“Are you learning me by heart, little Sara?” he said, stroking her hair.
“No,” she answered. “I know you by heart. You are inside my heart.”
No, this post is not about me!
Today I will, once again, be geeking out for Frances Hodgson Burnett. My love, my boo, the one lady with the key to my childhood heart – the author of The Secret Garden.
Now The Secret Garden is one of my favourite novels of all times, and The Little Lord Fauntleroy is a solid Christmas classic – so of course I got super excited when I saw a new, beautiful edition of one of the Burnetts that I hadn’t read yet: A Little Princess. I’ve read about this novel before, specifically concerning (almost) perfect protagonists and how they work in some novels. That sort of spoilt the story for me a little bit, I suppose, although I’m not sure if that’s a valid concerning when reading Burnett novels. They’re all almost fairytale-esque in their storylines, often concerning a conversion of some kind; Scrooge to lovable uncle, miserable to lovely child, and of course riches to rags…to riches again.
Yes, when you sit down to read a Burnett story you know what you are getting into. It’s like a Disney movie: you will not be surprised by the “twists” of it, and you essentially know what will happen after five minutes. But, like Disney, you’re not here for a subversive story – you’re here to be enchanted by style and characters.
And like with Disney, you will be.
A Little Princess tells the story of Sara Crewe, daughter of an adoring father based in India. She gets dropped off by her father at a boarding school for young girls, and he spares no expense for her to have the best imaginable. She is either loved or hated by the other girls, as she is rich, a talented storyteller, and sweet almost beyond belief. See, Sara is not a real princess, but a princess in her behaviour and morality. After her tables are turned horribly, and she is reduced to utmost poverty and friendlessness, she keeps her head held high and remains polite and friendly to everyone.
“Whatever comes,” she said, “cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.”
Of course her fate gets changed for the better at the end, and she helps other characters improve their situations as well. I do think that Burnett walked a fine line with Sara: she is very close to being too perfect. The things she goes through are horrible, and she just stays sugar sweet throughout all of it. However, the thing that I think makes it work is that Sara is a dreamer, a storyteller. When she tells a story, she can visualise it to the point where reality and fiction get blurred. This is the thing that keeps her going – she’s kind of delusional. By pretending that she’s a princess, whatever that means to her, she manages to cope. This mixing up of fact and fiction is a big flaw that she uses to her advantage, and turns into a trait we as readers can admire. Yes, I do wish she would punch some of the kids and the headmistress, either physically or verbally, but I think her grace and pride (although not necessarily befitting a child) make her admirable and lovable in exactly the way I imagine Burnett intended it to.
That said, out of the 3 Burnetts that I’m familiar with so far this is probably the one I connected with the least, and it is probably because of the characters. I don’t feel any of them really grew at all – Sara is always lovely, and the others remain the same also, it is just the situation that changes. In The Secret Garden Mary and Colin both go through a tremendous transformation, as does the garden, and in Little Lord Fauntleroy the story is the uncle changing himself to live up to his nephew’s expectations. Although Sara is a lovable character, I’m not sure if she is a good character. The typical Burnett click didn’t happen for me, and because of that the magic meter was stuck at A Christmas Carol (unpopular opinion I know).
So what tea would go well with a story of riches, rags, riches, and magical storytelling to escape from abject poverty and hunger?
After thinking long and hard, staring at my tea collection, I decided to go for a tea that tastes like a little princess would drink it: luxurious, sweet, and with a small nod to Sara’s background in India. The tea in question is Coconut Truffle by Whittard. It’s a white tea infusion, with coconut, apple and cocoa nibs. It’s sweet, but sugar free, and velvety rich in flavour – exactly what Sara and her friends would crave!
So sit down with your decadent cup of Coconut Truffle and imagine yourself a little princess.