Monday, January 25, 2010

Hodgson's Choice

This weekend I started reading Beverly Lyon Clark's Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children's Literature (Johns Hopkins, 2003), and found it fascinating, but it sent me after other reading material that interrupted the job at hand. Early on, Clark discusses Little Lord Fauntleroy, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924). Burnett is probably more famous today for A Little Princess and The Secret Garden, but when Little Lord Fauntleroy was first published in book form in 1886, it was a best-seller and stayed immensely popular for decades. Clark writes (pages 18-19):
[Burnett's] enthusiastic admirers ranged from nine-year-old Helen Keller ("I do love Lord Fauntleroy," she wrote in a fan letter) to British Prime Minister William Gladstone (who made a point of being introduced to Burnett and of telling her that Fauntleroy "charmed him"). Then-canonical American man of letters Oliver Wendell Holmes addressed Burnett as a writer "who knows the human heart," adding, "You should be very happy, for what mother ever had such a darling child as your dear little Lord Fauntleroy?" Similarly canonical James Russell Lowell wrote to Burnett's publisher, "I should be glad to have the author know how much pleasure the book gave me. I feel so grateful to her." Mark Twain embroidered a slipper for the actress who starred in the American dramatic version; Lewis Carroll gently teased his favorite child actress about coveting the role. As a critic wrote in 1918, Fauntleroy "caused a public delirium of joy." ...
[Burnett] happily endorsed playing cards and candy, and there were Fauntleroy toys and writing paper, a chocolate Fauntleroy, Fauntleroy perfume -- not to mention the popularity of his trademark velvet suit with sash and lace collar and cuffs. Fauntleroy was an early merchandising phenomenon [19].
Ah, yes, the suit. I wonder if its "popularity" was among mothers, or among little boys. According to this blogger, Burnett made the suits for her sons, especially Vivian, but the blogger seems not to know that she was already an established and popular author by the time she wrote Fauntleroy: "Francis [sic] Hobson [sic] Burnett originally conceived of the Little Lord Fauntleroy story as a way of entertaining her children." (Or maybe as a way of convincing them that their suits were cool?) Maybe so, but the story was immensely popular among adults too.

By the time I was born, Little Lord Fauntleroy seemed to have been reduced to his look. There were numerous film versions of the novel (the latest was made in Russia in 2003, but I'd love to see the 1996 Filipino version Cedie), but though I never saw any of them nor read the book, I knew what a Little Lord Fauntleroy looked like: the long golden hair, the velvet suit, the arms akimbo. Fauntleroy was the epitome of sissyhood, or at least of a boy forced by his mom to wear sissy clothes, and as a sissy boy the whole thing made me nervous.

But reading Clark's discussion made me curious, so I found the book at the public library. It was a recent paperback edition, and the cover illustration reflects later anxieties about how a Real Boy should look and dress. More Rudyard Kipling than Frances Hodgson Burnett, don't you think?

As for the story, I could see why it was so popular. Cedric Errol, Lord Fauntleroy, is quite a taking little fellow, and Burnett did a good job on his character and the more complex character of his grandfather, the Scrooge figure who must be won over by his newfound grandson's unselfconscious directness, honesty, and innocence. The plot's complication and resolution are melodramatic cliches, though I'm not sure I can expect a 19th-century writer to satisfy my 20th-century tastes in that respect; and Burnett did handle her material skillfully. I'll have to read more of her work.

It took me a while, though, to figure out what bothered me about Burnett's writing: it was that she could hardly refer to Cedric without using the word "little":
Then suddenly his loving little heart told him that he'd better put both his arms around [his mother's] neck and kiss her again and again, and keep his soft cheek close to hers ... His greatest charm was this cheerful, fearless, quaint little way of making friends with people ... As he grew older he had a great many quaint little ways which amused and interested people greatly ... When he was quite a little fellow he learned to read ...
And so on, all that in just the first few pages. Of course this is typical of the way writers wrote about children in the 19th century, but it's one of the features of the period's style that has always put me off. (And I see from my own "taking little fellow," above, that it's catching.)