Sunday, December 1, 2013

Once a Maid, Always a Maid

Upon reading A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett to my daughter, I noticed something that hadn't occurred to me when I read it as a child: what about Becky?  For those of you who haven't read it (for shame!) or have forgotten the details, here's a quick recap (spoilers included): 

Sara Crewe, the motherless daughter of a wealthy Englishman stationed in India, is sent to boarding school in England.  Although the school's director, Miss Minchin, dislikes her immediately, she is treated like a princess, because of her money.  When word arrives that Sara's father has died and lost his fortune, Sara is banished to the attic, put to work running errands, and treated horribly, fed as little as possible, dressed in old, ill-fitting clothes, and punished frequently.  Sara survives by using her imagination and her inner strength, befriending the scullery maid, Becky (as well as a rat!).  A next-door neighbor takes an interest in Sara and secretly sneaks into her attic room, decorating it, lighting a fire for her, and leaving her delicious food, which she shares with Becky.  Finally, the next-door neighbor discovers that Sara is the little girl he has been looking for for 2 years!  He was friends with Captain Crewe and it was his investment that had failed and cost Crewe his fortune.  But, as in a fairy tale, it turns out that the fortune wasn't lost after all.  Sara goes to live with this man and Becky accompanies her as her personal maid.

As my daughter and I read, we both were a bit taken aback at how Becky shares in Sara's good fortune and kindness and the kindness of others to her, but how no one (except Sara) is kind directly to Becky.  Ultimately, class is still supremely important in Victorian England.  Sara has "pretty manners."  She is refined and her upbringing comes through despite her outward physical appearance.  And her beauty and manners attract the next-door neighbor's attention.  Becky is lucky to live with Sara for without her, Becky would receive nothing at all.  She is supposed to be grateful that she gets to go from being a scullery maid to being Sara's personal maid.  Sara does and will treat her better than Miss Minchin, but a maid's a maid.  Of course, the book is a product of its time and place but Becky's treatment is pretty shocking to 21st century Americans. 

Are there any books you loved as a child in which, upon rereading them as an adult, you discover messages and values you missed the first time?

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