"I am a princess. All girls are. Even if they live in tiny old attics.
Even if they dress in rags, even if they aren’t pretty, or smart, or young.
They’re still princesses"

Frances Eliza Hodgson Burnett (1849 –1924) was a prolific writer but her enduring fame  rests mainly with three very popular works of fiction: Little Lord Fauntleroy (published in 1885–1886), A Little Princess (1905), and The Secret Garden (1911). These novels were originally regarded as being aimed at a juvenile readership but on publication they also garnered an appreciative adult following. 

There is a common theme running through each of these titles: a young person is isolated and presented with trials and tribulations which they tackle with great courage and ingenuity to reach their happy ending.

Fauntleroy made a huge impact on publication. The central character is a small, angelic boy from New York who learns that he is the heir to an English earldom and is whisked away to the English countryside where he begins a campaign to win over his bad-tempered old grandfather.

A Little Princess is a Cinderella-type tale of Sara Crewe, an exceptionally intelligent and imaginative student at Miss Minchin's Select Seminary for Young Ladies, who is devastated when her adored, indulgent father dies. Now penniless and banished to a room in the attic, Sara is demeaned, abused, and forced to work as a servant. How this resourceful girl sets about reversing her fortunes is the great appeal of this book. 

The Secret Garden concerns Mary Lennox, a sickly, selfish and spoilt ten year old who is sent to stay with her hunchback uncle in Yorkshire. She remains troublesome and discontented with her lot until she finds the way into a secret garden and begins to tend it. This brings a remarkable change to her life and character. 

Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in Cheetham, Manchester. After her father died in 1852, the family fell on straitened circumstances and in 1865 the family emigrated to America, settling in Tennessee. It was here that Burnett began her writing career. In 1868 she managed to place a story with Godey’s Lady’s Book and within a few years she was being published regularly in Godey’s, Peterson’s Ladies’ Magazine, Scribner’s Monthly, and Harper’s. In 1872 Frances married Swan Burnett, a doctor. The Burnetts lived for two years in Paris, where their two sons were born, before returning to the United States to live in Washington, D.C. Burnett then began to write novels, the first being, That Lass o' Lowrie’s, (1877) which received good reviews. This book combined a remarkable gift for realistic detail in portraying scenes of working-class life—unusual in that day—with a plot consisting of the most romantic and improbable of turns. Little Lord Fauntleroy appeared in 1886 to great acclaim, although her romantic adult novels written in the 1890s were also very popular. It was during this time that she wrote and helped produce stage versions of Little Lord Fauntleroy and A Little Princess.

Burnett enjoyed socialising and lived a lavish lifestyle. Beginning in the 1880s, she began to travel to England frequently and in the 1890s bought a home there. This was Maytham Hall in Kent where Burnett kept extensive gardens, including an impressive rose garden. She wrote The Secret Garden while at the Maytham and it is often cited as the inspiration for the setting of the novel.

Her oldest son, Lionel, died of tuberculosis in 1890, which caused a relapse of the depression she had struggled with for much of her life. She divorced Swan Burnett in 1898 and married Stephen Townsend, a man ten years her junior, in 1900. Burnett’s biographer Gretchen Gerzina said of the marriage, ‘it was the biggest mistake of her life.’ They were divorced two years later.

Once again Burnett turned to writing to increase her income and in 1905 she reworked her play A Little Princess into a novel. In 1907, she returned permanently to the United States, having become a citizen in 1905, and she built a home on Long Island outside New York City. Her son Vivian was employed in the publishing business and at his request she agreed to be editor for Children’s Magazine. Over the next few years she wrote a number of short stories for this periodical. In 1911 The Secret Garden was published. In the years following Burnett continued to write novels, the last one being published in 1922. She died on Long Island in 1924 and is buried in Roslyn Cemetery. In 1936 a memorial sculpture by Bessie Potter Vonnoh was erected in her honour in Central Park’s Conservatory Garden. The statue depicts her two famous Secret Garden characters, Mary and Dickon.

 David Stuart Davies


Author image