I was convinced that I had read this as a child, and in fact I did have a copy of the book – one of those Parragon Children’s Classics with no illustrations. However I was certain I’d read it at school. I know that I’ve seen the 1 film, so the rough story was familiar but when I read the book last week I realised that I definitely hadn’t read it before. I can only think that I had read a very abridged read-it-yourself version, or I was just confusing myself having seen the film.
First published in 1905, this is an expanded version of an 1888 short story titled Sara Crewe; Or, What Happened at Miss Minchin’s. When first published the full title of A Little Princess was A Little Princess: Being the Whole Story of Sara Crewe Now Being Told for the First Time.
Anyway, there was more to the store than I expected in some respects, and less in others.
Who is the Little Princess?
The Little Princess is not, in fact, a princess at all. Sara Crew is a very wealthy little girl, however. The story begins with her being brought to a select girls’ school in London, where she is to be given every comfort. The girls are all from well-off families but Sara is the only one to have her own maid, and a suite of luxurious rooms. Not only that but her father has kitted her out with the best dresses and furs, as many books as she can read, and a new doll with custom-made clothing as fine as any for a real child.
And yet, Sara is not at all spoiled. She knows that she has more than most people and never looks down on anyone. She is the only girl at the school to acknowledge the new young maid and talk to her as an equal (something strictly forbidden by the upper society’s rules).
This is a stroke of luck, as Sara’s father dies without a penny to his name, leaving Sara equally penniless. She is allowed to stay on at the school, but as staff, not a pupil. She swaps her warm, comfortable suite for a cold, bare attic room, and her lessons for the daily drudge of a servant’s life.
She makes the best of this new situation by continuing to pretend. She has always enjoyed pretending, weaving stories for herself and the other children at the school, but also play-acting roles for herself and her doll. So, in the attic she pretends to be a prisoner in the Bastille, or on occasion that food brought by her one remaining friend at the school is part of a sumptuous banquet. She also makes up stories about the families in the neighbouring houses, whose lives she glimpses through the windows as she passes.
It is one of these families which is key to a happier ending for Sara, as although her father is truly dead (I had wondered if he would make a miraculous appearance at the end, see parallels below) it turns out her neighbour is a friend of her father’s and has been able to save her fortune.
Reading this I was struck by how many parallels I noted with other books I have read.
Firstly, you could compare (and contrast) it with Burnett’s work of a few years later – The Secret Garden. Both feature rich young girls who become orphans in the early chapters of the book and are brought to England from India to live in a large house.
Mary’s parents die in the first few pages – we never see them alive, in fact, while Sara’s father is present in the first chapter, and dies a little later. Both Mary and Sara form friendships with the servants, though for Mary it is encouraged and for Sara it is not.
I also thought there were some similarities between Sara and Pollyanna, from the 1913 book by Eleanor H Porter. Pollyanna is another young orphan, taken in by a stern aunt. Pollyanna has an unfailingly optimistic outlook on life and plays what she calls The Glad Game. The game involves finding something to be glad about in every situation, no matter how bad. She teaches others around her to play this game, and generally makes them happier people. This is similar to the games that Sara plays; although she is not specifically looking for ways to be grateful she does look for ways to make bad situations more bearable and she encourages Becky, the other maid, and Ermengard, a much-teased pupil, to do the same.
The 1962 book The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken follows a similar plot, although against a very different backdrop. Bonnie (supposedly orphaned during the book) and cousin Sylvia (already an orphan) find that Bonnie’s house has been taken over by their distant relative who was supposed to be taking care of them. They are forced into an orphanage where they have to work for a living. This book ends with Bonnie’s parents reappearing. I think I confused the plot of this with A Little Princess somewhat, as there are several attempts from the girls to escape and I kept half-expecting Sara to do the same, or for her father to not really be dead.
Another parallel could probably be drawn to The Secret Island (1938) with the Arnold children being left with relatives who are supposed to take care of them, only for the death of the parents to lead to them being turned into servants. The Secret Island, of course involves the children running away while Sara stays put, and ends with the parents turning up alive, but Sara does at least get rescued by the family friend.
More or less?
As above, I was half-expecting an attempt at escape to be made (but without the wolves), or Sara’s father to reappear.
Instead, what I was not expecting, was Sara’s unusual character, stories and imaginings. Even from seeing the film I had no recollection of that side of the story. I also did not expect that the neighbour would have his manservant sneak food, books, soft furnishings and actual furniture across the roof into Sara’s attic room as a bit of a ‘game’ as he felt sorry for her, of course having no clue that she is the girl he has been searching for.
The end is therefore fairly unbelievable in its coincidences, that the man searching for Sara Crew moves in next door by complete accident (he had believed she was most likely to be in Paris) but is it any more or less believable than dead parents miraculously reappearing?
Still, I enjoyed the story and as we, the reader, know the neighbour’s identity and motive there is a certain sense of anticipation as we wait for the inevitable reveal of he to Sara, and Sara to he.
I remember reading this book as a child and enjoying it, but, even more, being enthralled by a BBC adaptation of it broadcast in, I would guess, the early 1970s, and memorable principally for the very scary and unpleasant Miss Minchin, who fawns over Sara when she is rich and is then so cruel to her when she is poor – but gets her comeuppance in the end!
On checking, I find it was in fact in 1973 (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073301/). It seems there was another TV adaptation in the 1980s as well as the film version.
I hadn’t realised before writing my review just how many adaptations there have been. The one I’ve seen is the 1995 (American) one