Francis Eliza Hodgson Burnett's was a varied and international life. Born to a Victorian middle class family whose fortunes so fluctuated as to inhabit both manor homes and urban slums, they moved when she was 15 to a log cabin in Tennessee. By her 18th year she was supporting the family with her writing. Almost an instant success, she went on to live in Washington D.C., London, Paris, Bermuda, and Long Island, in all sorts of different accommodations and degrees of luxury. Crossing the Atlantic yearly much of her life, traveling throughout Europe, divorcing her husband in 1898, she wrote thirty-five complex books and stories, often highlighting her Christian Scientist beliefs, all while battling depression, raising four children (one of whom died), and taking active part in the social world of Western literati. Quite frankly, the more I read about her, the more astounding I find the woman.
Today Burnett is chiefly remembered for her three most famous books: Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), The Secret Garden (1911), and The Little Princess (1905). The last of these is perhaps my favorite book of all time. I read it countless times as a child and continue to reread it every few years, each time amazed anew by the tale of Sara Crew, but I never knew of any Burnett books beyond these three until a few weeks ago, when I stumbled upon The Shuttle (1907). Mesmerized by the story, I quickly downloaded The Collected Works of Francis Hodgson Burnett on my Kindle, a steal at $1.99. I have been compulsively making my way through the stories ever since, and as I seem bent on a out and out binge, I figure I might as well share my thoughts. My post have been sparse this year, most of my time being devoted to writing The Madness of Mr. Darcy, and perhaps this diversion will spark some life back into the blog.
Burnett's writing is characterized by superhuman characters. Austen said "pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked," but I can't help but think she would approve of the way Burnett throws her godlike heroes and heroines into contrast with equally vile and horrid humanity. Is it possible Sara Crew and Miss Minchkin weren't inspired by Fanny Price and Mrs. Norris? Her characters may not be believable, but they set the stage for explorations of morality, spirituality, and human nature. Readers veer well beyond the "two-inches of ivory" that contained the world of an English village, complete with rectory and great house, immortalized by Austen, traveling across the globe to exotic places of unimaginable beauty, but somehow the morality that emerges is the same. Burnett's style almost resembles modern magical realism, as she depicts a time of as rapid change and astounding advancement as our own, struggling to capture the confusion such disorienting advancement must cause. I think there is much in her work to fascinate the modern reader, and I intend to review those of her stories that stir me the most here.
The Plan of Attack:
Burnett is best known for her children's stories. I count nine stories unquestionably intended for children:
- The Secret Garden
- The Little Princess (I'm not counting the short story that was expanded into the novel - Sara Crewe - separately) (ED)
- Little Lord Fauntleroy (AB)
- The Story of Prince Fairyfoot
- The Proud Little Grain of Wheat
- Behind the White Brick
- Racketty-Packetty House (ED)
- The Lost Prince (ED)
- Barty Crusoe and His Man Saturday
Please note that all mentioned works are available for free at http://www.online-literature.com/burnett/.
There are two more stories that are probably intended for children as well, but I have lumped in a separate category of spiritual works. Spirituality plays a strong role in many of Burnett's stories (she was a Christian Scientist), but the following are explicitly religious texts. Those oriented towards children are marked with a C.
- The Dawn of a Tomorrow (ED)
- The White People
- In the Closed Room
- The Land of the Blue Flower (C)
- The Little Hunchback Zia (C)
Also arguably religious in premise are six stories I have labeled cautionary (one is also maybe for children, as indicated.
- In Connection with the DeWilloughby Claim (ED)
- Little Saint Elizabeth (C) (ED)
- Lodusky (ED)
- Surly Tim
- Mere Giraud's Little Daughter (ED)
Fifteen of her books are romances: two are historical (addressed above and marked with a H below), and three are explicitly about Americans in Britain (marked AB, as is Little Lord Fauntleroy above), I will handle the three latter stories, two of which are amongst my very favorites, as a unit, because the clash and confusion between American and British cultures comes up again and again in Burnett. Much of her best work is based upon the awkwardness between different cultures and the usually wealthy immigrant's attempt to assimilate.
- Emily Fox-Seton (ED)
- A Fair Barbarian (AB)
- Le Monsieur de la Petite Dame
- The Pretty Sister of Jose
- The Head of the House of Combe
- T. Tembarom (AB) (ED)
- That Lass of Lowrie's (ED)
- A Lady of Quality (H)
- His Grace of Osmond (H)
- The Shuttle (AB) (ED)
Another theme in Burnett's books is economic distinctions. I don't just mean stories in which different classes are represented, as in The Secret Garden, but those in which privilege and deprivation are thrown into explicit contrast AND it provides a major theme for the tale. This also plays upon the immigrant experience. Burnett had herself experienced both wealth and poverty. I've marked these book with an ED.
So there you have it. I think I'm going to start with the romances, in no particular order, as it keeps me on the most familiar ground. I'll link the reviews as I do them to this post.