Burnett generates interest in terms of her contribution to popular literature of the late 19th and early 20th cs., British-American REALISM, dialect and FOLKLORE, class structure and gender roles, and the shaping of CHILDREN’s LITERATURE. Much of her enduring fiction is rooted in her native Manchester, an industrialized town, which, by 1841, was known for its chasm between the rich and the poor, a social tension exemplified in her fiction.
The American Civil War devastated the Manchester economy, and Burnett and her mother and siblings moved to New Market (near Knoxville), Tennessee in May 1865. Two important Romantic tendencies impelled her at this point: the power of the imagination to improve upon the reality of life and her love of pastoral landscape, especially English gardens and rural Tennessee. In June 1868, Burnett published “Hearts and Diamonds” in Godey’s Lady’s Book under the pseudonym “THE SECOND.” Early Burnett fiction was popular with the editors at Godey’s, Scribner’s, and Harper’s. The 1877 collection Surly Tim and Other Stories, for example, appealed to American readers interested in the plight of the English working class. That Lass o’ Lowrie’s (1877) was an even more popular realistic portrayal of British working-class life and employed a strong Lancashire dialect. Both Burnett and her mother were always interested in speech and dialect and in the implications of the two linguistic phenomena regarding class.
After Burnett and her physician husband settled in Washington, D.C., she began her most popular novel, Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886). Based on earlier serialized stories in St. Nicholas and, in part, on the character of her second son Vivian, the novel became a classic in children’s literature selling more than one million copies. Fauntleroy parallels Burnett’s rags to riches theme in her earliest magazine work. An adorable ruffian from American streets, the little protagonist claims his title, lands, and wealth in England. The union of such an English tradition with the boy’s American sense of brotherhood and egalitarianism makes an important bridge of past and present in the late 19th c.
Although it is still popular to link Fauntleroy with Vivian Burnett, in large part the reading public seems to draw its image of the boy from the sissified illustrations of the text by Reginald Birch. Read without the Birch illustrations, traditional male characteristics like bravery or running fast become more memorable to the reader, not the aesthete dress of velvet and love locks. Queer readings of the story suggest that Fauntleroy’s suit is modeled after the kind of aesthete dress worn by Oscar WILDE, and that the Birch illustrations often depict the effeminate boy in close proximity to a more virile animal, his “phallic friend.” The Secret Garden (1911) was published while Burnett was building her villa “Plandome” in Manhasset, New York. The novel employs the three ingredients of fantasy identified in J. R. R. TOLKIEN: recovery, escape, consolation. The restoration of the garden symbolizes the rebirth and rejuvenation of the protagonist Mary. As Mary learns to garden from Dickon, she moves from isolation to community. The maturation novel, moreover, owes something to both the theme and structure of the early-19th-c. English exemplum in which one who is saved then saves others.
Burnett’s fiction has drawn various and, in some instances, recent dramatic interpretation. Little Lord Fauntleroy was filmed in 1921, 1936, and 1980. The Secret Garden was filmed for television in 1993. The 1939 film version of A Little Princess (1905) included stellar performances by Shirley Temple as the little “princess” and Cesar Romero as the servant Ram Dass. Another film version in 1995 starred Liesel Matthews as Sara and Eleanor Bron as the schoolmistress, Miss Minchin.
Burnett is remembered primarily for the achievements in her novels for children. Her awareness of the timeless elements within children’s literature and fantasy, her use of class and caste themes, maturation motifs, and her handling of dialect continue to draw readers to her work.
Bibliography Bixler, P., The Secret Garden: Nature’s Magic (1996); McGillis, R., A Little Princess: Gender and Empire (1996); Thwaite, A., Waiting for the Party: The Life of F. H. B., 1849–1924 (1974)
George C. Longest
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