89 pages 2 hours read

Frances Hodgson Burnett

A Little Princess

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1905

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Summary and Study Guide


The classic children’s novel A Little Princess; Being the Whole Story of Sara Crewe Now Told for the First Time was published in 1905. In this work, Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924), a celebrated Anglo-American novelist and playwright, expanded her earlier novella, Sara Crewe: or, What Happened at Miss Minchin's (1888), which had originally been serialized in St. Nicholas’ Magazine (1887). Burnett explains in her preface to A Little Princess that when she wrote a play in 1902 based on her 1888 novella, she discovered characters such as Becky, Lottie, and Melchisedec, who had been left out in 1888 because the imaginary characters “did not mention themselves to me at first” (vi). After the success of this play, Burnett’s publisher requested that she add those missing characters to her novella and expand it as a full-length novel, making the novel her third work involving Sara Crewe. The novel is set in a boarding school in late Victorian England and reflects the era’s social structures—including the protagonist’s father’s role in colonizing India, the exploitation of diamond mines, and the social hierarchy rooted in the maintenance of a servant class—and typical literary devices such as a moralizing tone and the trope of the orphan who manages, through unlikely circumstances and after much suffering, to reach a happy ending.

In addition to being adapted for the stage, the novel has been the basis of two films. The 1939 film adaptation, The Little Princess, starred Shirley Temple as Sara and is noted for being the child star’s first appearance “in Technicolor.” Director Alfonso Cuarón released his remake of the film, A Little Princess, in 1995, and changed the setting to World War I. Both film versions significantly revise the novel’s plot.

Burnett was English, but when she was three, her family emigrated to Tennessee due to difficult financial circumstances after her father’s death. She began writing as a teenager to help support her family. Burnett also wrote the popular children’s books Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), which was also adapted to the stage, and The Secret Garden (1911). She also wrote several novels for adults that were best sellers in their era.

(Note: This guide is based upon the 1912 reprint of the 1905 edition illustrated by Ethel Franklin Betts.)

Plot Summary

Seven-year-old Sara Crewe voyages from India with her father to enroll in Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies in England. Sara’s mother died when she was born. Sara was raised in India by her loving father, Captain Ralph Crewe, a wealthy English military officer. The English considered the Indian climate unhealthy for young British girls, so the British families who lived there typically sent their children to be educated in England. Since Sara and her father adore each other, they are both deeply sad when the time comes for their separation. Captain Crewe impulsively shops with Sara before leaving England, purchasing a wardrobe for her that is too luxurious and costly for a child. Captain Crewe also pays extra money to the schoolmistress, Miss Minchin, so that Sara can enjoy a private bedroom, a sitting room, a personal maid, and a carriage with a pony. Miss Minchin is outwardly respectable but inwardly greedy and unkind. She flatters Sara, knowing that her wealth and elegant appearance will enhance the school’s reputation. However, Miss Minchin secretly resents Sara’s pampered prosperity.

Sara is an extremely intelligent and imaginative child whose privileges do not cause her to act grand or be self-centered. Sara is generous and kind, possessing a maturity beyond her years. Conceiving of a person’s circumstances as “an accident” beyond the individual’s control, Sara is able to imagine herself in another’s position and, therefore, be empathetic. Sara particularly helps the most downtrodden people in the school: Ermengarde, who is considered the school “dunce;” Lottie, who is the “baby” of the school; and Becky, who is the lowest-ranking servant at the school. Sara is repeatedly compared to a princess because of her luxuriously clothed appearance. However, she decides to secretly pretend that she is a princess as a way of ensuring that she will behave well, remain courteous and do kind things for people. Sara believes that being a princess has “nothing to do with what you look like, or what you have. It has only to do with what you think of, and what you do” (60).

Sara receives an amazing gift from her father for her 11th birthday: the Last Doll arrives with an elaborate wardrobe that was custom-designed in Paris. Sara's lavish birthday party at Miss Minchin's is interrupted by the news that Captain Crewe died suddenly after losing his fortune by investing in diamond mines. He trusted a dear friend from his school days who persuaded him to become a partner in his enterprises and then, apparently, betrayed him. When Miss Minchin learns that Sara is orphaned and impoverished, she is enraged. Miss Minchin paid for Sara’s doll and the extravagant party, expecting reimbursement from Captain Crewe. Miss Minchin’s cruelty is revealed after the death, as she removes all Sara's possessions except some old clothing and Sara’s doll, Emily, and forces her to live in a cold, dingy attic room. Miss Minchin orders Sara about as if she were a servant, ends her lessons in the schoolroom, and sends her out on errands during terrible weather.

Over a two-year period, Sara is terribly mistreated by Miss Minchin and the kitchen staff. Although Miss Minchin's younger sister, Amelia, disagrees with the way that Sara is treated, she is too timid to object. Sara is often deprived of meals, worked beyond exhaustion, and clothed in ill-fitting, threadbare clothing, even in the snowy winter. The three girls Sara befriended during her fortunate circumstances—Ermengarde, Lottie, and Becky—maintain their devotion to her after her misfortune. Sara relies on her vivid imagination to endure her hardships, pretending she is a prisoner in the Bastille with Becky or a princess in disguise. Sara maintains her standard of “inner princess” behavior by continuing to be courteous to those who insult her and generous to those who are even hungrier than she. One day, she finds a fourpence coin in the mud and uses it to buy buns at a bakery. Despite her own hunger, she gives five of her six buns to a girl in the street who is begging and starving. When the bakery shop’s owner witnesses Sara’s incredible act of selfless compassion, she is so emotionally moved that she invites the girl who was begging into her shop, giving her a job and a home.

When Mr. Carrisford, an English gentleman who lived in India, moves into the house next door to Miss Minchin's school, Sara is reminded of the land of her birth. Unbeknownst to Sara, Mr. Carrisford was Captain Crewe's friend and partner in the diamond mines. Mr. Carrisford agonizes that Captain Crewe died believing that he betrayed and ruined him. However, Mr. Carrisford was ill in the hospital at that time, and the fortune of the diamond mines was restored later. He is haunted by a dream in which Crewe asks him to find his lost daughter. Mr. Carrisford’s health is suffering because of his guilt. He sends his lawyer, Mr. Carmichael, to try to find Crewe’s daughter so he can restore her fortune. He knows only that Mr. Crewe had a child whose mother was French, so he assumes she was sent to a Paris school.

Sara encounters Ram Dass, Mr. Carrisford’s Indian servant, when they view the sunset from neighboring attic windows. Ram Dass is delighted when friendly Sara speaks in Hindustani to him. When he captures his escaped pet monkey, he observes Sara’s impoverished living conditions. Ram Dass notices Sara’s unusual compassion for all living things, and he tells his employer about her situation. Together, the men construct a plan to carry hot suppers and other comforts across the roof to Sara’s attic room while she sleeps. Sara's morale and health improve when she realizes that she has a mysterious friend who sends restorative gifts. When Sara receives two packages addressed to her containing costly, warm clothing from an anonymous benefactor, Miss Minchin becomes fearful that Sara might have a wealthy relative and starts to treat her better, allowing her to attend classes again.

One night, the monkey again escapes to Sara's attic room. When Sara visits Mr. Carrisford's house the next morning to return the animal, her identity as Captain Crewe’s daughter is finally discovered. Sara learns that Mr. Carrisford is her father’s school friend and has looked for her for two years. Sara will now be a wealthy heiress, as Mr. Carrisford restores her father’s lost fortune from the diamond mines to her. When Miss Minchin threatens that Sara must return to her school, Mr. Carrisford’s lawyer informs her that Sara will remain with her guardian, Mr. Carrisford, instead. Sara’s friend Ermengarde receives a letter from Sara inviting her to visit and relating the marvelous news. Sara does not forget the scullery maid Becky, inviting her to be her attendant at Mr. Carrisford’s residence. Mr. Carrisford becomes a father figure to Sara, and he regains his health. Remembering her hunger, the wealthy Sara returns to the bakery where she bought the buns, arranging to pay for food to be handed out to needy children.