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Problematic Favorites: A Little Princess - Part 14 A Kindness and a Shadow

Wednesday, May 25, 2016 - 07:30

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

It was pointed out in comments last week that one thing that may be behind the very uneven time-flow of the story is its origins in a much shorter work. So now I'm curious to what extent that shorter work focused primarily on the two time-periods that take up such a disproportionate amount of the page: the day of Sara's 11th birthday party, and the day of Mr. Carmichael's return from Russia. In any event, today's discussion continues with the fateful birthday party with Chapter 7 "The Diamond Mines Again".

We begin with a detailed re-emphasis of Sara's wealth, in reviewing the presents her father has arranged for her. His lack of sense with regard to spending is only emphasized by her reception of those gifts: she seems most delighted with the books, and while she philosophizes over "the last doll", it's clear that dolls themselves--with all their opulent accessories--aren't particularly important to her. The doll Emily is important as a story-telling locus and an emotional focus (as sort of an object-diary to whom she tells her inmost thoughts), but not quite so much as an object for play-manipulation. So the "last doll" with its elaborate clothing and accessories serves as the ideal symbol of excess and waste: important to Captain Crewe to represent wealth, unimportant emotionally to Sara (witness how little regret is involved when she eventually disclaims ownership of the doll, compared to how she clings to Emily), and a thorn in the side of Miss Minchin who has had to front the money for the gifts and will be left holding the bag.

But the beginning of the birthday part also has two key emotional scenes. Sara's request that Becky be allowed to stay to witness the opening of the presents is both a kindness and an imposition. A kindness, in that she publicly acknowledges not only Becky's basic humanity, but her right to "be a little girl" and enjoy girlish pleasures like dolls. Mind you, at the age of 16, a working class girl like Becky is the farthest thing from "a little girl" in this sense. And Sara's inclusion of her in the party is, in some ways, the farthest thing from a "kindness", as it brings her to the disapproving attention of Miss Minchin and--as we will see--ends up trapping her in a location where her accidental eavesdropping could have severe consequences. It's one thing to feed Becky stories and meat pies in the privacy of Sara's rooms, and another to single her out on a public setting. But Sara isn't always wise when her sense of justice is riled up, as we see on other occasions. And I don't see this as a flaw in her, but rather a consistent aspect of her realistic complexity.

The other key emotional scene is the foreshadowing when Lavinia asks how easy it would be for Sara to pretend to be a princess if she were a beggar and lived in a garret. The scene is a bit clumsy only for the fact that it occurs immediately before the announcement of the arrival of Captain Crewe's solicitor who (as it happens) is bringing news of his death and ruin. But it gives us a chance to glimpse how Sara thinks her imaginings would function if she were destitute, before she has to deal with the reality. (And, as we'll see, the reality is that using imagination to fight immediate physical and emotional hardship is not quite as easy as one might think.)

So we will leave this week's discussion in the same way that Sara leaves the schoolroom with the presents: with "the Last Doll sitting upon a chair with the glories of her wardrobe scattered about her; dresses and coats hung upon chair backs, piles of lace-frilled petticoats lying upon their seats." And, like Becky, we will linger just long enough to need to duck into hiding when Miss Minchin returns with the solicitor, so that we can listen in on their conversation...