You would think that after The Secret Garden, another Burnett book about a while child from India who is sent to England for some vague form of education would not be my jam. But I have a secret: the 1995 Alfonso Cuarón-directed A Little Princess is an extreme problematic fave of mine. I mean, there is literally a magic Indian man with a monkey in this story, but as a kid it represented everything I thought my life should involve–pretty dresses, a righteous comeuppance for an authority figure who thinks she’s better than a beloved little girl, and a vague connection to India in the background. In general, I was far more delighted by this book.
The little princess is Sara Crewe, whose father, a British Officer in India, drops her off at an English boarding school where she is the richest and most fawned-over student. In real life, she would probably be a total spoiled brat. But, at least sometimes, Sarah checks her privilege. “Things happen to people by accident,” she says. “A lot of nice accidents have happened to me…Perhaps I have not really a good temper at all, but if you have everything you want and everyone is kind to you, how can you help but be good-tempered?” That’s pretty amazing! More children should understand so deeply that life is chaos and it’s all meaningless and any second now everything could be taken away from you.
The way everyone interacts in this book is profoundly strange, probably because things are strange in a world where this wealthy and pampered child has no flaws. For example, during a French lesson, Miss Minchin, the harpy of a school marm, asks Sara if she has ever learned French. Sara says no, so Miss Minchin puts her in French class and makes a whole thing about this child not knowing French. However, it comes out that Sara is actually fluent in French because her mother was French, she just never took formal lessons. Which, okay Sara, you know what she means.
Have you learned French?
Okay then you need to learn French.
But what I meant is that I haven’t learned it, I LIVE IT EVERY DAY. I PRACTICALLY BREATHE FRENCH.
Then why didn’t you say that?
You asked if I learned it, not if I osmosised it.
If I were Miss Minchin I’d hate this kid too.
(Sara isn’t actually perfect. In one section, she fantasizes about her life with “her servants and her slaves. It was like a sort of dream.” Eeeesh.)
Unlike in The Secret Garden, something actually happens to our protagonist. Her father, back in India, invests in some diamond mines (????) with an old friend of his, only to lose his fortune and also get some brain fever and die. Sara is left penniless and orphaned, and Miss Minchin is furious at all the money and time she has spent on her, so she sends her to live in the attic and be a maid to the school and basically makes her life miserable.
The point of the book is that Sara discovers that, even when she has nothing and no one is kind to her, she is a good-tempered person. It’s not her money that made her good, it’s her soul. Except it goes about it in a pretty backwards way. Sara’s big skill is having a big imagination, and she acts out a lot of stories and “pretends” she is a lot of different things, which helps when you’re stuck in a freezing attic. And she decides to pretend she is a princess. But not for the fantasy of wealth and privilege–for the goodness of it.
The book often equates richness and royalty with morality, which anyone alive on earth knows is not how it goes. In one low moment, Sara is inspired by Marie Antoinette “when she was in prison and her throne was gone and she had only a black gown on…she was a great deal more like a queen then than when she was so gay and everything was so grand.” Yes, that Marie Antoinette, she of “let them eat cake” and “build me a weird farm thing to play in while France burns” and Versailles in general. “She was stronger than they were, even when they cut her head off,” says Sara.
Later, Sara says “if I’m a princess–when they were poor and driven from their thrones–they always shared–with the populace–if they met one poorer and hungrier than themselves. They always shared.” I mean, , Sara.
Sara does a lot of kind things in the name of being a princess. She buys hot buns with a sixpence she finds on the street and gives most of them to another beggar girl, even though she is starving. She minds her manners and speaks kindly to people. But there’s this underlying suggestion that she is doing it both because she thinks it’s how royalty acts, and because she was already of a higher class.
The plot eventually brings us in contact with a large, wealthy family across the street from the school, and a wealthy new neighbor nextdoor, both of which become charmed by Sara because of her aristocratic demeanor. They call her the “little-girl-who-was-not-a-beggar” because she didn’t look or speak or act like a beggar, and the little boy in the family even gives her a sixpence specifically because of the way she acts. How odd, to reward a poor person for not acting the way you believe other poor people to act! And for thinking that, because she acts educated, she is more deserving of kindness.
(This whole theme got me thinking about Coming to America, one of the most perfect films ever filmed, but with every subsequent viewing I realize everything people like about Prince Akeem is because he is rich. Lisa is taken with him because he’s educated, well spoken, generous and polite, and he is those things because he has been raised in a palace. Of course, the idea is that other princes could have been assholes and Akeem would be a kind, thoughtful and generous person even if he were broke, and that since rich people can, they should take care of the poor. But maybe if he were actually raised as a goat herder he would be a dick like everyone else! And Daryl is a jerk.)
Anyway, it turns out the man who moved nextdoor is Captain Crewe’s best friend and diamond mine partner, who did not actually lose the fortune, and has been searching everywhere for Sara so he can give her her half of the diamond fortune. He’s also had an Indian “Lascar” with a monkey who’s been sneaking into Sara’s room and leaving her presents, which nobody seems to have a problem with. Eventually it’s revealed that Sara has been nextdoor the whole time, and she goes to live as a rich person again, and brings Becky (the other maid who lived in the attic) with her as her personal maid where she is presumably treated much better. And Miss Minchin is all mad. And Sara then goes to a bakery and tells the baker that if any hungry girls are around, to give them food and send Sara the bill. It’s all very nice, but somehow I don’t think that’s how most princesses would act.