Sara Crewe

Frances Hodgson Burnett believed in recycling. In 1887 her story, Sara Crewe or What Happened at Miss Minchin’s, began to be serialized in St. Nicholas Magazine, and it was later published as a novella. In 1902 she expanded the story, added new characters and subplots, and turned it into a successful play called A Little Un-fairy Princess. Then in 1905 Mrs. Burnett reworked her play into a novel entitled A Little Princess: Being the Whole Story of Sara Crewe Now Being Told for the First Time. I won’t try to count up the number of movies that have been based on the novel, which is better known by the shortened name of A Little Princess.

I first read Sara Crewe as a child, and later rediscovered it in one of my St. Nicholas anthologies. A few years ago I read A Little Princess but, since I loved the original shorter version, I thought the new characters and scenes just cluttered up the story. This post will be about the novella.

The story’s heroine, Sara Crewe, had been born in India, and her mother died when she was a baby. When Sara was eight years old her papa realized the hot climate was making her delicate, so he brought her to England, left her at Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary For Young Ladies, and then he returned to India.

For three years Sara was a show pupil, with dresses made from silk and velvet, and Miss Minchin treated her as a favorite student. But then word came that all of Captain Crewe’s money had been lost when a friend had made poor investments, and soon after that Sara’s papa died of jungle fever.

This was bad news for Miss Minchin, who not only lost the money Captain Crewe was paying her, but was stuck with a poor orphan. Young grieving Sara was informed she would be put to work, and in a few years she would begin teaching French to the younger students.

Sara was moved out of her pretty bedroom and up to an unheated attic room filled with cast-off furniture. And she became the household drudge – ordered out on errands in all types of weather, fed on scraps of leftover food, and sent into the deserted schoolroom at night to learn her lessons without being taught.

She had a vivid imagination and loved to pretend. When Miss Minchin insulted her Sara would pretend she was a princess in rags, and she’d stand with a proud bearing, imagining she had more power than the stupid person before her.

When she was out running errands Sara would pass houses and imagine what the neighbors were like. There was the Maiden Lady, the Large Family (so named because there were so many children), but most interesting of all was the Indian Gentleman, who was said to have lived in India, was rich, but in poor health. The Indian Gentleman had an native servant Sara named the Lascar.

She remembered a little Hindustani, and once when the Lascar was standing by his master’s carriage she spoke to him in his native language, which delighted the servant. After that Sara spoke to the Lascar whenever he was outside, and he “greeted her with salaams of the most profound description.”

When Sara was cold and hungry she would “suppose” there was a fire in her rusty attic fireplace grate, a table filled with good hot food, and warm blankets on her bed. Sometimes she supposed so much that she seemed to get confused about what was real and what was supposing.

Once Sara was sent out on a miserable rainy day. Her ragged, outgrown clothes were soaked, and she’d gone without dinner, so she was supposing she would be passing a baker’s shop, find a sixpence coin, and go inside and buy six hot buns. She then looked down at the pavement, saw a four-penny piece, and looked up to see she really was right in front of a baker’s shop.

Just as Sara was about to go inside she saw a dirty urchin dressed in rags, with bare muddy feet, and when Sara asked her when she’d last eaten the girl couldn’t remember how many days ago it had been. Since Sara was so used to supposing she wondered what a princess would do if she came upon a starving beggar.

She stepped into the shop and the friendly baker-lady took pity on poor draggled Sara and gave her six hot buns, even though she only had money to buy four. Then she went outside and gave five of her hot buns to the starving girl, keeping only one to eat herself.

Sara returned to Miss Minchin’s where she was scolded for taking so long to complete her errands. It was past meal time, and she was given only stale bread and water. She trudged up three flights of stairs with her meager food, knowing she was too tired to pretend anything pleasant.

She opened her attic room door and thought she’d lost her senses. There was a glowing fire in the grate, a kettle of boiling water on the hod, a table filled with covered dishes, new blankets on the bed, and a warm robe to wear. For a moment Sara was afraid to move, in case this new type of supposing would disappear. Then she realized the fire, the food, and the warm robe were real, and she had the most wonderful evening.

After that she found warm food and pretty treasures in her room each evening. But how could that be, when she was a poor orphan, with no one to care about her?

I love the story of Sara Crewe, which takes up less than thirty pages in my St. Nicholas anthology, and can be easily read in one evening. If you’d like to read the adventures of imaginative Sara, the neighbors, the beggar girl, and the baker, you can download the novella free of charge at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/137

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