and Becky are prisoners in the Bastille, and, when Ermengarde sneaks up to visit and brings a hamper of goodies, pretending that they’re having a court banquet. But Miss Minchin catches Ermengarde, and stops her and Lottie from seeing Sara 😦 . It does all get a bit pantomime/fairy story-ish, with Miss Minchin as the wicked witch, when Sara gets nothing to eat on some days. She (Sara) does find a coin in the street, and buys some buns with it … but gives most of them away to someone even worse off than she is. But she keeps her spirits up, and is always unfailingly polite to everyone.
Then a man who’s recently returned from India, after a serious illness, moves in next door. And, whaddaya know, he’s the friend who persuaded Sara’s dad to invest in the mines – and the mines are now producing loads of diamonds. He feels terrible about everything that’s happened, and is desperate to find Sara so that he can become her legal guardian and give her all the zillions of pounds that are now hers. Unfortunately, he thinks she was sent to school in Paris and has been adopted by a family who are now in Russia, so he sends his solicitor there to look for her. Despite the size of Alexander III’s Russian Empire, the solicitor soon finds the girl they thought was Sara, only to find that she’s someone else.
Meanwhile, the man’s Indian manservant’s monkey (it’s a Victorian book, OK!) gets into Sara’s attic through a skylight. The manservant rescues him, is very impressed by Sara, feels sorry for her, and reports back to his master. From then on, he keeps sneaking through the skylight to light the fire and leave loads of food and other stuff for Sara, and they also have two parcels of fancy clothes delivered to her! Eventually, of course, it comes out that Sara is the girl they’ve been looking for, her dad’s friend becomes her guardian and she goes to live with him, and Becky becomes her lady’s maid, hooray! And, just to make sure that we don’t forget how nice she is, she insists on giving money to the woman at the bakery where she got the buns, so that buns can be provided for the needy.
All right, it’s a bit clichéd, but it really is a lovely book. Sara isn’t sickly-sweet. She isn’t too good to be true. She gets angry with Miss Minchin, but realises that showing that isn’t going to help. There’s never any mention of the need for obedience, or accepting the Lord’s will, or the School of Love, or anything like that. She’s just a genuinely nice person who tries to cope with a very difficult situation as best she can. And that’s something we’re all having to try to do at the moment. As I said, #BeMoreSaraCrewe – maybe that could be a good slogan for coping with lockdown!