I’m sure many men born in the 1880s or 90s vividly remembered Little Lord Fauntleroy – but not all had pleasant memories.
The 1886 novel, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, tells the story of Cedric Errol, a young American boy raised by his loving mother, Dearest, after his English-born father died. Cedric had golden hair that fell in ringlets about his face, and Dearest used fabric from a black velvet gown to make her son a special-occassion suit.
Oh, the misery that outfit caused a generation of small boys, for the book illustrator draw Cedric with long, golden-love-locks, wearing his black velvet suit, plus a lace-collar shirt. And untold legions of mothers felt life wouldn’t be complete until their own young sons were photographed in a velvet suit and lace collar. Alas, photographs never let you forget an unfortunate clothing choice …
To be fair to Dearest (the name her late husband always called her) she didn’t always dress her son in velvet. And Little Lord Fauntleroy is an enjoyable read, though not as enjoyable to me as Burnett’s other famous children’s books, The Secret Garden and A Little Princess.
Captain Errol had been the youngest son of a disagreeable Earl who hated Americans. (Yes, I know, Errol is a terrible last name for an earl.) Just to be contrary, the Earl sent his son to the U.S., and when the young man fell in love with an American lady he was disowned.
The Captain found work, purchased a small house, married Dearest, and had a son before dying of fever. He had either purchased an excellent insurance policy or was still receiving family money, for his widow was able to employ a servant. Dearest spent her days helping poor and sick neighbors.
Young Cedric was popular with the other boys, and loved playing sports – presumably while wearing “normal” boy’s clothing. He also spent time with his two best friends, a bootblack and the local grocer.
When Cedric was seven, the Earl’s last remaining son died, thus Cedric had become Little Lord Fauntleroy. Being a sensible lad, he told his mother he’d prefer not to be a future Earl, but Dearest was sure her late husband would have wanted his son to have the title, and one day inherit the family’s estate.
Dearest had been informed she could travel to England with her son, but she would have to stay in a house a few miles from where Cedric would be living, for the Earl wanted nothing to do with the American who’d married Captain Errol. Dearest wanted her son to love his grandfather, so refused to speak ill of the man, and told Cedric the reason for separate housing was something he wouldn’t be able to understand until he was older.
The Earl had never liked children – not even his own – but he took a fancy to his grandson, and was pleased that Cedric considered him to be a kind and generous man. The grandfather had no sympathy for anyone living on his vast estate, and if a workman became sick and was unable to pay rent the man’s family was evicted from their home.
To test his grandson, the Earl would ask his opinion about what to do with those who had fallen on hard times, and Cedric always replied he was sure his grandfather would help them. And to please Cedric, the Earl would grant mercy on those having difficulties, though he made sure it was known that it was the grandson who was extending help, and not himself.
Dearest visited with her neighbors throughout the estate, and did what she could to help anyone in need. One day she told Cedric about those who lived in unsafe homes beyond repair. Her son rushed to tell his grandfather, assuring the paternal relative he knew his grandfather hadn’t known about the poor houses.
Cedric grew to love his grandfather, but though he was allowed to visit his mother every day, it grieved him that Dearest couldn’t be with him all the time.
The Earl was becoming happy for the first time in his life. And then catastrophe struck. Another American woman showed up, with another young boy in tow. This American claimed to be the wife of the oldest son, which would make her offspring the heir to the family estate.
This upset the Earl so much he did the unthinkable – he went to see Dearest, and told her his troubles. And instead of saying “serves you right you old grump” she sympathized with his plight.
The story of the new alleged heir made headlines on both sides of “the pond” and back in Cedric’s old hometown the bootblack and the grocer saw a newspaper story – complete with illustrations. And one of the pair knew the so-called widow had never been married to the Earl’s oldest son. Letters were written, and the bootblack and grocer sailed to England to save their dear friend’s future inheritance.
With Little Lord Fauntleroy it’s best not to think too much on whether the plot makes perfect sense or not, but it’s a page-turning read, for something interesting is always happening. Interesting, though not always likely. Cedric is a likable boy, who handles his troubles and disappointments with pluck and courage.
If you’d like to read his adventures there are two versions to download free of charge from Project Gutenberg. An abridged version can be found at www.gutenberg.org/files/49579/49579-h/49579-h.htm
and the full-length novel is at www.gutenberg.org/files/479/479-h/479-h.htm