Waiting for the Party: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett
A few writers produce what American businessmen call “consumer durables.” Their works, like a house or a silver teapot or a Grecian urn, will last a lifetime and often longer. Other authors, the great majority, manufacture “soft goods”—sometimes highly profitable, but hastily and flimsily made, intended to be used up and thrown out. They may be courted by publishers and booksellers, and receive a lot of fan mail, but after their deaths, or even sooner, they are forgotten. They are not mentioned in biographical dictionaries, and their, books molder unread in the spare bedrooms of country cottages.
For most of her lifetime Frances Hodgson Burnett was this sort of writer. Her sentimental magazine stories and romantic novels were the Victorian equivalent of nylon sweaters and paper plates. She is remembered now, when authors like Elizabeth Ward and Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth are forgotten, because twice in over half a century of constant and often exhausting commercial productivity (fifty-four published books and thirteen stage plays) she happened to tell one of those stories that turn out to be the externalized dreams of a whole society, which pass beyond ordinary commercial success to become part of popular folklore.
Her first dream, Little Lord Fauntleroy (1866), was a book-length version of the almost universal childhood fantasy that one doesn’t really belong in this dreary little house or flat with these boring ordinary people—that one’s real parents are very rich and important and exciting, and live in a great mansion, if not a castle. Marghanita Laski has remarked that the standard Frances Hodgson Burnett plot is one in which a disadvantaged person, often a child, is restored to the wealth and position which is their natural birthright. Sara Crewe is rescued from her garret; Emily Fox-Seton in The Making of a Marchioness marries a peer who has recognized the true lady beneath the paid companion; little Cedric, living in reduced circumstances with his widowed mother in New York, is discovered to be Lord Fauntleroy, the heir of the Earl of Dorincourt.
It was of course a common theme in Victorian romantic fiction, and a very natural one for Mrs. Burnett, whose own life had a riches-to-rags-to-riches outline. She was born in Manchester, one of five children of a prosperous tradesman; but when she was three years old her father died, plunging the family into shabby-genteel poverty, first in England and then in rural Tennessee, to which they emigrated in 1865 when Frances was fifteen. She was a clever, independent, bossy, and rather plain young girl, small, pudgy, and red-haired, with a gift for storytelling.
The account of her American girlhood in Ann Thwaite’s excellent new biography reads like a chapter in Little Women: family picnics and parties, made-over frocks and constant, usually unsuccessful attempts to earn money in small ways:
They tried everything in those early days. Embroidery—and people didn’t want it. Music lessons—and people thought them too young. Chickens—and they wouldn’t hatch, and when they did they died of the gapes. There was the awful problem, too, of having to sit on the hen to make her sit on the nest. They tried setting goose eggs and only one hatched and that wasn’t a goose. It was a gander, and a plank fell on it and killed it.
Frances Hodgson, like Louisa May Alcott, wrote her way out of this predicament, at first without any serious literary ambitions. “My object is remuneration,” she wrote in the letter she sent to a second-rate women’s magazine when she was seventeen, along with her first story. (“It would have seemed to me a kind of presumption to aspire to entering the world of actual literature,” she remarked much later.)
Frances Hodgson’s story was published, and the next, and the next. Gradually she became more successful, and more confident. By the time she was twenty-two, in 1872, she had earned enough by writing “five or six little ten or twelve dollar stories a month” to return to England as a tourist—the first of many visits. By 1880 she was a well-known popular novelist living in considerable luxury with her husband and children in Washington, DC, almost next door to their friend President Garfield.
It was quite natural that she should turn to writing juveniles. She liked children and always got on well with them; she loved playing games and had a lifelong fascination with dolls’ houses. Even in her adult fiction, favorite characters of every age are described as “childlike”; and as Ann Thwaite points out, “Many of the most strongly loving relationships are between mother and son, father and daughter, between sisters, between friends.” She was less interested in love between men and women—and less successful in real life. Both her marriages ended in separation and mutual bitterness.
Mrs. Burnett was also an enthusiastic and devoted mother, who greatly admired both her sons. The character of Cedric, Lord Fauntleroy, was consciously based on her younger son Vivian—who in spite of his name and the bad press his double has received, seems to have been a perfectly normal little boy, quite reasonably noisy, grubby, and active. Even Cedric himself is by no means the prig and sissy he is assumed to be by people who haven’t read the book. Part of the prejudice against him is probably due to the Little Lord Fauntleroy suit which so many unhappy English and American boys were forced into at the end of the last century, although Vivian and Lionel Burnett only wore this costume for parties and at the photographer’s.
Mrs. Burnett’s stroke of genius in Little Lord Fauntleroy was to combine the long-lost heir story with two other equally popular contemporary subjects. One was the relation between England and America; between an old, complex, possibly corrupt nation and its younger, simpler, cruder, but presumably more innocent former colony. In the years after the Civil War when America was finally coming of age and (like other adolescents) beginning to forgive and feel curious about its progenitors, American writers, and their characters, traveled to Europe in great numbers—not only to see the sights, but to meet Europeans, particularly Englishmen. Sometimes, as in Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad (1869), they clashed head-on. Other authors like Henry James approached England and the English with an infinitely anxious sidelong fascination. Mrs. Burnett, perhaps because of her childhood memories, or perhaps just through natural optimism, embraced them with romantic eagerness.
The third popular theme in Little Lord Fauntleroy is that of the regeneration of an older person through the influence of an affectionate and attractive child, a Wordsworthian natural innocent; the best-known example of course is Silas Marner. Cedric, however, is not only the poor but virtuous natural child, but the embodiment of republican virtue, who treats grocers and peers alike. England, the past, age, rank, and selfish pride are represented, with thematic economy, by Cedric’s grandfather, the fabulously rich Earl of Dorincourt.
The plot of Little Lord Fauntleroy recalls not only George Eliot but James’s Portrait of a Lady, published five years earlier in 1881, which also features the confrontation of a charming, eager, natural young American and representatives of an older and more devious civilization. In fact the Earl is in more ways than one a sort of Gilbert Osmond grown old. “In all his long life he had never really loved anyone but himself; he had been selfish and self-indulgent and arrogant and passionate.” But in Mrs. Burnett’s story the warm-hearted young hero converts the cold English aristocrat.
Frances Hodgson Burnett preferred happy endings, in life as well as in art. “There ought to be a tremendous lot of natural splendid happiness in the life of every human being,” she once wrote; and she worked generously to bring this about. With the profits from her books she bought a house in Manchester for distant cousins, and another in London for the impoverished spinster ladies whose school she had gone to as a child. She rented a country place in Kent with seven reception and eighteen bedrooms, filled it with guests, and played the part of a local Lady of the Manor, visiting cottages and giving treats to the village children with great success.
Mrs. Burnett’s attempts to spread joy went even further. Stephen Townesend, the doctor who later became her second husband, had always said he wanted to be a professional actor, so she wrote and produced a play for him to star in. Surprised and hurt by his lack of enthusiasm and gratitude, she was still determined that he should succeed.
“[You] may guess what I am going through with that poor, overstrung boy,” she wrote to a friend during rehearsals. (Stephen was then thirty-two, ten years younger than she.)
He is excited and worried by everything…. Oh, how I pray the poor fellow may have a triumph. I shall feel I have not lived for nothing if I can help that one poor life into the sun.
The play was not a great success, and closed after a week in London, though partly because the death of the Duke of Clarence had emptied the theaters.
Even in the most tragic circumstances Mrs. Burnett strove to create happiness. When her elder son became fatally ill she brought him expensive toys from London shops. She sat by his bedside day and night, always calm and cheerful, strenuously and passionately determined that Lionel should not learn that there was anything serious the matter with him. After it was all over she congratulated herself on the success of her pretense:
[He] never did find out. He was ill nine months but I never allowed him to know that I was really anxious about him. I never let him know that he had consumption or that he was in danger—
What makes this story strange—even hard to believe—is that at the time of his death Lionel was sixteen.
The conviction that every life should be full of natural splendid happiness is one of the driving forces behind Mrs. Burnett’s other famous dream, The Secret Garden (1911). Like Little Lord Fauntleroy, it is about a psychological miracle: the complete regeneration of in this case two thoroughly disagreeable and self-centered people. Mary and Colin, like the old Earl of Dorincourt, are converted to goodness and joy. But also, like Cedric, they are restored to their natural birthright, which in this case is not temporal but spiritual; not money and position, but the natural heritage of mankind.
One of the interesting things about The Secret Garden, as Ann Thwaite remarks, is that the children are not reformed through the intervention of some wise and kind other person, but mainly through their own efforts, something very uncommon in earlier children’s books. They do get some help from a local boy, Dickon, but only after they are well on their way.
And Mary and Colin are not just ordinary sulky or naughty children; they are severely neurotic. Today Mary, with her odd private games and cold indifference to her parents’ death, might be diagnosed as pre-schizoid; bedridden Colin, with his imaginary hunchback, as a classic hysteric with conversion symptoms. Mrs. Burnett’s presentation of their cases is astonishingly complete by contemporary standards, and plausibly grounded in the treatment both have received since birth.
The plot of the book centers around the children’s discovery and cultivation of a long-neglected garden which becomes a metaphor for the hidden potentialities within themselves. The image is also latently sexual, though Mrs. Burnett may not have been aware of this: a walled rose-garden in which a girl and a boy, working together, make things grow.
In many ways The Secret Garden is very much of its time. Colin’s self-hypnotic chanting recalls the rituals of Christian Science or New Thought, in both of which Mrs. Burnett was interested. Dickon, the farm boy who spends whole days on the moors talking to plants and animals, is a sort of cross between Kipling’s Mowgli and the many incarnations of the nature spirit or rural Pan which appear in Edwardian fiction, rescuing Forster’s heroines, and later Lawrence’s, from death-in-life.
Yet when it appeared in 1911, The Secret Garden was only moderately successful—perhaps because it was ahead of its time, for since then its fame has grown steadily. Lately in fact it seems to have become something of a cult book among high-school and college students in America. (More of my students had read it than had read Alice or The Wind in the Willows.) And it isn’t hard to see why, considering that The Secret Garden is the story of two unhappy, sickly, overcivilized children who achieve health and happiness through a combination of communal gardening, mystical faith, daily exercises, encounter-group-type confrontation, and a health-food diet.
In spite of the popularity of her books, up till now Frances Hodgson Burnett has had bad luck with biographers. Her son’s The Romantick [sic] Lady, like most sentimental hagiographies, positively invites irritated skepticism. It seems to have had that effect on Marghanita Laski, who in Mrs. Ewing, Mrs. Molesworth, and Mrs. Hodgson Burnett describes her third subject as “aggressively domineering, offensively whimsical, and abominably self-centered and conceited.”
Ann Thwaite found this hard to believe of one of her favorite childhood authors, and set out deliberately to discover more. And the Frances Hodgson Burnett who emerges from her biography is an interesting and sympathetic if not a completely lovable character.
Waiting for the Party is a good book: intelligent, moderate, thoughtful, well documented, well organized, and well written. This is no small achievement. The first serious full-length biography of any writer, if it is even moderately good, must be the result of much hard, boring, lonely work. To undertake such a task means letting yourself in for many cold afternoons in the reading rooms of provincial libraries, turning over the yellowed pages of volumes of old magazines and newspapers, or squinting for hours into the hood of a microfilm machine; the writing and addressing and mailing of scores of polite letters of inquiry, most of which will produce nothing of use; long, anxiously tactful conversations with difficult elderly people who once knew your subject or his or her friends and relatives.
Ann Thwaite’s biography has only one really irritating (though minor) fault, which is signaled in its title. This is the attempt to find some simple pattern in what was in fact a complex life and character; to present Frances Hodgson Burnett as someone whose overriding desire was to be at some imaginary, ideal Party, and who was always disappointed by reality. There are several references to this notion, but they all have an air of having been tacked on at the last moment, as if some officious editor had said to the author, “Your book is all very well, but it needs a unifying theme. It needs a gimmick.”
Even if this were true, “Waiting for the Party” is the wrong gimmick. It makes Mrs. Burnett sound like a shallow Fitzgerald character, frenetically longing for glamorous social events; whereas the evidence of her own books as well as Ann Thwaite’s suggests that what she really enjoyed most was telling stories, seeing her friends, arranging other people’s lives, and playing with children; and that she was often, though not invariably, happy. Moreover, a book as well made as this one does not need a gimmick. It is not soft goods, needing some fashionable slogan to sell it, but a consumer durable which can stand on its own merits, as a model of what a literary biography should be.