For those of you that don’t know, Sara Crewe is the heroine of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. Originally serialised in 1887, the story revolves around the young Sara Crewe, a rich little girl who, while at a strict boarding school, falls on hard times and is forced to become a servant. Sara resolves to behave like ‘a little princess’ in everything she does, despite being cast into poverty, and is eventually rewarded when things end happily, as such stories often do. Originally published in instalments and printed in a magazine, the story proved very popular: the original story was turned into a play and expanded into the full-length book we know today, and this was all before 1905. Since then A Little Princess has been turned into films, TV shows, musicals, theatre and video games, and Sara herself has become one of the most beloved fictional characters in recent history.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
Like many other child characters, Sara’s control over her own destiny is limited by her age. She’s quite a young girl, and has to rely on other people for basic things like food, shelter and clothing. This dictates a lot of the plot of A Little Princess – when her father dies, leaving her with nothing, she’s cast into poverty and has to become a servant. When she meets her father’s business partner, who’s determined to provide for her, she’s raised back up to her former position. A lot of Sara’s story isn’t the result of her own actions, but the result of other people deciding whether or not they will be looking after her.
As such, Sara’s always on the back foot here – the most she can control is how she reacts to things, and she makes a point of doing this as much as possible. Determined to always behave like a kind and magnanimous princess, she never allows her changed circumstances to affect her behaviour. But she never really tries to change things. She tries to make herself feel better using her imagination, and trying to keep up her friendships, but she never thinks about how she can change what’s really causing her problems: her financial situation.
Let’s compare this to other child characters. Matilda grew up a great reader in a house where books were pretty much banned – so she took herself off to the library at the age of four, developed superpowers and eventually manoeuvred herself into a much better family life. Scout Finch grew up in the Deep South, where she finds the gendered expectations stifling – but she doesn’t let that stop her from living her life the way she wants to. Coraline is put into a new living situation she doesn’t really like – and then has to fight a demonic nightmare-beast and rescue her own parents. These characters are all under the age of ten, but they’re still in control of their own stories.
Sara, however, is not. She holds her head high and behaves properly, that’s true – but she doesn’t actually think about how she could make things better for herself. It must be said that she doesn’t have a lot of resources, but she’s not completely friendless. Her father has a solicitor who’s partially responsible for her care, but she never thinks of writing to him to let him know how she’s being mistreated. She doesn’t ask her friends to speak to their parents about taking her in, or ask a trusted adult – such as Miss Minchin’s sister, Amelia – to intervene on her behalf. She doesn’t even think about running away. She just calmly accepts that she’s a servant now, never makes life difficult for anyone and takes herself out of the way to have a good cry.
Granted, it must be said that Sara doesn’t have a lot of options. The examples I gave above wouldn’t really work out: her father’s solicitor is more concerned with paying his own bills, the majority of her friends have very bad relationships with their parents, and as the novel is set in Victorian England, Sara would have been a lot safer staying as a servant than running off on her own. But she doesn’t even consider any of these options; she just automatically accepts that this is her life now. A lot of this is to do with Victorian perceptions of what a ‘good child’ was – mainly, that they were quiet, innocent, calm and obedient. However, I think it’s really unusual for a child as imaginative as Sara – she constantly imagines how her life could be different, but never once thinks about how she could make it different. She just accepts it, so calmly and quietly that it’s almost like she was expecting it. I’ll talk about this in more detail later on, but that makes her a pretty passive character in my book so I’m withholding the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 0
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Sara is a very imaginative child, and one of her main hobbies is to make up stories and elaborate pretend games that the seven-year-old me would have killed to have joined in with. Her beliefs and goals are pretty closely linked – she believes that she should always act like a dignified, kindly princess no matter what her circumstances, and her goal is to live her life to this standard, particularly if it involves making other people’s lives better. The goal is a little bit of a stretch on my part but I’ll allow it and give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Sara is a very consistent character. She’s kind, good, dignified, innocent, forgiving and imaginative. She takes pity on social outcasts and always tries to help out the less fortunate, even when she could use quite a bit of help herself. She’s also extremely good at French and good at making up stories, and she doesn’t forget these skills as the book goes on.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A kind, forgiving, imaginative young girl resolves to behave like a little princess in everything she does – despite being forced into poverty and becoming an indentured servant.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Sara doesn’t have a love life, so this question doesn’t really apply. Most of the decisions she makes are motivated by her desire to behave properly and help other people, so she definitely passes this round.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Sara doesn’t really develop at all. She’s actually quite a static character, particularly when you look at what she’s been through. She lost her mother before the story starts, then loses her father, her fortune and her social standing in very quick succession. Most of her friends go too, along with her education, most of her free time, and a substantial amount of her belongings – and this all happens on her birthday.
So in the space of a few days, she goes from one end of the social spectrum to the other – and this is Victorian England, where a change like that would have cut you off from literally everything you knew and halved your life expectancy. (I’m really not exaggerating.) But Sara remains good and pure, calm and dignified, kind and forgiving all through this – and all through the following years, when she has to watch her friends drift away from her, run errands in the rags of the fine clothes she’s grown out of, and starve in her freezing attic while the rest of the school eats dinner and sits by the fire.
This doesn’t change Sara at all. She never once starts to feel resentful, or angry, or bitter. She never steals food, even though she’s starving, or clothes, even though her rags are literally almost falling to bits. And this is all when she’s still a very young child, and still forming her own view of the world, but she’s never once tempted to lash out when she’s angry, or steal something just to make her life a little easier. She doesn’t even become guarded, or find it difficult to trust people, or start hoarding things she might find useful – she continues being her normal, perfect self. It’s simply not realistic for her to be such a saint when she’s suffered so much, and so long. Even Oliver Twist – widely agreed to be one of the saintliest child characters in literature – has a moment when he’s tempted by the camaraderie of Fagin’s criminal gang, but Sara has nothing of the kind.
For a character to go through so much upheaval in such a short amount of time – and to go through a protracted period of hardship at an already pivotal time in their lives – and not change as a result of that is just unrealistic. It’s not how human beings work. We’re all shaped by our experiences, but Sara’s experiences of loss, poverty and loneliness just seem to bounce off her. I’m withholding the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she have a weakness?
No. Sara is pretty much perfect in every way. She’s kind, forgiving, dignified – but not to the extent where she lets herself get walked all over when it counts. Even when she’s grieving she doesn’t inconvenience anyone – she’s calm and composed and only breaks down when she’s out of everyone else’s way, and even that she does quietly. She doesn’t develop any negative tendencies as a result of her experiences and is forgiving and gracious to everyone who tries to keep her down. As you can imagine, I get pretty fed up of that.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Sara doesn’t really influence the plot all that much – as most of it revolves around who’s going to provide for her, she could just lie in bed all day and the bare bones of the story would be pretty much the same. How she does influence things is by being kind, and pure, and gracious, and dignified. She doesn’t set out to change things, but other people see her being kind, pure, gracious, insert Disney Princess attribute here and dignified, are inspired by her and decide to help her out in some way. She influences other characters more than she influences events and actions, and that’s usually by setting them an example or just by being kind. This does influence her trajectory through the story somewhat, but not by much, and most of the time it isn’t intentional. I’ll give her half a point, but I can’t help but feel I’m being generous.
SCORE SO FAR: 4.5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
When it comes to gender stereotypes, Sara ticks several very problematic boxes, most of which stem directly from Victorian conceptions of childhood and morality. She’s the archetype of the good little girl – kind, innocent, forgiving and sweet. She’s an angelic child, despite the fact that her father spoiled her rotten and the poverty and deprivation she endured after his death. Sara tries to be good through all of this, but as I’ve already mentioned, she’s already pretty much perfect.
Where this starts making me uncomfortable is when you examine the fact that it’s all tied up with class. Sara doesn’t just decide to be kind to everyone, she decides to act like a princess – it’s an understandable thing for a little girl to do, but it’s also a subtle link between good behaviour and the upper classes. This might seem like a little thing, but as the book goes on it really starts to escalate.
When Sara’s father dies and she’s cast into poverty, Sara makes it a point of pride not to lose her sense of self and to always act like a princess. But Sara’s sense of self is tied up with her social position – what she most wants to hold onto are her impeccable manners and her soft-spoken, educated nature. When Sara is poor – and she’s very much at the bottom of the pecking order, not being able to afford new clothes, shoes or food – other characters constantly talk about how she doesn’t look poor. Her good behaviour and well-spoken nature are always remarked upon and the two are very closely linked. It’s not just that she sounds well-educated when she talks, but that her politeness, kindness and efforts to help other people are constantly taken as evidence of her ‘good breeding’. Equally, Sara’s calm and quietness after being told of the death of her father are presented as evidence of her innate dignity in the face of adversity.
If you think about this, it actually has some really horrible implications. Sara has been orphaned at a very young age and cast into terrible poverty – something which would make any child of her age extremely distressed. But she’s being held to adult standards of behaviour, expected to keep a stiff upper lip and soldier on despite all she’s been through. All her systems of support have been taken from her and she literally has no-one else in the entire world to care for her, and yet Sara’s remarkably restrained grief is held up as the ideal. This poor child has lost everything, but after a few quiet moments when she cries in the attic, out of everyone’s way, her grief is pretty much glossed over.
This is particularly important when you look at how other characters in the novel deal with grief and good behaviour. In one of the earliest scenes, Sara befriends a much younger girl called Lottie, who frequently cries over her dead parents. Lottie howls and wails and has frequent temper tantrums, and is branded a naughty child because of it. Sara, on the other hand, deals with her grief in a way that never inconveniences any of the adult characters. She is held up as the behavioural standard for young girls, rather than Lottie – both by characters within the novel and by the novel itself – and I find this incredibly disturbing. The way Sara and Lottie handle their grief makes it incredibly clear that a ‘good child’ was a convenient child, no matter what they were going through.
The upshot of all this is that Sara’s innate ‘goodness’ as a character seems to stem from two things: her social class and her ability to repress inconvenient outbursts of emotion. The fact that either of these are taken as signs of good behaviour is, to my mind, pretty worrying. As a character, Sara is built upon a foundation of extremely unhealthy notions of what constitutes good behaviour for young girls – and as such, I just can’t give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 4.5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Sara has plenty of relationships with other female characters. She befriends several of the boarding school outcasts including the grieving Lottie, the struggling Ermengarde and the servant, Becky. She doesn’t like the school snob, Lavinia, but still tries to be nice to her. She really doesn’t like the headmistress, Miss Minchin, but is a good child and doesn’t give her any trouble – until she comes into her fortune and Miss Minchin tries to make her the star pupil again. After all the indentured servitude, this doesn’t pan out like she planned.
All of her relationships tend to take the same kind of tone – Sara tries to be kind, and the other woman is either impressed or repulsed by it – but I’ll be generous and give her the full point.
FINAL SCORE: 5.5/10
Sara is a consistent character with a range of goals, hobbies and beliefs that aren’t dependent on her love life, but she still hasn’t passed my test. She doesn’t develop, she doesn’t have a weakness, other people are completely in control of her destiny and her character is grounded in some incredibly old-fashioned and insidious gender stereotypes.
Ultimately, I think a lot of the reason for this is due to the time period in which the book was written. Victorian expectations of children were beginning to soften by the time the full novel was published, but they were certainly pretty ridiculous. But when I finished reading A Little Princess, the overwhelming sense I got was that Sara was not a character with fully developed flaws, agency and development but an example for other children. When you factor in Sara’s extremely muted response to the tragedy she goes through, it becomes pretty clear. There are a lot of problems with the book (not least of which is its uncomfortable handling of racial dynamics, which I didn’t even touch on here) but I think that this is one of the most significant.
Next week, I’ll be looking at a classic among comic books – V for Vendetta. Evey, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.