A Little Princess

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

Also known as The Little Princess and Sara Crewe, A Little Princess is a 1905 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, also author of Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Secret Garden. This was a revised and expanded version of a novelette called Sara Crewe first serialized in St. Nicholas Magazine in 1888.

Sara Crewe, the daughter of a British Army officer (so there is no actual princess), is refreshingly kind, generous and clever, despite her father's wealth buying her every luxury she could desire. (She does, however, have a nasty temper when provoked.) She retains this attitude even when she is packed off to a boarding school for formal education. However, a couple of years later, word comes that a bad investment bankrupted her father, who subsequently died of Brain Fever brought on by the shock.

Since Sara can no longer pay for her education and cannot reimburse expenses that were to be billed to her father, Miss Minchin, the owner of the boarding school, dismisses Sara's maid, confiscates her possessions (except for beloved doll Emily), moves her into a drafty attic room, and forces Sara to work as a servant. Despite these hardships, Sara continues to keep her kind and generous personality, and endures graciously, mostly through stubborn optimism and a belief that there is a magic in the world that would not let things get as bad as they could be. The only thing that saves her from being an unbearable Pollyanna is that she does finally give in to bleak despair -- only to be rescued from that despair by the kindness of a stranger.

At the end of the story, it is discovered that "the Indian gentleman" whose servant Ram Dass has befriended Sara is in fact Mr. Thomas Carrisford, her father's "dear friend" who has been searching for Sara. He gives her back her half of the "bad investment", which in the end turned out to be worth many times more than he and her father had anticipated, and takes her as his ward. Her fortune returned to her, Sara is restored to her former social station, but does not forget those who were kind to her when she was in need.

Inspired a few movie adaptations, most notably one starring Shirley Temple in 1939 and one directed by Alfonso Cuaron in 1995. The latter cast Liesel Matthews in the role. It has also had many stage adaptations as well as various television shows, including a critically acclaimed World Masterpiece Theater anime series in the 80s and the more recent (and far more loosely-based) anime Soukou no Strain, which adds Fan Service and mecha along with giving the heroine an alternative reaction to trauma. In SPACE.

Not in any way a Distaff Counterpart to The Little Prince, though there's a paper to be written on that topic...

Tropes seen in this story and its adaptations include:
  • Adaptation Expansion: The World Masterpiece Theater anime adaptation, Shokojo Sera (A Little Princess Sara), which expands the story to 46 episodes, and adds several new incidents and characters. This adaptation is well known both for being a Tear Jerker, and for carpet-bombing the viewer with one Crowning Moment of Heartwarming after another at the finale.
    • The writing of A Little Princess is, itself, a tale of Adaptation Expansion. It began life as a novella named "Sara Crewe", but the author felt that the story was incomplete, so it was first expanded into a play, "A Little Un-fairy Princess", and finally into the novel we all know and love. Many of the novel's memorable characters, such as Ermengarde, Lottie, Becky and Lavinia, were first seen in the play. Reading the three side by side is a fascinating, first-hand look, at how this trope works.
  • Alpha Bitch: Lavinia.
  • Amoral Attorney: Mr. Barrow, Captain Crewe's solicitor. He's the one who comes to the school to announce his client's death, and suggests making a servant of Sara to Miss Minchin. He also conspicuously does not help Mr. Carrisford track down Sara.
    • In Barrow's defense, Miss Minchin wanted to throw Sara out on the street, so he actually saved her from an even worse fate.
      • However, Mr. Carrisford also tells Miss Minchin that "[Sara] would have starved more comfortably there (on the streets) than in your attic", so it's a moot point. He still could have helped Carrisford find Sara.
    • Averted with Mr. Carmichael, Carrisford's solicitor. He's introduced as the head of a loving family that Sara envies, and when his profession is revealed, it's in a conversation where he offers to travel to Moscow to follow a vague lead on Sara's whereabouts.
  • Black Best Friend: Becky in at least two film adaptations. In the original, though, she is a typical Victorian-era Cockney girl.
  • Book Dumb: Ermengarde St. John, who has trouble with her lessons, particularly French.
  • Brain Fever: Sara's father is killed by a bout of this; his partner is rendered an invalid by his own case.
  • Break the Cutie: The bulk of the story. Miss Minchin, the servants, and Lavinia deliberately try to break her further after she's ruined. the novel even points out that "her child heart might have been broken...." had it not been for Ermengarde, Lottie and Becky.
  • Cacophony Cover-Up: In the 1995 film, Lottie's ear-piercing scream creates a diversion under the cover of which the girls can fetch Sara's locket from Miss Minchin's office.
  • Cinderella Circumstances: After Sara loses her fortune she becomes a servant in the school.
  • Comic Book Time: Sara goes to the seminary when she is seven and becomes poor when she is 11 or older. On her first day Lavinia is already one of the oldest children and is specifically described as 14. By the time the main events play out she should be 18 and have left the school.
  • Companion Cube: Emily. Although in one moment of despair Sara screams at Emily that she's "just a doll".
  • Contrived Coincidence: Well, it is by a Victorian novelist: the old gent who moves in next door turns out to be looking for a particular young lady who is due to inherit a great deal of money. Since the 'Indian Gentleman' is not even sure which city the little girl was sent to school in, it's somewhat serendipitous that he happens to move in next door from the right girl.
  • Costume Porn: Some paragraphs in the book are spent describing Sara's beautiful clothes. Indeed, lengthy paragraphs are devoted to describing the wardrobe of the doll.
    • Almost exaggerated in the Cuaron film. You can hardly blame Miss Minchin when she says Sara can't wear her finery looking at what she's wearing in that very scene.
  • Daddy's Girl: Sara and her father were very close, and her mother died when she was quite young.
  • Denied Food as Punishment: And smacked around a little, too.
  • Deus Ex Machina: Or rather, extremely powerful convenient visitor. When Shirley Temple's version of Sara finds the hospital that may contain her wounded, amnesiac father, she is allowed to search it after asking a very old, important-looking woman for permission. Upon thanking her for this, Sara asks the woman's name, and then blushes and curtsies when she responds: "Victoria." It's a Crowning Moment of Heartwarming, and kind of stops anyone this side of God from keeping father and daughter apart one second longer.
  • Disney Death: Sara's father in both of the movies.
  • Dramatic Necklace Removal: Sara's locket, in the movie.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: It's Sara's kindness in the worst possible circumstances that attracts the attention of her father's partner, laying sick in the house next door, and leads to their discovery of each others' identities.
  • Enfant Terrible: Lottie, before she meets Sara.
  • Fallen Princess: Sara
  • Funetik Aksent: Becky and other Cockney characters.
  • Gray Eyes/Green Eyes: Sara's are gray-green.
  • Girl Posse: Lavinia's small band of hangers-on.
  • Greed: Miss Minchin
  • Have a Gay Old Time: The Shirley Temple version has Captain crew requesting that Sara's room at the seminary be made "as gay as possible." We're talking about an all-girls school. Immature contemporary audiences are bound to devour that line.
  • Karma Houdini: Miss Minchin in the movie. All we see happen to her is a look of utter shock upon learning Sara's father is still alive. In the anime, this goes further: she is reconciled with Sara, who decides to remain in her Seminary as a day-scholar.
    • Averted in the 1995 movie where at the end she has lost the school and appears to be working as a chimney sweep.
    • Also averted, somewhat, in the original story. Miss Minchin retains the ownership of her school, and apparently is still prosperous, but knows that it is only due to Sara's forgiving nature -- should Sara care to, she could ruin Minchin with a word to Carrisford. This is made worse for Minchin because Sara lives right next door, and every time Minchin sees her, she is reminded of what her vindictiveness and temper ultimately cost her.
      • Also, Miss Amelia has a huge row with her sister in one of the last chapters, and finally plucks up the courage to tell her off. It's implied that from then on Amelia will take charge and act as a damper on Miss Minchin's baser instincts by threatening to be a very audible voice of conscience. Given the dynamic that existed between them before, this is quite a come-down and an embarrassment for Minchin.
  • Meaningful Name: Sara is Hebrew for "princess." In the book of Genesis, Sarah -- wife of Abraham -- gives birth to Isaac, and is promised that she will be a princess of many nations. Becky's name is a diminution of Rebecca, Isaac's wife (Sarah's daughter-in-law), and the mother of Jacob / Israel. Maria (Miss Minchin's first name) means "bitter". Amelia means "lovable"- and she is the nicer sister, who even gets a boyfriend in the 1995 movie.
  • Nice to the Waiter: One of Sara's defining traits. Even when she herself falls on hard times, she's still kind and generous to those even worse off.
  • Ojou: Sara before her father dies. Look at the title.
  • Parental Abandonment: Sara's mother died in childbirth, and her father when she's eleven. Some adaptations have him turn up alive, but with Easy Amnesia. also, Lottie's father is said to be very "flighty" and to have left Lottie to others after his wife died. In the 1995 movie, Sara's mother dies giving birth to her younger sister, but it still certainly counts as parental abandonment.
  • Pretty in Mink: A few furs are mentioned, like a doll with an ermine-lined cape, and the fur coat Sara wears at the end.
  • Princess Classic: Or almost. In fact, Sara looks up to historical queens and princesses (notably Marie Antoinette in one instance) as role models, which helps her control her temper on occasions.
  • Princess in Rags
  • Princess Phase: The most recent film version of Sara not only fancies herself a princess but says that all girls are princesses. She's nearly a teenager but it fits since it is in the Victorian period and probably aimed at little girls. It's worth noting her idea of being a princess does not mean it entitles you to be a spoilt brat.
    • By contrast, the literary Sara did not fancy herself a real princess; however, others described her as such, and she used the ideal of a princess as a model and guide for living -- and during the worst of her ordeal, coping with -- her life. However, one of her favorite "supposings" was that she was "...a Princess, and a Fairy one, and because (she was) a Fairy, nothing can hurt (her) or make (her) uncomfortable.”
  • Promotion to Parent: Sara was this to Lottie.
  • Race Lift: Becky is not black in the book, but she becomes black in at least one of The Movies.
  • Rags to Riches, inverted: The book and adaptations are frequently promoted as a "riches to rags" story.
    • Though of course she becomes rich beyond her wildest imagination again when it turns out the diamond mines were real and her father's partner is still alive.
  • Rich Bitch: Lavinia Herbert, who was the richest girl in school before Sara turned up, and sees the younger girl as a threat to her social standing. She's unmerciful in her ridicule when Sara loses her fortune.
  • Royal Brat: Lavinia again.
  • Sadist Teacher: Miss Minchin, who has a nasty cruel streak and cares about nothing more than money. Her sister calls her out on it right at the end: "You're a hard, cruel, worldly woman."
  • Spoiled Sweet: Sara's a bit naive about the state of the world at first, but even before things get horribly awful she realizes that there are people less fortunate than she is and doesn't act like a Rich Bitch.