This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.
Chapter 2 (A French Lesson) serves the primary purpose of introducing a lot of characters. It is useful at this point to begin something of a timeline with character ages, because there is an interesting phenomenon to note later. We have been told at the beginning of the book that Sara is seven. It is unclear whether this is the typical age at which students enter Miss Minchin’s academy, but we are explicitly told that Lottie Legh, at four years old, is “the baby of the school” (and it is later implied that she’s been enrolled at a younger age than usual because her father doesn’t know what else to do with her). Lavinia Herbert (the prototypical “mean girl” of the school) is given as the other end of the age scale, at “nearly thirteen”. The context implies that she is the oldest student, although we’ll see later that she’s still a student quite some years later. Ermengarde is noted later as “about the same age” as Sara, although she seems to be an established student. So we might think that the usual starting age is five or six.
I’m not inclined to put too much weight on the realism of the ages, as given. With the exception of Sara, the students are portrayed as being very static in their maturity, even when the numbers change. Lottie is eternally the immature “baby” of the crowd, always on the verge of an emotional melt-down. And Lavinia is always the student “so grown-up she considers herself above the others” even at a point when it’s odd that she hasn’t aged out of the school yet. And Ermengarde is the eternal side-kick, tagging along with Sara as her foil, but never quite developing on her own. Against this backdrop, Sara matures and ages, but the others are a static set-piece. Given this understanding, I’m going to note occasions when the students’ putative ages strike odd notes against their characterizations, but I’m not going to dwell on it too much.
The chapter starts by listening in on the other students discussing Sara’s arrival and Lavinia taking a strong stand in criticism, not only of Sara’s luxuries, but of any positive opinion voiced of Sara. Lavinia is very obviously jealous of the potential Sara has for ousting her from her position of social prominence, which no doubt owes as much to seniority as to her described habit of enforcing dominance through bullying.
To be somewhat fair, it’s made clear that Miss Minchin is supporting--perhaps even driving--this ouster. Sara is rumored to be the new “show pupil”, not only for her stylish presentation, but for her academic accomplishments. In the previous chapter, Miss Minchin has stated her intention to place Sara in a position of honor when the students go on outings, and here in chapter 2, she places Sara in a prominent seat near her desk. It would be hard to do more to set Sara up for a fall. And perhaps--although we don’t see Miss Minchin’s overt change of heart toward Sara until the end of the chapter--there is already an intent in that direction. Miss Minchin is very prepared to view Sara as spoiled, entitled, and contrary.
But before we see the scene that cements that impression, we have a long interlude with Sara settling in and interacting imaginatively with her new doll, Emily. The purpose here seems to be to firmly establish Sara’s life of the mind, and the scene does that efficiently. Sara is imaginative, is solidly aware of the borders between imagination and reality, and is happy to playfully negotiate them with the adults around her. Mariette (her personal maid--another trigger for jealousy and resentment) has an investment in viewing Sara’s imaginings as amusing and droll. Other adults, not so much. But Mariette’s other function here is to introduce--both to the reader and to other staff at the school--the image of Sara as being “a little princess” in her behavior and manners. Although presented in a positive light, it's easy to see how this could be turned to mockery.
The last major episode in this chapter could have been avoided easily if Miss Minchin had been paying attention to what Captain Crewe told her about Sara’s studies (or if she’d believed what he said, assuming she was paying attention). Crewe clearly indicated that Sara read books in French and German in addition to English, but the entire premise of the unfortunate misunderstanding here is that Miss Minchin jumps to the conclusion that Sara is intended to learn French (hence, the French maid), and so she misinterprets Sara’s attempts to correct this misapprehension.
Miss M. states her understanding of the purpose of the French maid. Sara, knowing that understanding to be false, offers a different interpretation, which is taken for self-indulgence. Miss M. directs Sara to study a basic primer of French vocabulary, and Sara’s discomfiture at going along with this is taken for a Bad Attitude. Because this is all played out in front of the entire school, when the French teacher appears and Sara is able to explain the whole misunderstanding to him in fluent French, Miss M. is embarrassed in public and her authority is undermined. It would take a big person to overlook that and not hold the episode against Sara. And Miss Minchin, though not an out and out villain, is not that big a person. So the chapter ends with a solidification of Miss M’s personal dislike for the student she has determined to set up as the star pupil of her school. And this is an essential motivation for her treatment of Sara later, after the fall.