This post originally appeared on my LiveJournal in this entry, which may include a lively discussion in the comments.
As chapter 4 is titled “Lottie”, we naturally expect that we will be introduced to this character, previously described as “the baby of the school” at age four. I have to confess that Lottie is one of my least favorite characters. While it might be forgiven that at this tender age (and given her described upbringing) she manages the world about her with temper tantrums and emotional meltdowns. It is harder to forgive that, at the end of the book at age nine (two years older than Sara was when she arrived at the school), and after five years of Sara’s allegedly improving influence, Lottie is essentially unchanged in behavior and personality.
This is an issue I have with most of the secondary characters – that they show extremely little change and development as characters, but are rather fixed “types” who provide the backdrop for Sara’s journey. Lottie is, perhaps, only the most extreme. She exists in order for Sara to be seen to be “motherly” and to demonstrate Sara’s gift for empathy and storytelling. It’s interesting that in the first chapter it is said that Sara “did not care very much for other little girls”, although this may simply be another inconsistency between the early material and the rest of the book, like the claim that she didn’t like other people to listen to her telling stories. But in another sense, as I noted in a previous entry, Lottie is one of several examples of how Sara’s closest relationships are all unequal.
Ermengarde is Sara’s intellectual inferior, Lottie her emotional inferior, Becky her social inferior. Sara doesn’t have any close relationships with true peers. (I’ve spun out some personal speculations about how she might end up interacting with the older Carmichael girls after the end of the book.)
At any rate, we are introduced to Lottie (aside from a few mentions of her in passing) when she’s having a complete screaming meltdown over being asked to wash her hands for lunch. The two Minchin sisters are at wits’ end trying to quiet her, alternately with bribes and threats. Sara, having had a few friendly interactions with the girl previously, offers to try to calm her down and they leave her to it. Sara’s technique begins with simply being quietly present and letting the tantrum wear itself out a little. Then when Lottie starts up again with her most potent weapon, “I haven’t any Mama”, Sara points out that she doesn’t have a Mama either, then begins spinning stories about what their mothers are doing together up in heaven. Their bond is confirmed when Sara offers to be Lottie’s pretend mother at the school, cementing Lottie’s status as her adoring fan. It’s a relationship that will involve constant tending and nurturing, and which provides very little return to Sara. Later, after Sara’s fall, it continues to be the case that her interactions with Lottie are about Lottie’s emotional and scholastic needs, not about Lottie being thoughtful and supportive of Sara.
Given that, it’s hard (at least for me) not to see Lottie as primarily a device by which Sara earns moral credit.
I should note that it isn’t that I find Lottie’s personality unbelievable. Even without losing one’s mother at a very early age, and being dumped at boarding school by a family who provided no functional emotional support, it’s possible for a child to have difficulties with emotional balance and with finding productive ways of communicating emotional needs. Just as my private theory is that Ermengarde has an unrecognized learning disability and uses comfort-eating to address the disapproval she gets because of it, my theory about Lottie is that she may have some sort of autism-spectrum sensory overload/emotional processing issue. But that doesn’t mean I have to like her as a character.
In fact, it's interesting how Burnett makes the characters so three-dimensionally real that I, as a reader, find it easy to dissociate myself from Burnett's apparent attitude toward the characters and my own reception of them. This is even stronger with regard to the titular character of the next chapter, Becky, who I like a great deal more than Burnett seems to want me to.