Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Rereading Ms. Burnett: A Little Princess

I had occasion, this past week, to reread Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess.

This book was my favorite book for years and years, due no doubt to my perceived similarities between myself and Sara Crewe, the story's heroine. Sara is brilliantly intelligent and loves reading books more than anything else, but unlike other brainy heroines like Jo March, Sara is no tomboy and in fact enjoys "being a girl" (dressing up, playing with dolls, all those frilly things).

Add to that the fact that Sara is trapped in an educational environment which is Not Tapping Her Potential (and later on becomes trapped in a similar working environment), and she became the perfect character for the young Blue's literary transference.

But that's not the subject of today's analysis. I was curious, upon rereading, to determine whether or not Ms. Burnett's books could be considered racist. And (I'll jump to my conclusion right now, before laying out the argument) it seems to me that the books are not deliberately (though perhaps unconsciously) racist, but are instead extremely classist (which can read, if you like, as a form of racism).

Both Sara and her literary sister Mary Lennox (of Burnett's The Secret Garden) were born in India. Both were the daughters of British officers, and both lived their early lives in extreme luxury (before being shipped to Britain and developing their character by surviving harder times).

In one of the early chapters of The Secret Garden, Mary's chambermaid Martha expresses surprise that Mary is not brown, because Martha thought that all people from India were brown (why Martha is unaware of the giant British presence in India is not explained), and Mary launches into a diatribe about how insulted she is to be presumed thus:

You thought I was a native! You dared! You don't know anything about natives! They are not people -- they are servants who must salaam to you.
Despite the acidity of this statement, it does not, in my opinion, make TSG a racist book. It makes Mary a racist character, but that is part of the point; she spends the text growing outside of herself and eventually learns compassion and empathy for those around her.

But ALP is a bit more tricky. Sara has compassion and empathy from the beginning of the text; there is no problem there. In fact, Sara can be read as a gigantic signifier for Desis Are People Too. Sara speaks Hindi and is aware of Indian customs as well as Hinduism, making her able to communicate with her neighbor Ram Dass in a way that helps quell his homesickness for India.

And yet there are a few burbles in this relationship; Sara understands that Dass is not a "heathen" (as other characters presume him to be), and yet she calls a statue of Buddha an "idol;" and of course everyone in the novel refers to Dass as an "oriental." Interestingly, the omniscient narrator does not, a subtlety indicating either the characters' narrow-mindedness or the simple fact that "oriental" was the term du jour. (The narrator does use "native," which can be taken as an attempt at political correctness e.g. "Native Americans," or, unfortunately, a different form of racism e.g. "going native.")

But except for the "idol" slip, Sara treats everyone around her with respect and kindness, whether they be teacher or classmate or scullery maid or lascar. And in terms of India, she is the very model of (moderate) cultural relativism.

And yet a strange thing happens in the last third of the book, when Sara, who is forced to spend two years as a domestic servant after her father's death leaves her penniless (thus building her character), begins to regain her former status. She reveals a behavior that is not overtly racist (for she never implies that Ram Dass is inferior because he is desi) but extremely classist.

When Ram Dass sneaks into Sara's attic bedroom and changes her meager servant's possessions for a panoply of Indian-themed furnishings, Sara responds by giving her servant's possessions to Becky, the scullery maid who has become her closest friend.

This has always troubled me, a little; when Sara and Becky sit down for their first meal in the transformed attic bedroom, Sara uses the provided teacup and Becky drinks from "the mug on the washstand." Even as a child I thought "well, if it had been me, I would have given Becky the teacup and had the old mug for myself," perhaps because it had been drilled to me that one always gives the best to a guest, particularly if the guest is a friend.

Sara does not suffer from a lack of thoughtfulness or consideration; in an earlier chapter she (though faint from hunger) gives her food to a beggar child whom she recognizes as hungrier than she. Instead what she reveals is an assumption that people originally of a certain class should receive certain things, while people of a different class should receive others.

When Sara gets new blankets, for example, Becky inherits her old ragged ones; and yet neither Sara nor Ram Dass think to give Becky a new blanket as well.

"Wait," you might say, "but the presents Ram Dass brought were for Sara and not Becky, and they were given because Sara could speak Hindi and treated Ram Dass as an equal. Sara was not obligated to immediately turn over her new gifts to her friend."

Of course not; but note the end of the book. Sara is adopted by the wealthy Mr. Carrisford, and she treats her friends thusly: Ermengarde and Lottie, who belong to the upper class, are invited to study and play with her; while Becky, the scullery maid, is invited to become Sara's "personal attendant." Sara never considers that Becky could also use the opportunity to learn or play, or that Mr. Carrisford could easily adopt Becky as well as herself. Becky, in turn, relishes her new assignment because Sara generously allows her all the food she could possibly want.

And Ram Dass? He does what a good desi should; drops his former friendship and instead waits upon Sara and calls her "Missee Sahib." And Sara complacently accepts this.

So. What to make of this? I've been puzzling on it all day, trying to figure out why Burnett wrote her ending as she did. It is clear that Sara's two-year sojourn to the poor London underclass is not intended to make her "aware of those who are less fortunate than she" (the way Mary Lennox in TSG becomes aware of Dickon's family's poverty and begins to contribute to their welfare). Sara begins the book aware of the network of lower-class servants supporting her excess; during the first third of the book (before she loses her fortune) she creates a secret arrangement so that Becky (whom she recognizes as "a little girl just like herself") can have time to rest and eat and listen to stories.

The thesis of the book seems to be in the following conversation between Sara and the evil headmistress Miss Minchin:
"I suppose," -- to Sara -- "that you feel now that you are a princess again."

[...]

"I -- tried not to be anything else," she answered in a low voice -- "even when I was coldest and hungriest -- I tried not to be."
This implies, more than anything, an awareness not that people are inherently equal, but that upper-class individuals can maintain their status even when their situations no longer match their birthrights. Soon after Sara loses her fortune she wonders when she will lose her identity and begin to act like Becky; to "forget and drop my h's and not remember that Henry the Eighth had six wives." She spends the remainder of the novel working to counteract this feared decline, and thus comes the kindness, the generosity, and the "royal" politeness. (Sara notes that the kinder she is to the cook, the more inclined the cook is to scold and punish; no wonder, as Sara's mannerisms must have appeared incredibly patronizing.)

And Becky and Ram Dass remain where they are because that was where they began and that is where they are destined to remain, although Sara states outwardly that they are People Just Like Herself. (People who should be given good food and a warm place to sleep, but whose function in life is to support others.)

For those who have read the book: is this a fair analysis of the text? Does the language Burnett uses make the text racist in addition to classist? When you read it, how did you interpret Sara's actions?

1 comment:

Daniel said...

wow that was long. Comments:

(1) So, the first thing I thought of while reading was the Bobbsey Twins. Not the new ones, but the old school, Laura Lee Hope ones. The ones with the servant Dinah who, of course, is fat and black and jolly, and who says "why yes massuh suh" and things like that. I remember reading those as a child, and not thinking much of it, because I just assumed that it was a historical book, and that she was writing that way for accuracy. I started rereading one of them, though, recently, and it seemed SO racist to me--and I can't say that I thought about it much after that, but it could be that the point you were making is valid. That is, that the inherent "racism" or "classism" in the book isn't anything overt on the author's part, but rather just because that's what the social norms were when the authors were writing. Is it bad? Yes, of course. But, as semi-adults, I think we're smart enough to recognize it as what it was--fiction written by over-privelaged white women, and take it with a grain of salt.

(2) I don't think the word "idol" is so terrible. I mean, it's referencing, probably, the 10 commandments (Deut 5:8 "You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth") The author probably doesn't know what else to call the Buddha statues if not idols.