This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.
The next several chapters each introduce a girl who will have a key role in Sara’s experience. Each of them is subordinate to her in some fashion: Ermengarde intellectually, Lottie emotionally, and Becky socially. And in these introductory chapters one of the functions they fulfill is to show Sara being kind and supportive to others on their own terms according to their own needs and interests.
Ermengarde, unfortunately, is brought in with an unpleasant whiff of fat-phobia. Now, Burnett never quite says outright that Ermengarde is stupid because she is fat, but there’s a constant re-emphasis of her physical appearance, and regular comments from other students that restrict Ermengarde’s possible roles on the basis of her body. (Much later in the book, this attitude is summed up in Ermengarde’s repetition of the others’ judgement, “I can’t be a princess, I’m too fat.”) And while the narrative clearly takes the position that being a good person is more important than being thin and beautiful, it never really contradicts the judgement that her body is the determiner of all her other characteristics.
In my head-canon, there’s a somewhat different story going on. Ermengarde clearly needs a learning method other than what Miss Minchin’s school (and the society of the story in general) uses. She may have an actual learning disability or she may simply have different brain wiring. She comes from an intellectual family, with a father “who knows everything, who speaks seven or eight languages, and has thousands of volumes which he has apparently learned by heart”. Ermengarde has difficulties with rote memorization (though she does better when facts are contextualized in an interesting way). Her father is severely disappointed that Ermengarde doesn’t follow in his footsteps and various comments along the way indicate that she’s been told that she is stupid, dull, and a disappointment since long before she came to school. Miss Minchin was then primed to view her in the same way, and Ermengarde’s learning experience has been an exercise in being forced to repeat the same failure modes over and over as a public humiliation. Given all of that, it would be no surprise to me if her weight were a consequence of the emotional abuse. Comfort-eating has a strong attraction. (And evidently her aunts who sent her care packages at school are firm believers in "food is love".)
Sara’s first impulse is non-judgmental sympathy. She approaches Ermengarde specfically because the other girl is unhappy and looks lonely. Her first interaction is to draw Ermengarde into her imaginative world, commenting that her name “sounds like a story book.” And when Ermengarde expresses admiration for Sara’s facility with language and labels her “clever”, Sara discounts those things as moral virtues or personal achievements and returns to sharing stories. The rest of chapter 3 (which I’ll return to next week) explores that imaginative process a bit more.