WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?
Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.
HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?
Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!
(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)
THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:
During her life, Frances Hodgson Burnett received more acclaim for Little Lord Fauntleroy than for The Secret Garden. Today the reverse is true. What do you think prompted the change?
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s novel Little Lord Fauntleroy was serialized from 1885-1886. It tells the story of seven-year-old Cedric Errol who lives in New York with his widowed mother. One day, the news arrives that his uncles, like his father, are dead. He is now the heir to his grandfather, the Earl of Dorincourt, and must move to England to be trained to take over the estate–despite the fact that the Earl despises Mrs. Errol for being an American and marrying his son. The Earl is a crotchety old man, known for living only ever to please himself. But the new little Lord Fauntleroy’s sweet temperament and belief in the inherent goodness of everyone begins to change the Earl for the better.
Little Lord Fauntleroy was incredibly popular when it first appeared in print–so popular that it inspired a new fashion, the Fauntleroy suit, modeled after the outfit Cedric wears in the book. No doubt its rags-to-riches theme appealed to the masses, as did its status as a sentimental novel, a novel that plays heavily on the readers’ emotions in order to inspire virtue. Burnett’s story relies on the readers feeling sympathy for little Cedric as he transforms his grandfather from a selfish old man into one capable of feeling love and empathy for others. She does this by making Cedric a veritable paragon of virtue, always saying just the right thing, always seeing the good in others, always thinking of other people before himself. Young and old, everyone loves him. And, oh yes, he’s also a “perfect” physical specimen, “straight” and strong with golden curls. Nineteenth-century audiences would have definitely been in love.
Today, however, the sentimental novel has fallen out of fashion, as has Burnett’s tendency to emphasize the moral virtues of her characters. Little Lord Fauntleroy may appear to many as sickeningly sweet, as may his mother, who, like a good woman of her time, is even-tempered, soft-spoken, prone to going among the poor to do acts of charity, and entirely devoted to raising her son up to be a man of integrity. Burnett wants readers to see Mrs. Errol as honest and kind, but contemporary readers may be just as likely to think of her as stifled and boring.
Even as the popularity of Little Lord Fauntleroy has waned, however, another of Burnett’s works continues to be beloved by contemporary readers. The Secret Garden tells the story of Mary Lennox who, after being orphaned in India, arrives on the moors in England to live with her uncle. He is grieving for his long-dead wife and not home very much, so the spoiled Mary spends her time outside, eventually finding her way into her aunt’s locked garden. There, she begins to plant and prune, and soon the power of nature transforms her from a selfish and hot-tempered little girl to a healthy, happy, and pleasant one.
I think The Secret Garden appeals to readers today in part because Mary is not a “perfect” child like Cedric, but rather a plain and spoiled one who likes to get her way and is not very nice to the servants at first. She may be unpleasant to live with, but she is interesting to read about–and, because she is imperfect, she also, unlike Cedric, gets to experience a character arc. Watching her transformation is one of the highlights of the story.
However, The Secret Garden also has wonderful prose that draws readers into the story. Burnett makes nature come alive through her descriptions, and readers may close the pages pondering whether they should not begin a garden themselves. In contrast, Little Lord Fauntleroy spends very little time on scenic descriptions or anything that really grounds the book in a specific place–a good deal of the book seems to be Burnett explaining Cedric’s virtues and how they make everyone love him. The Secret Garden does not suffer from dull patches like this, but remains pretty dedicated to its striking setting, as well as to its plot and to its characters–characters who are drawn more vividly, unlike Little Lord Fauntleroy’s Mr. Hobbs, for example, who seems just a little like a caricature of a “common” grocery man.
I actually enjoy Little Lord Fauntleroy myself, but I can see why contemporary audiences might find it a little too dull for their tastes. Children’s books in particular often tend to rely more these days on fast-paced plots–books focused on boys’ moral qualities are not exactly bestsellers. In contrast, The Secret Garden has a more interesting main character and a more vivid setting, as well as a plot with a bit more action. Tastes in literature change. In this case, the changes left Little Lord Fauntleroy behind.