Waiting for the Party: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett
by Ann Thwaite
Scribner’s, 274 pp., $10.00
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 …