4 Classic Books by Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Secret Garden & More

Frances Hodgson Burnett

Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849 –  1924) was a British-American novelist and playwright. She wrote more than fifty books and thirteen plays, many for adult audiences.

While most of these have been forgotten, we’ll be looking at the four children’s books by Frances Hodgson Burnett that have remained timeless classics.

Born in Cheetham, England, Burnett emigrated to the U.S. with her mother and siblings when she was in her teens, settling in rural Tennessee. By age nineteen, Burnett had started publishing stories in magazines to help support her family.

Over the course of her decades-long writing career, Burnett lived the classic rags-to-riches story that was so popular in fiction. She experienced great love and greater loss, but through it all, writing sustained and comforted her.

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The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden was published in 1911 after an original version was first serialized in The American Magazine in 1910. The story follows the journey of Mary Lennox, a sickly and unloved ten-year-old girl born to wealthy British parents in India.

After a cholera epidemic kills her parents, Mary is sent to England to live with her Uncle Archibald in an isolated, mysterious house. The tale follows the spoiled and sulky young girl as she slowly sheds her sour demeanor after discovering a secret, locked garden on the grounds of her uncle’s manor.

Mary befriends Dickon, one of the servant’s brother, a free spirit who could communicate with animals. She also meets Colin, her uncle’s son, who was both neglected indulged and was made to believe himself an invalid.

During Burnett’s prolific career, The Secret Garden was a mere footnote among her other works. It wasn’t until after her death in 1924 that the book gained in popularity, marketed as a children’s book.

Several adaptations of the book have been filmed, including a Japanese anime version and a 40-episode YouTube series titled The Misselthwaite Archives, coined after Misselthwaite Manor, the name of the estate Mary moves to in England. 

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A Little Princess

A Little Princess

Published as a novel in 1905, A Little Princess was inspired by Burnett’s 1888 serialized novella Sara Crewe: or, What Happened at Miss Minchin’s. In 1902, Burnett composed a play inspired by the Sara Crewe story, called The Little Un-fairy Princess. Her publisher then asked her to expand the story into a novel with “the things and people that had been left out before.”

The novel was published in 1905 with the full title A Little Princess: Being the Whole Story of Sara Crewe Now Being Told for the First Time. The story begins with young Sara and her father, Captain Ralph Crewe, arriving in London after living abroad in India.

Coming from a world of wealth, Captain Crewe sends Sara to boarding school, believing it will be the best education and route for his daughter. The wealth of her family causes the headmaster of the school, Miss Minchin, to become tainted by jealousy and feign kindness towards Sara, which the young girl sees right through.

Much the opposite of the main character in The Secret Garden, despite her rich upbringing and spoils, Sara is brave, kind, and intelligent, and soon her classmates begin to referring to her as a princess.

After receiving devastating news of her father’s death, Sara is left with nothing — which Miss Minchin cruelly uses to her advantage, locking the young girl away in the attic to work off her tuition and debts.

Throughout her ordeals she holds her head high, and remains kind and charitable to those even less fortunate than herself, and knows that whatever her outward circumstances, she is always a princess inside. More about A Little Princess.

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Little Lord Fauntleroy

Little Lord Fauntleroy

Little Lord Fauntleroy was the first story that put Burnett on the literary map, first published as a serialization in 1885, then as a book in 1886. The story is of a young boy, Cedric Errol, living in poverty in New York City with his widowed mother.

One day they receive a visitor with a message that reveals to Cedric and his mother that he is the heir to the Earl of Dorincourt, making him Lord Fauntleroy. The mother and son move to England to embrace their newfound fortune, but soon discover Cedric’s grandfather, the old Earl, is a bitter old man with a lingering distrust towards all.

The story follows the patient, kind boy, and his ability to transform his grouchy old grandfather, which benefits not only the castle but the entire region of the earldom.

The costume worn by Lord Fauntleroy inspired a fad of formal dress wear for middle-class American children. The classic “Fauntleroy suit” was a velvet jacket and matching knee pants, worn with a fancy blouse with a ruffled collar.

The character of Cedric is said to be inspired by Burnett’s youngest son, Vivian, and the clothing illustrated in the book inspired by the costumes she tailored for both her sons.

In 1888, Burnett discovered a plagiarized version of her novel had been turned into a play, and successfully sued. She then wrote her own theatrical version of Little Lord Fauntleroy, which opened May 14, 1888 in London, and soon restaged in France, Boston, and New York City.  More about Little Lord Fauntleroy.

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The Lost Prince

The Lost Prince

Published in 1915, The Lost Prince is the story of a young boy named Marco Loristan and his father, Stefan. Stefan, a Samavian patriot, is working to overthrow the unfavorable dictatorship in the kingdom. In exile from Samavia, father and son move to London, where Marco strikes up a unique friendship with a street urchin named The Rat.

The two boys imagine fighting for their home country of Samavia and concoct a plan to restore The Lost Prince, a mythical figure who is the rightful heir to rule Samavia. The two embark on a secret mission to travel across Europe to deliver a message to a secret society that “The Lamp is Lighted,” a signal to those who have been stock-piling supplies.

Following a common theme among Burnett’s books, the novel is a classic children’s book highlighting the virtue of self-discipline, earned respect, and parental love and faith in a child’s ability.

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A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Frances Hodgson Burnett page on Amazon*
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More about these books by Frances Hodgson Burnett

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4 classic books by Frances Hodgson Burnett

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