DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB–FRANCIS (ELIZA) HODGSON BURNETT’S LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY

BLOG #9, SERIES #3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB

FRANCIS (ELIZA) HODGSON BURNETT’S

LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY

February 29, 2012

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If you really want to understand the Nineteenth Century psyche of England and America, just read Burnett’s most famous book, Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886).  England then ruled over the hearts of both the British and Americans via the persona of that long-lived symbol of virtue, Queen Victoria.  Ever since the Revolution, though Americans ostensibly threw off all ties to the British monarchy, in their hearts they missed the pageantry and romance of royalty.  Not surprisingly, the predominant icons in popular American literature were European royalty and nobility, and England being then the greatest world power, Queen Victoria ruling over one quarter of the world—including India and much of Africa—was said to be “empress of an empire where the sun never set.”  Even today—note the American obsession with Princess Diana and Princess Kate—, this deification of English royalty continues.  But, worldwide, the fascination with European royalty suffered a mighty hit with World War I (the so-called “Great War”), at the conclusion of which royal houses collapsed like dominoes in France, Germany, Austro-Hungary, Russia, Poland, Italy, Spain, and on and on.  But nevertheless, nostalgia for the panoply of royalty has never died in popular culture.

On November 24, 1849, Frances (Eliza) Hodgson was born in Manchester, England.  Her father (a hardware wholesaler) died when Eliza was only five.  Her mother did her best to keep the business going until 1865, then gave up and took her brood to Knoxville, Tennessee, moving into her brother’s log cabin.  Thus Eliza first experienced American life just as the bloody Civil War ended, and she was turning sixteen.  Eliza married Dr. Swan Moses Burnett in 1873.  After a failure as principal of a private school, she turned to writing.  She first gained recognition with That Lass of Lowrie’s (1877), a tale of Lancaster, England coal mines, and Haworth (1879).  In 1883, she turned to America for her subject matter: Through One Administration, a novel of Washington corruption.

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But her life took a dramatic turn when her first book for children, Little Lord Fauntleroy, was published both in book form (by Charles Scribner’s Sons) and in the pages of the world’s greatest magazine for children, St. Nicholas in 1886.  Cedric, the protagonist was based on Eliza’s second son, Vivian, whose velvet suits, now immortalized in a novel that took the world by storm, gained immortality as a beautiful pampered and effeminate little boy who apparently always did the right thing.  According to Britannica editors, “Fauntleroy’s charming manners and picturesque garb provided an uncomfortable model for small boys for an entire generation.”  Such an impact did the book have on world culture that, even today, “Little Lord Fauntleroy” remains alive and well as a prototype.

With fame came the breakup of Eliza’s marriage in 1898; on the rebound, she married Dr. Stephen Townsend; it didn’t last: they were divorced in 1901.  In 1905, she became an American citizen.  With success came a conviction that sentimental romantic fiction for children was the way to go.  Eventually most of her forty-some novels were written either for children or for adults who loved romantic fiction.

Sara Crewe (1888) gained immortality when it was dramatized as The Little Princess in 1905.  The Secret Garden (1911) had little impact during her lifetime but has gained stature ever since, for it, unlike most of her other books for children, depicts real children in a real world who achieve worthwhile aims.

As money continued to roll in, her lifestyle reflected this affluence, and she shuttled back and forth (as a gilt-edged celebrity) between Europe and America, residing variously in Kent, England and in Long Island, New York, where her friends called her “Fluffy.”  When an unauthorized dramatic production of Little Lord Fauntleroy threatened her artistic control of her work, the worldwide fame of this now Anglo-American author gave her so much clout that the British changed their law in the 1911 Copyright Act.  She died on October 29, 1924 in Plandome, New York.

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There are many editions of Little Lord Fauntleroy available on the web, but I urge you to try to pick up a Scribner’s edition that features the now iconic illustrations by Reginald Birch, staff artist for St. Nicholas Magazine.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks, but I am still trying to wade through Walden!!!

  2. I am fortunate to have Scribner’s edition and also the black and white VHS tape. Also have the books “The Secret Garden” and “A Little Princess”. plus the VHS tape for “The Little Princess”. FHB is my model for writing children’s stories.

  3. Eliza certainly had a lot of emotional turmoil in her life, brought on largely, in my opinion, by the absence of a father in her life. Studies have shown that when a child does not grow up with a strong father figure, it can lead to many conflicts, particularly in human relationships. If you have a strong father thank the Lord!


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