Some thoughts on little princesses, then and now.
Not too long ago, I picked up a free copy of Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic A Little Princess. My copy is not this nice as this Lippincott printing, with its dust cover art of the Select Seminary girls on a walk; hailing from China, my Hallmark edition sports a pink velvet-covered boards, but excepting one cropped illustration on the cover, is without illustration. Having not read A Little Princess or Burnett's more famous The Secret Garden, of which I only recalled that a film version I'd seen as a boy was boring, and given the very girly cover, I was not sure what to expect. (Subsequently, I read The Secret Garden, and really enjoyed it too; while the progress of the Rajah certainly concerns nobility, that book's more interesting theme is the effect of climate on human flourishing).
Thankfully, the theme turned out to be my own favorite subject of meditation: What is nobility? Miss Sara Crewe immediately seemed to me something of a consort for Paul Dombey, Jr. The protagonist of what is now an old-fashioned children's novel, Miss Amelia is struck by her contemporary in the same way we are, remarking,
"I never saw such a funny, old-fashioned child, sister," (15).
Sara's self-image conforms to her perception by others. When her father plans to send her a doll for her birthday, she writes him,
"I am getting very old... you see, I shall never live to have another doll given me. This will be my last doll," (81).
Confusing her maturity with age, Sara's nature is keenly recognized by her father as timelessly noble.
"If Sara had been born a boy and lived a few centuries ago," her father used to say, "she would have gone about the country with her sword drawn, rescuing and defending everyone in distress. She always wants to fight when she sees people in trouble," (29).
Were A Little Princess written by a contemporary author, that passage may have been where the plot went askew. But, happily, Burnett's classic is not a gender-bender. Friend to the unpopular and comforter of the grieving, as well as a bright student, Sara meets challenges in good humor, and acts with a grace that is the envy of students of a more bourgeois mentality. As the narrator notes--"Nature having made her for a giver," (80)--Sara's nobility is inborn, and independent of her circumstances. As the conceited Jessie reports to her friend Lavinia, speaking of being a princess,
"She says it has nothing to do with what you look like, or what you have. It has only to do with what you think of, and what you do."
"I suppose she thinks she could be a princess if she was a beggar," said Lavinia. "Let us begin to call her Your Royal Highness," (71).
"Crown of Thorns", I wrote in the margin. Though Our Lord receives but little mention, Sara's trials resemble those of Jesus, affirming His Kingship, and maintaining His dignity unto the foot of the Cross. Whether confronting the headmistress Miss Minchin, or suffering the humiliations of a servant later in the novel, Sara's nobility persists. Her regality is revealed to be something interior, rather than mere impressive pomp for those around her.
While A Little Princess teaches nobility to be no reserve of crowned heads or titled peers, and Sara often wishes for her companions to emulate her for their own benefit, the tale may offend the doctrinaire democrat. Sara, the standard-bearer of nobility, is the daughter of Captain Crewe, a distinguished, wealthy military officer, so she cannot be called low born. And despite Sara's best wishes, she is the only girl who really ever attains to nobility. In the conversation quoted above, for instance Jessie notes that Sara encourages her friend Ermengarde to be a princess too, but the last thinks she's too fat, which is an indication that she has the wrong attitude anyway!
On that note, I contrast this lasting novel with a similarly entitled anime of recent vintage, that is, from this the early part of the subsequent century. Lilpri, which is indeed short for Little Princesses, ran for 51 episodes from April 2010 to March 2011, so 105 years after the 1905 release of Burnett's book, and probably with a slightly younger target demographic. This shojo anime is all right; I really enjoyed it. Thematically, some of the elements remain sound. Ringo Yukimori, Leila Takashiro, and Natsuki Sasahara, the three schoolgirls chosen to save Fairyland by spreading happiness across Japan, are of reasonably good character. Miss Sara Crewe, at least in her earlier days, always sported the most splendid dresses, and so it is quite legitimate that donning pretty attire is part of being a princess for Ringo, Leila, and Natsuki too. And, in a supreme act of creativity, the writers based the girls on Snow White, Cinderella, and Kaguya-hime. Ringo's father, for instance, runs an apple pie bakery, and she has seven identical twin little brothers (which is probably impossible) modeled after the seven dwarfs!
The princessly ideal, though, has by-and-large become "vulgar", as Burnett may have said with that word she uses to such effect. The Lilpri princesses are basically pop singer idols. The way they labor to save Fairyland is by collecting "Happiness Tones", invariably after transforming into the pop trio Lilpri, and helping out someone in distress, always sure to sing a song before episode's end. Their first hit also happens to the anime's first opening. The first line, Ringo's, goes,
"My favorite, apple pie! I don't want to get fat, but I can't resist!"
Charming, but how modern that the show's lead princess sings about the worries of weight gain. Given the lower standard, it is no surprise that they later sing
"Every dreaming little girl is a princess!"
Demagoguery is the rule of the day, and so Lilpri thoughtlessly parrots an egalitarian philosophy that leaves no one out, whether they are actually princessly or not. As far as bourgeois mores go, in the first episode one of the girls actually says princesses are "Like Barbie", that plastic paragon of the airheaded accessory woman. The admission is perhaps funnier still when one recalls that immortal 90s spoof song, "Barbie Girl", by Aqua; I've gotten to think it's actually a pretty intelligent, revealing song, in its own way.
Lilpri, unlike A Little Princess, features a prince, a boy idol named Wish. At the beginning I fully expected Wish, over whom all the girls fawn, to be revealed as a selfish sham, and not all that great. As much as I dislike deconstructions, I was rather more distressed when this never happened, and the myth remained throughout. There we have it. The dream, nay the Wish, of every modern little "princess" is to end up with their own pop "prince" consort. Sigh.