This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.
Chapter One efficiently covers several functions: we are introduced to Sara Crewe and her father, Sara is brought from India and delivered to a boarding school in London, and we see her initial impressions of the woman who is to be in charge of her there, Miss Minchin. Before we are told anything else, we are told that seven-year-old Sara is a bit of an unusual little girl. She’s precocious, articulate, and is always “thinking things about grown-up people and the world they belonged to.” She also shows a bit of impatience at being treated by others as a little girl and not as a rational human being (though she seems to keep this impatience to herself). But as we will see, she in turn treats others as individual rational human beings, rather than as roles, and this is one of her strengths.
We learn that Sara's French mother died when she was born, and that her father--an officer in a British regiment in India--absolutely dotes on her and has freely and generously supported her in both her intellectual interests (“she wants grown-up books--great, big, fat ones--French and German as well as English--history and biography and poets, and all sorts of things”) and her material needs. Captain Crewe is described as “young, handsome, and rich”...which brings us to the first of the unexplained mysteries of the book.
To me, as a reader, there seem to be several obvious clues about the nature of Captain Crewe’s fortune. Common sense says that an army captain’s salary might be enough to live in extravagant comfort in colonial India, but it seems highly unlikely to be enough to be considered “rich” back in England. This leaves two possibilities: that Captain Crewe earned it himself in some fashion, or that it is inherited.
The first strkes me as highly unlikely. He’s young and in the military. That doesn’t leave much space for a career that could have produced a fortune. Later in the book there is a passing reference that he met Tom Carrisford when they were at Eton together, so Crewe started out a step up in the world. Furthermore, when his investment in the diamond mines turns sour, he writes to Sara, “your daddy is not a businessman at all, and figures and documents bother him.” Even allowing for some exaggeration, this doesn’t sound like a self-made millionaire.
So, inherited money it is. But is it old money or new money? I see two strong arguments for it being new money--most likely earned in the immediately previous generation. The first argument, I will confess, is based on stereotypes. Captain Crewe spends money like the nouveau riche. Sara is not merely to be comfortable at school; she is to have luxuries beyond what the other girls there have: a suite of rooms, a pony and carriage, her own lady’s maid, and an abundance of luxurious clothing that is, quite admittedly, beyond anything appropriate for a schoolgirl.
These luxuries are, in fact, one of the things that get Sara off on the wrong foot at school. One might think that Miss Minchin and the “mean girls” are simply jealous, but there’s a certain validity in Lavinia’s sneer that such ostentation is “vulgar” for a girl Sara's age.
The second reason Crewe’s money feels “new” to me, is that old money tends to come with people attached. And Captain Crewe appears to have no "people" with the exception of the soliciter who handles his business in England, and who deserts Sara with no compunction when her father dies and the money evaporates. The entire plot hinges on Sara having no relations or support structure in the world except for her father. No distant relatives who might take charge of Sara that she or anyone else knows of. (And evidently no one close enough to them personally, back in India, who thinks to follow up on Sara's welfare when her father dies. Even for Carrisford, it's an afterthought, though there are mitigating circumstances.)
One might, of course, argue that I’m looking for too much logical consistency in what is simply an essential plot-point. And perhaps I am. But this seems to me to be part of Sara’s key background. She has the privilege of wealth, but not, perhaps, of class. Miss Minchin’s academy was chosen, not because it was the traditional place to send daughters of the Crewe family, but because it was recommended by Lady Meredith (back in India, presumably) who had sent her daughters there. Miss Minchin is pragmatically impressed by Crewe’s money (and his willingness to spend it), but she is not impressed by Crewe himself. And therefore when the money is gone, Sara has no one but herself to fall back on. But it may well be that the lack of class privilege (and possibly even an unexpected lack of class consciousness--her daydreams traverse class boundaries freely and without anxiety; one can aspire to be royalty, at least in fantasy) contribute to her ability to reach out to others across social boundaries and treat them as individuals.
To finish off the chapter, we learn a few other things about key players. Although Sara takes her privileged lifestyle for granted, it doesn’t seem to have spoiled her. She is sensible, perceptive, and self-possessed. And she faces the tragedy of being sent away by her father with fortitude and self-control, though not without strong emotion.
We also learn a number of things about Miss Minchin and her younger sister, Miss Amelia. Miss Minchin is portrayed as a hard “worldly” business woman, who insincerely flatters her students and their parents, then bad-mouths them behind their backs. I’ve always felt a certain sympathy for Miss Minchin. Of course she’s a hard-edged business woman--how else could she make her living? And of course she has to make up to the parents of her pupils. They hold the purse strings and--as is later noted--could ruin her in the court of public opinion if they decide she isn’t doing a proper job. There is a very faint air that Burnett faults Miss Minchin for being pragmatic and not being generously warm-hearted when it counts. I’ll agree with dinging her for not being kind, but I think she gets a bad rap for being practical. She can’t afford to be unworldly. And she can't afford to freely maintain a "charity pupil" as Sara eventually becomes. But more on that later.
When we are introduced to her sister Miss Amelia, we’re also introduced to a theme that really grates on me. “Miss Amelia was fat and dumpy” and is consistenly portrayed as being timid and somewhat slow-witted. As we’ll see when we’re introduced to Ermengarde, there is an authorial correlation of fat=stupid. But I’ll have more to say on that later.
Next week, we’ll take note of several structural things that are being set up that will be relevant to keep track of, and witness Sara being inadvertently set up to put almost everyone’s nose out of joint.