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Problematic Favorites: A Little Princess - Part 10 You Just Might Find You Get What You Need

Wednesday, April 20, 2016 - 13:30

This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.

The scene when Sara returns to her opulent suite of rooms after dance practice, wearing her diaphanous pink gown, and finds Becky asleep in her easy chair before the fire, is a jewel of characterization. At various points Burnett insists that Becky isn't skilled at "imagining" and needs Sara to guide her through the process, but it seems to me that when Becky sits down in that chair and contemplates what it would be like to live that life and be that person, she's doing every bit as much imagining as Sara's fanciful tales. We see Becky's hunger to be taken into another life and her willingness to accept Sara's offer of friendship as genuine. But we also see her reflexive cringing terror at "forgetting her place", allowing her guard to slip, and "taking liberties" that could get her thrown onto the street.

I could wish that we were shown a little more of Becky's interior life in this context. There's always a veil between the outward performance of cringing servility and the desperate, constant calculation that you know must be going on behind it. It would be easy to get the impression that Becky's behavior is an ingrained characteristic rather than a survival tactic. We see a lot of careful code-switching in her interactions, as in how she interacts differently with Sara and Ermingarde much later in the banquet-in-the-attic scene. But the author doesn't seen to acknowledge this as the result of analysis and calculation, the way she does Sara's struggles with questions of behavior later in the book. Of course, this is Sara's story, which accounts for some of the difference.

The main thing we see in Sara in this chapter is a very practical empathy and the negotiation of the gulf between them. She understands Becky's plight, knows why she's frightened and addresses those causes in trying to calm her, and recognizes Becky's incomprehension of some of her more philosophical thoughts. But most of all, in making offers of friendship, she targets the things that Becky herself would find valuable: food and stories. ("Bread and roses" if you will.) Even before she makes the offer of private storytelling sessions, she offers her a piece of cake. And the later storytelling is accompanied by shared food as well--practical food as well as luxuries. This is one of the characteristics that makes Sara most sympathetic to me: that she has the empathy to figure out what other people need, rather than simply focusing on what she has to give.

It is the interaction with Becky--and the recognition of how enjoyable it is to give people things they need--that sparks Sara's "pretend" about being a princess. And in the next entry, I'm going to examine the oddly idealized concept of royalty that drives and sustains her through the rest of the book.