What does a person really need in order to be happy? If you were to lose every tangible thing which gives you joy now, what intangible things would make life still worth living? The novel A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett answers these two questions from the point of view of an eleven-year-old with a response which is ultimately simple, sweet, and surprisingly wise.
The wealthy, pampered Sara Crewe finds herself alone in a new country when her doting father leaves her at a London boarding school. As she adjusts to her new life, her character turns out to be surprisingly different from that of the stereotypical rich, spoiled girl; she uses her advantage and intelligence to help those of her classmates cast off by the other girls. But when Sara’s father suddenly passes away, leaving behind nothing but debt, her life is turned upside down. Transformed from a veritable princess into an unpaid scullery maid, she loses all the expensive comforts she is used to. However, Sara’s kindness, tenacity and imagination afford her new joys, eventually bringing her all the way to a happy ending.
There are two intertwining themes in A Little Princess: the power of imagination and the power of kindness. When I first read the novel as a quiet “dreamer” third-grader, I was surprised and impressed by the way Sara conquers her troubles: by imagining that she is a princess. Telling herself that she is above those who ridicule her, she ends up making her dream a reality by striving to act better than her tormentors—even if it means hiding sadness or biting back anger. She notices and appreciates the small joys in her new life, pretending to be elsewhere when her sadness overcomes her. Sara’s ability to find joy in apparent bleakness is so great that friends who visit from their comfortable rooms go away envying her bare, drafty attic; her tenacious cheerfulness beautifies her poverty more than money and expensive furniture do for her peers.
The second recurring idea in A Little Princess is the impact of kind actions. Sara’s painstaking kindness to many characters, including the scullery maid Becky, spoiled toddler Lottie, learning-challenged Ermengarde, and even a lost monkey, repeatedly comes back to help her when she needs it most. Her resolution to be a princess in actions, if not in wealth, is one which continually acts in her favor—giving her hope, self-respect, and sustenance just as she strives to give it to others.
Years after first reading the book, I still try to apply its themes to my own life. A touch of imagination and kindness has helped me through countless hard days and added joy to easy ones; rereading Sara’s story now lifts my spirits. A Little Princess is the essence of what we can live for, of how we can deal with hard times, whisked into a story just close enough to a fairy tale that its moral feels more like a familiar friend than a stranger.
I’ve loved reading the classics ever since I was old enough to understand them. I carried them with me on school trips, piled them next to my pillow, and quoted and cherished their words wherever I went. But they aren’t just special to me because of their universally relatable plots or old-fashioned language—although I enjoy those elements too. Classics—older books which have survived generations— tend to carry with them a host of life lessons, buried in the pages like treasure waiting to be found. These lessons can remind us of what we care about, off er advice when things get diff icult, and shine a few rays of hope into our lives when we most need them. That is my favorite thing about reading: its power to guide the reader through real life.
If you were to lose everything, what intangible things would make life still worth living? There are a few answers to that question. Imagination. Hope. Kindness. Friendship. And maybe, as a comforting map to help you fi nd the purpose you’re looking for, the imprint of a good book on your heart.