Frances Hodgson Burnett's first book for children, Little Lord Fauntleroy, has come up a couple of times recently. It's mentioned, heavily, in the Cybils shortlist title A Drowned Maiden's Hair, and was the subject of a recent discussion on A Fuse #8 Production. I wasn't sure whether I had read it or not, even though A Little Princess and The Secret Garden (in the Tasha Tudor editions, of course) are two of my favorite classics. So I picked up a copy at the library last week. I'm now convinced that I had read it before, sometime in my childhood. With a book this well-known, it's hard to know where one's own experience in reading the book leaves off, and general knowledge takes over.
At first, I thought it was going to be unbearably treacly. For example, at the end of page 1:
Then suddenly his loving little heart told him that he'd better put both arms around her neck and kiss her again and again, and keep his soft cheek close to hers;"
And it's true that there are way too many references to Cedric's long, golden curls, and to how beautiful he is. Not to mention too many expository passages that detail what should already be clear from the action and dialog. And the way he calls his mother Dearest, because that's what his father always called her. But you know, if you can get past all of that, and remind yourself that the book is a product of its time, it's actually a good story. And the general themes of unselfishness, friendship, and trust are timeless.
What Little Lord Fauntleroy is really about is the way that young Cedric, raised with a certain American independence until his seventh year, wins over his crusty old grandfather, the Earl of Dorincourt. This happens after Cedric's father and his father's two older brothers are all killed within a short time of one another, and Cedric becomes the heir.
Cedric is a young philanthropist by nature, as many kids are, and his first thoughts on finding out that he has access to a bit of money are about how he can help his friends: the apple lady, a bootblack, and the maid's sister. He explains his reasons for helping the apple-woman thus:
'Once I fell down and cut my knee, and she gave me an apple for nothing. I've always remembered her for it. You know you always remember people who are kind to you.'
Cedric simply assumes that his grandfather, who he's never met previously, is a good and generous person. For a relative to be otherwise is inconceivable to him. The grandfather is the character who keeps the book from being too sweet. He's mean, selfish, and downright irascible. Even the local minister dreads visiting him. The Earl banishes Cedric's mother to a separate house on his estate, and refuses to even meet her, for her dreadful crime of being American. Even as Cedric starts to win him over, he still refuses to acknowledge Cedric's mother's positive influence.
Here's an example of Cedric's interplay with his grandfather:
'I think that you must be the best person in the world,' he (Cedric) burst forth at last. 'You are always doing good, aren't you?--and thinking about other people. Dearest says that is the best kind of goodness; not to think about yourself, but to think about other people. That is just the way you are, isn't it?'
His lordship was so dumbfounded to find himself presented in such agreeable colours that he did not know exactly what to say. He felt that he needed time for reflection. To see each of his ugly, selfish motives changed into a good and generous one by the simplicity of a child was a singular experience.
There is humor in the book, though it's of the subtle variety. For example, there's a scene in which Cedric has just met his grandfather, and offers to escort the ailing older man in to dinner. This interaction is observed by the footman.
The big footman almost perilled his reputation and his situation by smiling. He was an aristocratic footman who had always lived in the best of noble families, and he had never smiled, indeed he would have felt himself to be a disgraced and vulgar footman if he had allowed himself to be led by any circumstances into such an indiscretion as a smile. But he had a very narrow escape. He only just saved himself by staring straight over the Earl's head at a very ugly picture.
This book made me want to go re-read books by Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, with its subtle humor and similar time period. Today's young boys may not be able to get past Cedric's velvet suit and long hair, but I think that Little Lord Fauntleroy is a heart-warming story that's well worth re-visiting.
Book: Little Lord Fauntleroy
Author: Frances Hodgson Burnett
Publisher: J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd.
Original Publication Date: 1885
Age Range: 8-12
Source of Book: Santa Clara City Library
Other Blog Mentions: See a recent discussion of the book at A Fuse #8 Production
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.