A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, book of a lifetime


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The Independent Culture

I haven't read it for years but it is part of me, so ingrained that I know it formed my tastes and beliefs. A Little Princess has been loved by thousands of little girls, but I claim that it is responsible for the shape of my life.

Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in Manchester in 1849. Her father, an ironmonger, died when she was three and the family was soon impoverished. With her mother and siblings she moved to Tennessee as a teenager and began writing stories for ladies magazines. She opened a school for young children and became the family breadwinner.

But the poverty of her childhood must have touched her profoundly, for the spoiled but charming Sara Crewe is taken out of the nicest room at her school in England and sent to the garrett to live as a badly treated servant when her father dies. In one of my favourite illustrations (all by Ethel Franklin Betts), she sits on her wretched bed in a smudgy smock holding her beloved doll, Emily, and I can attest to the visceral effect this had on me. Sara's garrett was my attic with its steep stairway; her skylight was the window I opened at the top of my house.

The door between the two rooms of my attic led into Becky's chamber – Becky being the scullery maid who became Sara's only friend. Now, behold! Next door lives an Indian gentleman who happens to have been Sara's father's business partner and has been searching for Sara since her father's death. He has discovered that the mining business they had in India is not broke, as thought, but wealthy.

He knows nothing about Sara in the cold room at the top of the school next door until his servant, Ram Dass, crawls across the roof and peeks into that skylight. It happens through the intercession of a lost monkey (Is this why I wrote a book about orangutans?) and soon everything is made right by the Indian gentleman, who convinced me that anything Asian is to be understood and admired.

I went to university to study Asia, carrying A Little Princess into my dormitory and laying it solemnly on my desk – a book written for children that was so moving it opened me to every possibility. And now I love a man born in Sri Lanka. Thank you, Ms Burnett.

Linda Spalding's novel, 'The Purchase' (Sandstone Press), is winner of the Governor-General's Prize