Risky Regencies

Childhood Favorites

Happy Tuesday, everyone! Hope you’re all ready for Thanksgiving (I’m going shopping for the ingredients for a chocolate-cherry cake later! Wish me luck, I haven’t tried this one before). I’ve been unpacking from my trip last week (the book signing was a big success!), and diving into a new book. I love them at this point, when they’re all shiny and new and the characters haven’t started acting all stubborn yet.

I also have a holiday contest! Visit my Laurel McKee website before December 16 and enter for a chance to win an ARC of Countess of Scandal (out in February 2010!!)

Speaking of stubborn characters, I found out today is the birthday of one of my favorite childhood authors, Frances Hodgson Burnett! I first encountered her work when I found a battered old copy of The Secret Garden at my grandmother’s house, and I love, love, loved that book. I wanted to go live at a crumbling, dark old manor house on the moors and work in the garden. I even loved cranky little Mary, who, unlike those horrible Elsie Dinsmore stories my grandmother tried to push on me, got to be unhappy and contrary (until nature saved her!). I also loved A Little Princess, with solemn, smart Sara and the gorgeous descriptions of her luscious wardrobe (until she was banished to the garret!). These stories created a world I adored and wanted to learn more about. I guess they were my first intro to the British historical.

Frances Hodgson was born in Manchester on November 24, 1849. When she was 4, her father died, leaving her mother with 5 children to raise on her own. Her mother tried to carry on with the family business, running a wholesale company that supplied art materials to manufacturers, but the company soon failed. Through these trials, little Frances was growing up precocious and observant. She wrote her first poem at age 7. In 1864, her family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee to join her mother’s brother, but their finances did not improve.

Following the death of her mother in 1867, 18-year-old Frances was left responsible for her 2 younger siblings, and she turned to writing to support them all. Her first story was published in Godey’s Lady’s Book (Hearts and Diamonds), and she was soon printed regularly in that magazine along with Scribner’s, Peterson’s Ladies’ Magazine, and Harper’s Bazaar. She became known for her ability to combine details of real, working-class life with romantic plots and sensibilities. She usually earned $10 apiece for these tales.

In 1873 she married Dr. Swan Burnett, a man she had known since she was 15, and had her first child, Lionel, the following year. Her second son, Vivian, was born soon after on an extended trip to Paris. Her first book, That Lass o’Lowrie’s, about a pit girl working in a coal mine, was published in 1877 to great praise. On their return to the US that year the family settled in Washington DC where she began moving in literary circles and entertained lavishly. She was also prolific–she wrote in quick succession Haworth’s (1879), Louisiana (1880), A Fair Barbarian (1881), and Through One Administration (1883), as well as a play Esmeralda (1881). But she often struggled with illness and depression despite her success.

In 1885 she published her “breakout book,” Little Lord Fauntleroy, said to be inspired by her son Vivian. This book earned her more than $100,000, with a hugely popular theatrical adaptation following. Velvet suits became worldwide craze, much to the lasting horror of little boys everywhere.

In 1887 she traveled to Europe with her sons, visiting London for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and then on to France and Italy. A Little Princess (originally published under the title Sara Crewe) was published at this time. But in 1890 her eldest son died, and she was consumed with grief. She became interested in spiritualism and Theosophy (she wrote about these beliefs in The White People). Her marriage ended in divorce in 1898 and she married her business manager, but this second marriage also ended in divorce less than 2 years later. Her best-known work, The Secret Garden was published in 1911, after she had been living at Great Maytham Hall in England for many years and actually found a hidden garden there.

She lived practically as a hermit, hounded by the gossip press, for the last 17 years of her life in Plandome, New York, and is buried next to her son Vivian in Roslyn Cemetery there.

Aside from the novels themselves, I have an excellent biography of Burnett, Frances Hodgson Burnett: Beyond the Secret Garden by Angelica Shirley Carpenter and Jean Shirley. And just as an example of the fashion porn in A Little Princess: Her dresses were silk and velvet and India cashmere, her hats and bonnets were covered with bows and plumes, her small undergarments were adorned with real lace, and she returned in the cab to Miss Minchin’s with a doll almost as large as herself, dressed quite as grandly as herself, too.

Did you love these books when you were a kid, too? What were some of your childhood favorites? And what are you cooking for the holiday???

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13 years ago

Ooh, there’s a fabulous book about her early years (up to age fifteen maybe?) called ‘Waiting for the Party’. I think it’s by Ann Thwaite – she did a great biography of A A Milne too. I love a Little Princess (the book, not any of the films) but I think she was one very strange lady!

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

I agree–none of the movies are right (well, all 2 of them I’ve seen. Shirley Temple is totally NOT Sara Crewe!). And I never knew before I read that bio what a scandalous life she had!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
13 years ago

I’ve never read the books but I did see an adaptation of The Secret Garden with Maggie Smith that was quite good. And there is the Broadway musical. I’m surprised that no one has tried to turn The Little Princess into a musical. I’ve always thought that the Conservatory Gardens in NY in Central Park were like the Secret Garden since not many people know about them.

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

I do love that movie! (Have it on DVD around here somewhere). The setting is gorgeous. I wish I could get a couple kids with little trowels and a tiny wheelbarrow come and make my garden look so stupendous. 🙂

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

I must have had a deprived childhood. It is amazing to me, an avid reader as a child and teenager, that I missed so many wonderful books.
I never read any of Frances Hodgson Burnett.
My important book in this same spirit was Little Women, but I never went on to read Little Men.
I remember frequenting Alexandria (Virginia) library, though, and exhausting the children’s section. I think I needed an interested librarian to show me the good books!

Keira Soleore
13 years ago

The Secret Garden books were so fascinating to me. I loved hidey-holes and places no one else knew but me.

PS Riskies: My comments on Diane and Ammanda’s Welbourne Manor are on my blog.

Jane Austen
13 years ago

When I was in fifth grade I remember reading The Secret Garden over the phone with one of my friends. The library only had one copy and we both wanted it. Since she was a my best friend I said we’d call each other each night and read it to each other. And we did, much to our parents’ chagrin (no call waiting). I do think I love E. Nesbit the best out of this era. I love how her books have magic in them, but they are really magic it’s the children’s imagination. For a good collection of Victorian Children’s Lit by women that it unknown read the book Forbidden Journeys. Does it sound like porn, yes. It is: no. It’s children’s stories, but there are some hidden undertones.

Has anyone seen The Secret Garden version that Colin Firth briefly appears in? I’ve always wanted to see it, but can never find it.

Jane George
13 years ago

I LUV both these books. I had an early crush on Dicken and even now the thought of Sara losing her pony makes me tear up!

We’re doing the works here for Thanksgiving. The turkey is in her brine and I have my son to help.(He made mince meat!) He’s been interning in high-end eateries for two years and now he’s an actual working chef! He works part-time and attends college. Can you tell I’m really proud of him? It’s his 18th B-day tomorrow.

Cara King
13 years ago

I love Burnett! I loved A Little Princess most of all, but also A Secret Garden, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and The Lost Prince.

But most of all, it was A Little Princess. My friends and I had an utter obsession with boarding schools and orphanages — and any book with either got a great boost in our eyes. Plus, the great clothes, the Tasha Tudor illustrations, the garret, the way Sara lived in her imagination (the way we did), the whole thing….so wonderful.

When someone much later pointed out that the original version of A Little Princess was a shorter version called Sara Crewe, I read that too, but could never get into it. I needed my full-length feast!

BTW, in Noel Streatfeild’s book The Painted Garden (called Movie Shoes in the States), the heroine is cast as Mary Lennox in a movie of The Secret Garden — and much disapproves of the changes made from the book. And when I saw one of the adaptations of it (I think it was the 1987 version with Colin Firth, but I could be wrong), I saw they’d made several of the same changes! (Shows how smart Streatfeild was.)

Oh, and I also loved & devoured all the Alcott and Nesbit I could find…


Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

OMG, I forgot about the pony! That was the worst thing EVER. (And Jane George, could you send your son over here to finish this cake for me? Thanks!)

Cara, the Streatfeild books were a big favorite when I was a kid, though somehow I have never read Movie Shoes! (I loved Ballet Shoes and Theater Shoes, and later Skating Shoes. Ballet Shoes was always my favorite! I guess I loved books about orphans and schools, too)

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

Oh, and I also love, love, loved the Betsy-Tacy books, even though there were no orphans or fancy British schools! And Anne of Green Gables and Little Women, natch. 🙂 And “I Capture the Castle”–that was another good one…

Megan Frampton
13 years ago

I loved the Secret Garden, read and re-read it many, many times.

I am cooking NOTHING this holiday. Yay.

Janet Mullany
13 years ago

I love(d) The Secret Garden and A Little Princess but Hodgson-Burnett certainly was a whacko!
Great post.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
13 years ago

I was a huge Laura Ingalls Wilder fan as well growing up and hated the TV series. I also loved the Great Brain books. In school, my English teacher Miss Hill used to read the Cheaper by the Dozen books to us as a treat.

Amanda, did you ever see the film of I Captured the Castle?

13 years ago

Happy birthday to Frances! I can’t remember the first time I read The Secret Garden but I do know I’ve read it several times since.

I’m making some cookies and I’m thinking of making pumpkin cheesecake.

Louisa Cornell
13 years ago

Oh I love both of these books! They are real jewels. And I guess all of us writers types are a bit … odd!

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

“Amanda, did you ever see the film of I Captured the Castle?”

I did, not too long ago! (TG for Netflix!) It was very enjoyable. The castle actually looked a lot like I had pictured it. 🙂

Anne Gracie
13 years ago

I loved the Secret Garden and Little Princess books, too. There was a BBC (I think –UK TV of some sort) TV adaption of Secret Garden that I remember as being very good, very faithful to the book. Might be available on DVD.

I recently read a book called THE HIDDEN GARDEN by Kate Morton partially set in the early part of the 20th Century, in which Frances Hodgson Burnett appeared v. briefly as a character and got the idea for the book from this hidden Cornish garden. Lovely book, though I wasn’t too keen on the FHB reference.

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