Friday, February 3, 2012

Author Review: Frances Hodgson Burnett

I'm a reader. There's no denying that. When it comes to information, I soak it up like a sponge and then digest it. Sometimes over days, sometimes months. I've always been this way, reading.

When I was in the fourth grade, so maybe 9-years-old?, a teacher handed me "The Secret Garden" to read because I'm sure she thought I'd enjoy it. I mean, what's not to enjoy? A garden that's a secret! Wow!

Yeah, um...even as a child, I knew that a bird showing a kid where to find a key to open a garden was a stupid, stupid bit of plotting. I put the book down and didn't finish it. Keep in mind that I forced my way to the end of "In the Lair of the White Worm" by Brahm Stoker. This book was bad.

In the 90's, Francis Ford Coppola made a movie using the book as a jumping-off point. I eventually saw it at the cheapie theatre, because I remembered my disappointment at the book, and I just fell in love with what Coppola did. Then again, he's Coppola. Of course it was magnificent.

Well, now I have a Kindle, and amazingly, Burnett's books are free! So I downloaded a few of them. I went with "A Little Princess," "The Lost Prince," and "The Secret Garden" and started reading.

How did this woman ever get famous? Can someone please explain this? I mean, her books aren't horribly written like Cassandra Clare's monstrosity "City of Bones," or navel-gazing like Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" saga, they're just horribly, horribly improbable.

"The Secret Garden" centers around Mary finding a secret garden, and the stuff she does in it with her cousin, and her waiting maid's younger brother.

Cool your jets, it's nothing like that. Really. You'd think that the garden would be the dark, evolutionary, forest-like component from a fairy tale where Mary, Colin and Dickon come to adulthood in some sensual plot, but it's really just three kids kicking around in a garden, teaching Colin to walk, and getting fat on food that Dickon's mom makes.

Dickon, by the way, is old enough to have a job (in Victorian times, five was old enough to have a job), but he doesn't work, he just fannies about with his birds and beasts while his sister Martha works her butt off to put food on the table for their giant family. I can't tell you how much I hate Burnett's treatment of servants in her stories, but I keep ascribing it to the times they were written in. Seriously, though, it's pretty horrible. When Lord Craven returns from the continent, it's Mary and Dickon who are praised for helping Colin when really Martha and her mother did all the work. It was horrible.

"A Little Princess" fares no better. Sara is set up to be a grand dame in her school, only to fall on hard, penniless times. The change in this story is that there is a clear antagonist. Miss Minchin is cruel in a way that you don't usually find in children's novels. With the unimaginative way that Burnett writes, I have to wonder if she was based on someone Burnett knew in real life.

When Sara is reduced to scullery maid after her father's death, Burnett actually deals with the hunger, the pain, the humiliation of being one of the working class in a realistic way. Sara's room is now in a drafty garret with no fire on the grate, and a very thin blanket. But then classism comes into play again. An "Indian gentleman" (a white guy from India) comes to live next door and brings his "servant" (I'm not convinced he's not a slave) with him. The servant decides that his master would enjoy making Sara's life easier.

Now, keep in mind that Sara has a little friend, Becky, who is a scullion and who has been abused her entire life. Sara has only been abused the last year of her life. Sara is naturally the one that her neighbors decide to be nice to. All Becky gets is Sara's mattress and blanket to make her more comfortable. If Sara weren't charitable, Becky wouldn't have food or drink from the stuff the neighbor brings. It isn't until after Sara invites Becky that a place setting is even made for her. This really infuriates me, but then again, I'm looking at it from a futuristic lense. I wonder if people in the Victorian age just didn't think about that?

The resolution is every bit as improbable as Burt Reynolds singing in French in the middle of downtown DC. The neighbor, it turns out, was Sara's father's business partner, and has been looking for Sara for ages. He has all her money and her status and whisks her and Becky away from the horrible school. Becky, naturally, gets to be Sara's waiting maid. Grit your teeth as you please.

"The Lost Prince" was the last book I read, and the most readable. It follows Marcus through the intrigues of a civil war in a foreign country, and the one thing this country needs is its "lost prince," a person of nobility who several hundred years ago was saved from an assassination attempt (by his own father, I think?) and who went on his way when the country fell to dissolution.

The improbability of the story comes in the form of a bloodline that somehow managest to not diminish over the generations of several hundred years. The prince who can assume the throne in the present time looks exactly like the prince who was nearly assassinated, and somehow every generation bore a son exactly like that. I mean, I suppose that somehow that could happen, but it's more improbable than Burt Reynolds singing in French in the middle of downtown DC. I mean, it's just not going to happen.

But the book is very readable and enjoyable. Burnett manages to break through class barriers when boys are concerned, apparently, or perhaps she became enlightened before writing the book. Still, Marcus's little friend is sometimes left to starve or freeze during one of Marcus's many adventures.

On the whole, I give this woman a D+ when it comes to writing. Too fanciful by half, too convoluted.


  1. This is so, so true! FHB's world-view is utterly despicable towards working-class characters. Also, her horrible colonial view of India and its culture makes me angry and sad.

    I love it when you review stuff you hate. :-)

  2. I wonder if she just was completely out of touch with reality? I skimmed her wiki page, and it seems like she was...different. One of her sons died, which is horribly sad, and she had some December/May relationship with a young man in England. It's a possibility.

    Oh, the colonial India thing...when Martha is a little disappointed that Mary isn't "black", and ascribes her horrible temprament to the "savage" influence of India instead of taking Mary as a spoilt, ungrateful, nearly sociopathic child who couldn't find her way out of a brown paper bag...

    Have I mentioned that I don't like that book?