Monday, July 6, 2015

The Secret World of the Author of The Secret Garden and A Little Princess: Frances Eliza Hodgson Burnett

by Stephanie Cowell

If we are born across the sea from England, our first visions of it are often formed by the stories we read when young. And mine were absolutely created when I first read the pages of A Little Princess and The Secret Garden. Many years later, I love these novels utterly. I still read the part of A Little Princess with my little heart beating fast when the now impoverished Sara Crewe wakes up in her wretched cold attic room to find it magically decorated and dinner in covered dishes on a lovely cloth and fire in the hearth and a warm comforter protecting her from the damp English winter night. And when she is finally discovered to be a lost little heiress by the kind gentleman who lives next door, I feel an uprising of joy.

the edition I read at the age of 8
In fact I never walk of streets of London without hoping that somehow I will find that tall boarding school house on a foggy gaslit street and that garret window where Sara is waiting for me; I never go to the Yorkshire moors without searching from the car window for that huge lonely estate where the child Mary Lennox comes to live, and the walled locked garden whose key she finds and where she discovers her life.

When I first read the novels, I gave little thought if they had an author; it was as if the lives of Sara and Mary had passed through time from their English worlds to my rather lonely New York City childhood when only books seemed real. Their world was where my heart lay. But there was an author, of course, though my own children were grown before I bothered to research who she was and when she wrote.

Frances Eliza Hodgson Burnett was born in Lancashire, England in the city of Manchester in 1849 to a family in comfortable circumstances; her father died when she was young.  She was a story teller from an early age. In 1865, when she was sixteen, her now impoverished family emigrated to the United States, settling near Knoxville, Tennessee. She soon fell in love with a young man called Burnett who was lame, perhaps shades of the sick boy in The Secret Garden. And to earn money for her family, she began to write.  Frances married Burnett and they moved to Paris for a time where he became a doctor but the pressures of being a mother, running a house, and writing so much led her to exhaustion and depression.  Frances wrote and wrote and wrote; many of her adult books were best-sellers. She lived a very nice lifestyle (do note her dress and hair in the photograph!) and would do anything for her two sons. She once called herself “a pen driving machine.”

The elegant author!
In 1887 she traveled to England with her family and then to Florence where she wrote an early version of the novel that would become A Little Princess, then called Sara Crewe or What Happened at Miss Minchin's.  Tragically, three years later she would lose her older son. Several years following, Frances divorced her husband and married a younger English actor. She bought an English mansion whose walled garden inspired The Secret Garden. When she first found the garden it was utterly overgrown; she actually discovered it by a seeing a robin fly above the wall as Mary Lennox does and then found the door hidden among the ivy. Francis restored the garden and wrote there dressed in white. But the marriage failed.

In 1905 A Little Princess was published, after she had reworked the play into a novel. She returned to a home in Long Island to be near her surviving son and died some years later at the age of 74.

As a novelist myself, I like to look at why someone chooses the stories they do. Like Sara Crewe, Frances'  father died when she was young, leaving her in near poverty.  Like Mary Lennox, she found a secret garden which gave her great peace and made it a place of beauty.  Like both Sara and Mary, Francis Burnett had a tremendous inner resilience and strength; she had a will to endure under all circumstances.  She left England as an adolescent in poverty; she returned to buy a glorious mansion. Like the boy in her less famous novel Little Lord Fauntleroy, she found an upper class lifestyle. (Her sons when little were dressed like the little lord in velvet, lace, with long curled hair.)

You can buy what is listed as Frances’ Complete Works on Kindle for $1.99. I counted 37 novels quickly….and all written with pen and ink! Whew.

The beloved 1993 movie
But authors are not their books or perhaps they are: perhaps we put our deepest longing selves into what we write. Years ago when I bought a biography of Burnett (Waiting for the Party by Ann Thwaite), I was dismayed to read what a restless, driven, conflicted person she was. I guess I was looking for the peace that Mary and Sara find by their stories’ end. Yet whatever Frances Hodgson Burnett’s struggles, she gave us two of the most beloved books in English children's literature, And I like best to think of her dressed in white sitting in that restored English garden full of roses writing in peace.

So there, dear reader, we will leave the author of these beloved books behind her locked garden door until the sparrow flies down and shows us also where the key is hidden.


Stephanie Cowell is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of an American Book Award. Her next novel is on the love story of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning to be followed by the conclusion of the Nicholas trilogy and an Edwardian love story between two men in the English midlands. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Her website is e-mail:


  1. Fascinating post. Considering the classics she wrote, Burnett should be better known! Just one of those books would ensure lasting fame. I have also enjoyed her novels for adults , such as Haworth's. Perhaps the 2nd marriage was a mistake, but sometimes you have to throw the dice.

  2. This was a lovely post! I loved both those books. Like you, I never imagined the life of the author. But the characters felt so real to me. I've read A Little Princess many times as an adult, too, as well as seeing several made for TV movies. What a timeless story. How sad that her own life didn't resolve as well as the lives of her characters.

    On another note, I'm so looking forward to your boo on Barrett and Browning. Have a great day.

  3. I too have enjoyed reading this post. I loved those stories as a child growing up in Belfast. They endure.


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