hrj: (doll)

We finally come to a close in this re-read. The final chapter provides a perfect conclusion to the overall plot shape. After the very intense conflicts and resolutions in the previous chapter, we have a chance to breathe and relax and enjoy the continuing “magical” delights of Sara’s return to “princess” status. But the structure of the moral accounts includes one more balance item.

The return of Sara’s fortune, her return to a luxurious lifestyle, and the restoration of a benevolent father-figure can be seen as zeroing out all the trials and traumas she’s been through. But for her to continue to “deserve” her good fortune, under this model, she should continue to put good deeds out into the world (alternately: she should continue to have misfortunes, but that would be a different story). And Sara is no longer simply being an inherently kind and thoughtful person. She’s had experience of how sharply an undeserved misfortune can affect someone’s life, and how much it can mean to reach out and actively help people, even at a cost to one’s self. That cost no longer need be personal hardship. But Sara thinks back to the “dreadful day” and how much it meant to the beggar girl to have a sack full of hot buns literally dropped in her lap.

So Sara conceives of an ongoing charitable endeavor to help hungry children in a very direct way—a way that would have meant a great deal to her at the time (though it’s an open question whether she would have felt comfortable accepting it). She wants to arrange for the bakery owner to feed any hungry children that hang around her shop at Sara’s expense.

I confess that one of my first thoughts is for unintended consequences. Occasionally handing out bread to hungry children is an admirable thing, but what happens when word gets out that if you’re hungry you should go to this specific bakery for free bread? How will the regular customers (who may have rather unenlightened views on ragged children) react to the new clientele? Would the arrangement eventually result in the bakery shifting from being an independent self-supporting business to being a fully-subsidized bread line? How would its proprietor feel about that? Would she find the same satisfaction if she moved from independent businesswoman to being Sara's de facto employee? (I'm a writer. I can't help spinning off possible plot-threads and consequences.) But these questions are in that awkwardly practical realm that the story side-steps, as well as lying in a hypothetical future that it doesn't cover.

Sara—escorted by Mr. Carrisford—presents her proposed arrangement to the bakery owner, who recognizes her from their last encounter and rejoices in Sara’s good fortune. She mentions that she was aware of Sara giving away her buns to the beggar and how it inspired her to do her own bit of charity as she was able since then. But the frosting on the cake is the proof of how good deeds inspire continued good deeds and personal transformations. The bakery owner reveals that her conversation with the beggar girl led to sporadic exchanges of chores for food and eventually to regular employment. The girl, now christened Anne, has become a productive, upstanding member of the workforce thanks to the hand up. (As there has been no mention of the bakery owner having immediate family involved in the business, I’m free to visualize Anne eventually becoming almost an adopted daughter and taking over the business. Once more my writer-brain is spinning future scenarios out of control.)

* * *

In conclusion, what is my overall take on the book? Have I achieved my purpose in this re-read? My goal, as I attempted to describe it from the beginning, was to explain why I find this story a soothing comfort-read, despite the rather dated moral lessons, the regular cringe-inducing stereotyping along a wide variety of axes, and occasional gaping plot holes. It isn’t that I actually believe in the truth of “moral accounting”. Worthy people living virtuous lives get shat on by fate all the time and arrant villains achieve fame and fortune. (*cough* Trump *cough*) The value I see in such old-fashioned (to use one of Burnett’s favorite descriptors) moral structures is not in a belief that they reflect reality, but in the recognition that—like Sara’s example to those around her—they can inspire us to be our better selves. Just as Sara never really believes she is a princess, and just as her image of what it means to be a princess is a collection of unrealistic ideals that have little to do with the historic individuals she spins tales about, Sara's fictional example is a model--an unworldly idea--whose purpose is not to reflect reality but to create it. She inspires us to act as if our virtuous actions will be rewarded by fate, even when we know there’s no cause and effect.

Because the one part of Sara’s moral arc that is true, is that one person’s example can inspire (or shame) others to behave similarly. And seeing Sara as a flawed, struggling, three-dimensional human being (which isn’t necessarily typical for moralistic literature) who still holds to kind, virtuous, generous action, even when she has no expectation of it bringing her a return, is a timeless inspiration to my mind. One that overcomes the limitations of her creator’s vision and understanding.

Do you have a book that stuck with you over long years because it hit a similar chord with you? One that speaks to some essential inner truth that transcends simple entertainment?

hrj: (doll)

In the second half of Chapter 18, we finally have the satisfaction of seeing Miss Minchin receive her just desserts, though it's a very self-inflicted and forgiving comeuppance. Miss Minchin, having heard from one of the housemaids that Sara had gone into Mr. Carrisford's house, comes in high dudgeon to fetch her back, only to find her worst nightmare has come true: Sara has turned out to be a "princess" after all, with a wealthy benefactor who knows the whole sad story of Sara's degradation. We see Miss Minchin's worldviews come crashing into each other. She tries to lay claim to being Sara's friend--after all, she didn't throw her out on the street when she could have!--and attempts to slip back into the role of flattering wealth and power. But Sara is having none of it, and Carrisford has no reason to follow any lead but Sara's. (Though this is, perhaps, less believable in the real world, where adults often reflexively support each other against the testimony of children.) When Sara holds fast to her own truth, Miss Minchin tries to turn and bite, threatening Sara with the loss of access to her friends and telling Carrisford that his new ward is "neither truthful nor grateful." It's a last stab and falls short.

And now we see Miss Minchin's edifice of control tumble down. Just as she failed to maintain her chosen narrative against Sara, she now fails to maintain control over her household. Miss Amelia challenges her version of the truth and makes it clear that she won't subordinate her conscience to her sister's lead in the future. The pupils are in an uncomtrolled uproard, knowing only that something is up, until Sara resolves their confusion in the form of a letter to Ermengarde, explaining the whole matter. There is an intimation that Sara's sudden good fortune will rub off on Ermengarde, not only via access to Sara's fabulous new/restored life of privilege, but by conveying status as Sara's friend that will fortify Ermengarde in her relations with the other girls.

Now we get to the episode where the possible realities of the story seem utterly unfair to me. And where analysis by Moral Accounting indicates that the fact of being born into a life of hard labor and uncertainty is not treated as a "credit" (and therefore inherently worthy of being balanced by reward) in the same way that being born to a life of wealth and privilege is treated as a "debt" (and therefore a state that requires balance by going through trials.)

Becky realizes that Sara's escape and the restoration of her "princess" status means the loss of her own access to Sara's friendship and the pretend worlds that had made her own life worth enduring--as well as the loss of the magical transformed attic. For nobody would continue mysteriously providing food and heat and comfort for an ordinary scullery maid. And--to a certain extent--Becky's fears are correct. Recall that Becky was only given second-hand inclusion in The Magic, and only because Sara automatically included her in every part of the good fortune. If it had been left entirely to Mr. Carrisford, no doubt Becky would have been forgotten. But Sara didn't forget her. Sara sends Ram Dass across the attic roof one last time to give Becky reassurance. Becky is to come join her at Mr. Carrisford's her personal maid.

Somehow it seems a betrayal. Sara could have continued to see Becky as "just another little girl like me". They had shared all their sorrows and small comforts for two years. Sara had made sure that Becky was included in every piece of fortune she received, whether it was sharing Ermengarde's food hamper or enjoying the gifts of her mysterious benefactor. But now, when Sara has the wealth and power and freedom to do pretty much anything she wants, the most she can find to offer Becky is a slightly higher position in service? It wouldn't occur to Becky to question the arrangement. She always knew that their apparent equality was an illusion. Sara never stopped being "miss" to her. But it seems an unexpected failure of Sara's imagination not to suggest adopting Becky as a sister and an equal, now that she has the power to do so.

To be sure, it might not be the kindest thing to do in the long run. It's unlikely that Becky would ever be comfortable being elevated to such a status. When I brought up this issue at the begining of this series, some commenters pointed out that raising a working class girl up to the middle class would have been a much less possible thing than a middle class girl falling nito poverty. But I wish Sara had thought to try, because it makes me think less of her.

Next week I'll look at the somewhat different fate of Anne, and how she demonstrates the lasting effects of Sara's example. And I'll do some sort of sum-up of why I've done this series. It's been an interesting project.

hrj: (doll)

Once Sara encounters the Indian Gentleman in person, everyone’s truth starts coming out fairly quickly, only drawn out by Carrisford’s stumbling reluctance to ask directly, lest he be disappointed once again. Sara refers to Ram Dass as a Lascar, leading to the revelation that she was born in India. Now, this on its own means little--no doubt all sorts of Anglo-Indian girls were sent to school in London. As Sara’s position at the school is teased out, Carrisford becomes more and more agitated and hands the questioning over to Carmichael. But Carmichael, too, seems strangely reluctant to simply ask her name outright. So we’re led through the circumstances of Captain Crewe’s ruin and death and Sara--not suspecting anything--lays the blame squarely on her father’s friend. This knife-twist releases the last of the debt between them. Now Carmichael asks her name and all is revealed.

Sara is stunned and bewildered to think that her salvation had been right next door all this time. (We’ll continue right on in to Chapter 18 now, since it’s all part of the same scene.)  When Sara is sent out of the room to join the Carmichael children while Carrisford recovers, Donald is the one who point out this irony: “If I’d just asked what your name was when I gave you my sixpence, you would have told me it was Sara Crewe, and then you would have been found in a minute.” But like Dorothy and the ruby slippers, if the connection had been made at the beginning, there would have been no opportunity for all the spiritual growth along the way. And it is Carrisford's (in his mind) displaced charity toward "the little girl who is not a beggar" that creates his own redemption--a redemption that wouldn't have occurred if he had simply tracked Sara down at the beginning of his search. (Though--standing outside the narrative framework of Moral Accounting--it's a bit abhorrent to think that two years of suffering on both their parts is a fair trade for a neat redemptive arc.)

Mrs. Carmichael comes over to take charge of Sara and mother her (which must have felt peculiar to Sara, given that she had never been mothered in her life). And she is the one who makes the other connection for Sara: that Mr. Carrisford is Sara’s benevolent friend who transformed her attic. This allows Sara to forgive him everything else and they can begin their new relationship as guardian and ward with a relatively clean slate. All that remains, is for accounts to be settled with Miss Minchin and the school...

As I’ve indicated above, I think that from the Moral Accounting point of view, this scene completes both Sara and Carrisford’s moral arcs. Sara is rewarded for her virtue, and Carrisford has atoned for his sin. What they do moving forward is written in a new account book.

hrj: (doll)

Is it too much of a coincidence that Mr. Carmichael comes back from Moscow the very day that Sara needs to return the monkey to Mr. Carrisford? Perhaps, perhaps. Chapter 17 opens in expectation of this event, with three of the Carmichael children paying a friendly visit to the Indian Gentleman to cheer him up, such that they will also be conveniently at hand when their father (and later Sara) arrives. The scene has the feel of a carefully orchestrated stage setting, and so perhaps it is.

We are told a brief summary of why the trip has been so drawn out...which it must have been, for as we recall, it was the very night that he left on the journey that Sara's attic was first magically transformed. So Carmichael's trip needs to have been long enough for Sara and Becky to become accustomed to their good fortune, and to show the effects of being well-fed and happy. We also get a lovely little character sketch of Donald Carmichael (the boy who gave Sara his Christmas sixpence) as a boisterous and imaginative child, and a more mixed sketch of Janet Carmichael as too-soon becoming a little responsible mother figure. It's Janet's task to do emotional work for Mr. Carrisford, reassuring him that it wasn't his fault about losing Captain Crewe's money. (I have some odd flights of fancy about Janet's later life, but this isn't the place for them.)

In the midst of the conversation about the hunt for Captain Crewe's lost daughter, the storylines begin to cross. The Carmichael children explain that they call the lost girl "the little un-fairy princess", imagining what her life will be like when she discovers that she's a fabulous heiress. For them, she is a princess not because of behaving like one (Sara's basis for her princess identity) but because of these external trappings. And out of nowhere, Donald brings up the "little-girl-who-is-not-a-beggar" (i.e., the real Sara, whom they've been observing) and how she has nice new clothes and maybe she has been found by someone after being lost, just like the un-fairy princess will be. And of course, she has, it's only that none of them quite know it yet.

Carmichael, after traveling all the way back from Moscow, fulfills dramatic story requirements by coming directly to Carrisford's house to make his report (rather than going home to freshen up first), though perhaps this is only kind of him to avoid drawing out the suspense. The fact that there is no little girl accompanying him tells its own story. The Carmichael children are shooed away and Carmichael reports that the girl in Moscow--though having superficial similarities--is not Captain Crewe's daughter and they must begin the search anew.

And here's where I'm willing to forgive certain coincidences that only shorten, rather than entirely enabling, the resolution. For Carmichael suggests that rather than searching schools in Paris, on the assumption that Sara was sent there due to her mother's origins, they should try schools in London, because her father was British after all. And Carrisford immediately thinks of the school next door, casually mentioning the poor child there that he's taken an interest in, but simultaneoulsy rejecting the notion that the "dark, forlorn creature" could possibly be the daughter of his bright, golden, happy friend Crewe. Of course, the moment Carmichael would approach Miss Minchin and ask after the possibility that she knew anything of an orphan girl named Crewe, the mystery would be solved. So I'm happy enough that it's at this very moment that Sara knocks on the door to return the monkey, and that Ram Dass comes in to suggest that Carrisford might want to meet her in person to thank her--knowing, of course, that she's the object of their magical charity (and knowing that she doesn't know it).

It doesn't take any special literary analysis skills to know that All WIll Be Revealed in the following scene. But the revelation is multi-layered and delicious, so I'll save it for it's own entry.

Oh, but one more thing. Since this series is my expiation for loving ALP despite its problematic aspects, I must note that we're treated to one more bucket of icy-cold Orientalism when Carrisford notes that having planned The Magic together, it was only possible with "the help of an agile, soft-footed Oriental like Ram Dass" because it's necessary to evoke the sterotype of a "magical" Indian servant who can move without being heard and act without being seen. The wording turns this from Carrisford acknowledging the assistance of someone more mobile than he is (in his convalescence) to turning Ram Dass into something of a supernatural figure.

hrj: (doll)

I have this image, in the weeks following the transformation of Sara’s attic, of Sara’s life splitting into a dual image: the magical, comfortable, secret life she shares with Becky “after hours”, and the continuance of the ostensibly miserable, down-trodden life she lives “downstairs”. The physical conditions of her labor remain identical, but it’s as if her spirit now floats above it all, knowing that a magical world is waiting for her, close at hand.

And people notice her floating spirit. Miss Amelia is moved to remark on how she no longer looks like she’s starving, drawing a rebuke from her domineering sister. This foreshadows Amelia’s more extreme challenge to Miss Minchin later, though it must be said that Amelia’s sympathy for Sara never rises to the level of action. Miss Minchin herself sees Sara’s new lighter spirit as an intensification of her “defiance”, though it no longer stems from a deliberate choice to rise above her circumstances, but simply spills over.

The Magician (as the unknown benefactor is called), having crammed the attic room to overflowing with little luxuries, ornaments, and accessories, turns his hand to the more practical question of clothing. (One can’t exactly say that the initial focus on food and heat was “impratical”, but certainly a lot of the continuing additions are more to feed the sould than the body.) This finally breaks the secret open, to some extent, because while food and heat and books can be consumed in secret, the new dress and shoes and warm coat and whatnot could hardly be concealed from the school management even if they hadn’t been delivered to the front door addressed to “the little girl in the righthand attic.”

Miss Minchin is nothing if not practical. Instantaneously, at this tangible sign that there is someone out there in the world know cares about Sara’s welfare, she returns Sara to the status of full human being, dismissing her chores and instructing her to return to the classroom as a student. (Though not moving her out of the attic!)

And for Sara, this more practical, tangible gift spurs her to go beyond simply accepting the Magic and to communicate back to the Magician to express her thanks. After all, someone must come and go in the attic to bring new things and take away the used dishes. So she leaves a letter to be found by that mysterious agent. And--in one of those almost-too-convenient twists that keeps the suspense of her identity for the Grand Reveal--she signs it with her assigned identity, “The Little Girl in the Attic.”

Whether anything would have come from this communication on its own, we can only speculate. Because before any answer might come in response, she is once more visited by the Indian Gentleman’s monkey, escaped over the roof late at night. Too late to be returned at once, so she makes the monkey comfortable for the night and resolves to return it the next day. The day when, purely coincidentally, Mr. Carmichael will happen to return from his vain quest in Moscow...

My primary blog has moved, but feel free to comment in either place.

hrj: (doll)

Chapter 16 is all about…well, let’s call it “comfort porn”. It’s the reflection of Sara’s “pretends” about warm clothes and hot food and a comfortable life. Only now it’s real. Both Sara and Becky have their practical moments. At first Becky eats quickly for fear the food might melt away like fairy gold. And they both have moments when they reassure themselves that even if The Magic had been a one-off experience—if it was just for that night and then disappeared forever—it was still a miracle to treasure. Becky carefully inventories the experiences of the night to save them away against that possibility.

Sara hits on one essential component: “whoever it is—wherever they are—I have a friend, Becky—someone is my friend.” Someone outside the school—and someone with the power to make magical things happen—knows that she exists and cares for her happiness. That’s a big emotional lifeline.

The comfort-porn is leavened with interludes focusing on what other residents of the school perceive, even though they don’t have a share in the secret. We see something of a break beginning between head Mean Girl Lavinia and her BFF Jessie, when Lavinia brags about how she was the one who ratted on the girls and got them in trouble. Jessie shows that she is redeemable when she realizes the practical consequences if Sara is turned out into the street, and understands that deprivation of food is not a trivial punishment if you’re already hungry, and—more importantly—openly defies and contradicts Lavinia on these points.

Miss Minchin is once again infuriated when Sara fails to follow the prescribed script and, rather than being downtrodden and penitent, shows up the next morning cheerful and happy. Miss Minchin, of course, thinks she’s just pretending—being defiant and impertinent as usual. But for once, Sara doesn’t have to rely on her internal monologues to brace her up. She really is warm and well-fed and rested. But she’s also wiser.

Now that she has a concrete secret to keep (not just daydreams) she understands that even Ermengarde and Lottie represent a danger to it. As I noted in my discussion of timelines and character ages, at this point Lottie should be about nine years old. Even adjusting for Sara’s hyper-maturity when she arrived at age seven, it’s startling to hear Lottie still described as, “such a baby she didn’t know she was telling [secrets].” But this circles back to my observation that the other girls are fairly static stock characters. Ermengarde shows a little development in maturity and assertiveness, and I could make a good argument that Miss Minchin has a character development arc, although not a positive one, but Lottie is still the emotionally explosive, immature “baby” that she began. And she can’t be trusted to keep Sara’s secret about The Magic.

We follow Sara through the day, sparking reactions and speculations due to her failure to be miserable, until it’s time for her to return to the attic and discover whether The Magic was “only…lent to me for just that one awful night.” If it was, she has determined to be content with that. But it wasn’t…

My primary blog has moved, but feel free to comment in either place.

hrj: (doll)

The second part of chapter 15 might be thought of as the whiplash point. Lavinia, the head Mean Girl, has told tales on Ermengarde and sent Miss Minchin in an unprecedented second trip up to the attic to catch the girls in the midst of their pretend princess banquet. The extremity of MIss Minchin's anger can only really be understood as sparked by the disruption Sara brings to the proper order of things. Viewed from a distance, why should it matter that Ermengarde chose to share her food "care package" with Sara and Becky? Why should it matter that she shares her books? Why should it matter that Sara rearranges bits of rubbish that have been left in her room into a make-believe feast hall?

To be sure, there are Rules about students not leaving their bedrooms at night, no doubt. But that alone can't explain the magnitude of Miss Minchin's response, or why it is directed primarily at Sara and Becky. The only thing that explains it is the fracturing of class boundaries implicit in the fraternization (sororization?) and the evidence of Sara's continued defiance of her "proper place"--a place that doesn't include having dreams and fantasies. Peak outrage is generated by Sara's insistence on the equivalence of her position and Ermengarde's. When Miss Minchin scolds Ermengarde, "What would your papa  say if he knew where you are tonight?" (i.e., in the attic with servant girls), Sara, in one of her quiet reproachful comebacks, asks Miss Minchin what her papa would say if he knew where she is tonight.

All are punished: Ermengarde confined to bed the next day and reported to her father, Sara sentenced to another day with no food, and Becky told (although falsely, as it turns out) that she will be thrown out in the street the next day. And Sara is left to contemplate the broken fragments of her "pretend" before falling into an exhausted (and still hungry) sleep, repeating (and foreshadowing) her fantasy about the attic containing a warm fire and comfortable bed and a hot, filling supper.

This is where the previous chapter comes into play, in which Ram Dass and the secretary discussed their plans. Because we can jump past the mechanics of how the attic is transformed and have Sara wake to the results of that transformation. It takes some time for Sara to assure herself of the reality of the gift, if only because it matches her fantasies so closely and so elaborately that it seems unbelievable that it could exist anywhere but in her own head.

I would quibble about the plot convenience of Mr. Carrisford identifying his gift anonymously as "from a friend" except that this is perhaps the most believable aspect of the whole non-communication of identities foundation of the plot. Carrisford wants to be the magical anonymous benefactor. It's more fun that way.

And--true to Sara's nature--once she has convinced herself of the concrete reality of the gift, her immediate response is to wake Becky and share it with her. And, as we shall see from the next visit of The Magic, Mr. Carrisford is belatedly shamed (though perhaps that's too strong a word) into explicitly including Becky in the bounty by providing her with her own dishes and transfering Sara's now unneeded bedding to Becky's room to supplement Becky's own. But this only emphasizes that The Magic isn't about simple charity, it's specifically about rewarding Sara for being a person worthy of charity. But we have gotten ahead of ourselves into the next chapter.

hrj: (doll)

In chapter 15, Sara (and the reader) enters an emotional roller-coaster of an evening. Fresh from the episode of the fourpence, the hot buns, and the beggar girl, she arrives back at the school only to become the target of secondhand rage. The cook has been berated by Miss Minchin--as we later learn, deservedly so for feeding Miss Minchin’s special dinner to her gentleman friend and then blaming the disappearance on Becky. Shit, as they say, rolls downhill.

We regularly see the question of whether one returns evil for evil or good for evil. When Cook gets crap, she’s the sort to turn around and dump it on someone else: Becky, Sara, anyone who can’t fight back. But that doesn’t mean that every time Sara returns good (or at least good behavior) for evil, that it’s out of pure virtue. Sara can be somewhat agressive in her obedience and passivity. Her internal monologue about how she only puts up with crap "because she’s a princess and that’s what princesses do and wouldn't they all be terrified if they realized she was really a princess and could have them all beheaded" can’t exactly be characterized as meek obedience.

But tonight we see a different view. Having been scolded and refused dinner out of pique, her impulse on finding that Ermengarde has visited her in the attic is to do her utmost to protect her friend from any knowledge of the bad parts of her life. And that, in the face of Ermengarde’s offhand disinterest in things Sara is starving for--both the intellectual nourishment of the gift of books that Ermengarde considers a burden, and the physical nourishment of the “care package” of food that Ermengarde had completely forgotten about.

It isn’t until the two girls eavesdrop on Becky being scolded and slapped up the stairs (due to Cook’s accusation), and Sara explodes in indignation about how hungry Becky always is and yet she’d never steal food, that it finally occurs to Ermengarde that Sara’s thinness is due to actual starvation. Unlike Sara, whose first tangible gifts to Becky are food, Ermengarde hasn’t the imagination to realize Sara might be actually hungry--nor even the reflexive impulse to share her box of food with her best friend, hungry or no.

But Sara, on being offered a share, immediately reqeusts that the invitation be extended to include Becky and then gives back in equal measure by turning what could have been a furtive snack into a dramatic historical pageant.  Both imagination and a few props made from rubbish turn the attic into a castle banquet hall. [*] It occurs to me that one of the reasons for framing the feast as "banquet for a visiting princess" is to remove it from the realm of pure charity. Pretending a castle banquet hall moves the act of nourishment into the realm of make-believe. It allows Sara to give back in equal measure for what she receives. That act simultaneously allows Sara to reject the role of starving beggar (a role we've seen her reject previously in turning the Carmichael boy's sixpence into an amulet rather than spending it on food) and to remove some of Ermengarde's awkwardness in her belated understanding of Sara's situation.

The roller-coaster, having dipped low, now rides high. But the deepest plunge is just about to come...

[*] Periodically, I take note of what might seem trivial implausibilities, such as the question of exactly where Captain Crewe’s fortune came from. One such implausibility is the brief fire that Sara lights in the attic grate to provide the illusion of heat and light. If--as we are told--there has been no fire in that grate for a very long time, the likelihood is low that lighting some trash in it would result in a cheery blaze rather than billowing smoke. Even assuming that the text simply omits the step where Sara opens the damper on the flue (because if there isn’t one, then the attic would be utterly freezing in cold weather), unused chimneys of that era were notorious for collecting birds’ nests and other blockages. You just don’t light a big heap of paper and rubbish in a long disused fireplace and expect success.

hrj: (doll)

While A Little Princess uses a very omniscient voice, it's also the case that the majority of the novel works through Sara's point of view and her experiences. So it's a bit of a break with the flow for Chapter 14 (What Melchisedec Heard and Saw) to stand entirely apart from her. It occurs to me, though, that in a way, Melchisedec the rat is standing in for Sara's connection to the events.

For the most part, we can view the anthropomorphism of Melchisedec as part of Sara's fanciful invention. (We can also allow of a bit of authorial ignorance regarding the social biology of rats, in positing Melchisedec as the head of a cozy nuclear family, with Mrs. Melchisedec waiting at home with the children.) The title of the chapter is not the only prompt we are given that the rat is to be interpreted as our window into these events. We view the intrusion of Ram Dass and of Mr. Carrisford's secretary into Sara's attic through the rat's eyes and reactions, even as the authorial voice assures us that, "Melchisedec did not know [who they were]." And it is implied that we are made privy to their discussions there through Melchisedec's perceptions, despite acknowledgement of the rat's deficiencies as a witness. "How much he understood of the talk he heard I am not in the least able to say; but, even if he had understood it all, he would probably have remained greatly mystified."

This leaves us with a somewhat curious mystery as to why Melchisedec has been set up as our witness at all. (And that's aside from the question of whether a proper English rat would have been expected to understand a word of Hindi which--as discussed in the consideration of Ram Dass's linguistic competencies--must be assumed to be the language in which he and the secretary are conversing.)

Digression: I'm always fascinated by such narrative structures for explaining or excusing how the content of a story is transmitted to the reader. During the Worldcon panel on Shelly and Austen, I came up with a shorthand for this fascination: the fiction of a story as truth versus the truth of a story as fiction. That is, has the author created structures to create the illusion that the events of the story actually happened in real life and in real space (somewhere) and that the knowledge of those events has been conveyed via a documented "chain of evidence" such as first-hand accounts, letters, diaries, etc.? Or is the structure of the story such that the author and reader begin with an understanding that the events are entirely fictional invention, and that therefore there is no need to explain how the author became familiar with them? For example the "fiction of truth" approach, when applied to secondary worlds, requires a traveler's tale such as we see in the opening of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels. The topic came up in the panel discussion in the context of the framing narrative for Frankenstein. In contrast, the "truth of fiction" approach is the default today, where no explanation or excuse is considered necessary for relating stories with no chain of transmission from the characters to the reader.

In this context, the use of Melchisedec as part of the "chain of narrative transmission" is both nonsensical and unnecessary, given that other scenes external to Sara's direct experience have been related directly and given that there is no fiction that the rat in any way conveys the knowledge of these events to another party. And yet there's clearly a sense that he is standing in for the reader's access to the events of this chapter in some fashion. But I digress...

The purpose of this chapter is for Ram Dass and the secretary to discuss the state of Sara's attic, the plans and mechanisms for how to transform it into her imagined vision of the cozy and comfortable space it could become, and a discussion of the practical logistics of how this will be accomplished in secret while she is sleeping. One thing I like about this chapter is that it shows how Ram Dass has become personally emotionally attached to Sara and how the transformation began as his idea, suggested and elaborated by him to Mr. Carrisford. I like this not only because it gives Ram Dass significant agency in the outcome of the story, but because it suggests a personal motivation beyond the superficial suggestion of a reflexive desire to serve the little girl who "has the bearing of a child who is of the blood of kings". On the occasion when Sara first meets Ram Dass, she considers that he--like she herself--might be feeling lonely and homesick in this land far from their common origins. And this chapter provides confirmation that this evaluation was correct ("I am fond of this child; we are both lonely.") and that Ram Dass's affection is based in part on this sense of connection.

From a more practical point of view, our eavesdropping on Ram Dass and the secretary turns what would otherwise have been a mystery (and still is, to Sara) to a conspiracy between the reader and Sara's benefactors. It also softens the reader's empathetic misery in the following chapter when Sara experiences a roller-coaster of emotions, because we know about The Magic that's about to appear in her life.

My primary blog has moved, but feel free to comment in either place.

hrj: (doll)

I think that Chapter 13 "One of the Populace" is my favorite part of A Little Princess. You know that tv commercial a couple years back--I think maybe it was for an insurance company but I could be wildly wrong--showing a long chain of people doing random kindnesses for a stranger in passing, which was witnessed by a third party who was then inspired to do a random kindness for a stranger in passing, which was witnessed...and so forth? Chapter 13 it a bit of that, showing how an act of selfless charity can touch and chance the hearts of others unknown.

The chapter begins with a contemplation of the power of imagining, when Sara and Becky are commiserating after a hard day and, instead of telling stories reframing their lives as The Prisoners in the Bastille, Sara paints an idyllic story of the life the Indian Gentleman's monkey led before being captured and brought to England. When Sara asserts, "What you have to do with your mind, when your body is miserable, is to make it think of something else," Becky question whether that's really possible. In a very human moment, Sara admits, "Sometimes I can and sometimes I can't." Then she talks about the power of her princess persona. This segues into "one of the strongest tests she was ever put to" which forms the rest of the chapter.

We are shown the depths of Sara's most dreadful day, when the weather conspires against her, and Miss Minchin has refused her food as a punishment for some unstated transgression, and she's trying desperately to imagine herself into warm clothing and the most luxurious meal she can imagine: six penny-buns hot from the oven at the bake shop, which she would buy the a sixpence she imagines herself finding. And then...she finds a coin. (We learn later that she still has the sixpence that the Carmichael boy gave her for charity. But I have suggested that to actually spend it on such basic necessities would make it charity, and not the keepsake of a friend that she chooses to consider it.) The coin isn't even the meagre fortune she has imagined, but only fourpence. But there it is, right in front of a bakery, with hot buns just been put into the window display. Surely it is A Sign.

And then she sees the second Sign: a barefoot, rag-clad, freezing, starving beggar girl sitting on the steps of the bakery. Sara speaks to her and is struck to the heart at how much worse off the girl is than she herself, and her Princess Nature kicks in. If she is truly a princess, then it is her duty to give largesse to her people, even at great cost to herself. So she decides to share her small fortune with the girl.

This is the exact point at which the balance begins to assert itself. The owner of the bakery, impressed by Sara's honesty at first asking if anyone has lost the coin she found, and noting Sara's hungry look, impulsively gives her sixpence worth of buns for four. Sara, instead of splitting the six buns evenly, gives five of them to the beggar girl and keeps only one for herself. And when the bakery owner notices this--though not in time to speak to Sara again before she leaves--she is touched and a little shamed to think that a girl who was herself cold and hungry could give so much when she had barely noticed the presence of a starving child literally on her doorstep. So she invites the beggar girl inside to warm herself and tells her to come back any time she'd hungry. As we will learn much later, this is the first step toward a deeper relationship where she takes the beggar girl on as an apprentice and gives her a home. To be sure, it's only one beggar out of no doubt many on the streets. But it will turn that one person's life entirely around.

Though Sara doesn't know it yet, everything is looking up from here on. But there are diversions to endure first. Sara will undergo one more crushing disappointment before The Magic comes. And in echo of that, she passes Mr. Carmichael leaving his house on the trip to Moscow in a vain quest to locate Captain Crewe's lost daughter.

My primary blog has moved, but feel free to comment in either place.

hrj: (doll)
Since I currently have to manually duplicate my blog content here on LJ, I'm going to save a bit of sanity and just post pointers to my blog.

Tuesday's Teaser for Mother of Souls

Wednesday's A Little Princess re-read discussion
hrj: (doll)

When one has re-read this story as many times as I have, it’s easy to forget that at the beginning of Chapter 12 (The Other Side of the Wall) we haven’t yet learned just who the Indian Gentleman is and why it’s relevant that he will take an interest in Sara. This chapter is something of a deep breath and a regrouping. We get a series of vignettes revealing what an array of characters are thinking about each other--though in some cases without knowing that’s who they’re thinking of.

Sara has become attached to the Indian Gentleman in that way she has of feeling empathy for anyone with problems, though the only problem he seems to have is poor health and perhaps depression. She begins attributing stories to him, especially when she hears the gossip that he’d had misfortunes involving diamond mines. The similarity to Captain Crewe’s misfortunes is quite enough to attract her sympathy, and this sympathy will serve her in good stead when she eventually learns that the Indian Gentleman is the “wicked friend with the diamond mines” whose brush with ruin may have precipitated her father’s death. We might wonder that the coincidence doesn't strike Sara as curious and suspicious--she makes no direct connection in her mind with her father's friend. But let's not forget that Sara is, after all, a little girl, for whom the idea of diamond minds is an icon rather than a concrete reality. It's a source of romantic notions of fabulous wealth, and the question of just how many fabulous diamond mines there might be in India, and how many of them might have had disastrous financial problems, is not much to the point. The connection between Mr. Carrisford an her father is purely conceptual at this point, not something to be questioned as a practical matter.

And so Sara is free to sympathize with, rather than to resent, Mr. Carrisford. Resentment will be a brief blip in a later chapter between the moment when Sara learns that he is the "wicked friend" and when she learns that he's also "the magician". All that is yet to come, but it serves to set up a parallel narrative in this chapter, first with Sara imagining herself serving as “Little Missus” to Mr. Carrisford (the Indian Gentleman) just as she had for her father, and then with Carrisford recalling how Crewe had called his daughter “Little Missus”.

But before we get to the second part of that echo, we are introduced to the real people behind Sara’s imaginings of the “Large Family” (the Carmichaels), and their interactions with Mr. Carrisford. The Carmichael children evidently have a habit of visiting next door to cheer up their father's client, and to enjoy his curios and stories from India. This will make it plausible for them to be present in his house at the emotional climax later. It’s also in this context that we learn that Ram Dass speaks only Hindi, and that both he and the Carmichael children have been telling Mr. Carrisford about their encounters with, and observations of Sara. Except, of course, that none of them know her by name. She is “the little girl who is not a beggar”, identified by the contrast between her circumstances and her behavior.

Just as Sara has made a connection in her imagination between her father and Mr. Carrisford, Carrisford imagines a connection between the-little-girl-who-is-not-a-beggar and the little girl he is searching for. He wonders if the object of his quest could possibly have ended up in such abject circumstances. It’s interesting that Carmichael--who is portrayed as a kind, jolly, loving, fatherly man--discourages this line of empathy, pointing out that there are plenty of poor servant girls in the world and one can’t make all their lives better. I’m suddenly struck by a Christ allegory embedded here. “For I hungered and you gave me meat. ... Lord, when did we feed thee? ... Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it to me.” The story literalizes this: Carrisford believes he is offering charity to a random stranger for Sara Crewe’s sake, then eventually comes to know that it was Sara herself who benefitted. Carrisford as a "redeemed sinner" archetype hadn't occurred to me before--certainly Sara as a Christ figure hadn't occurred to me before! I may need to think about that more and see if there are other relevant bits.

Carrisford and Carmichael have been trying to trace Sara's whereabouts, hindered by the fact that Carrisford has somehow gotten the impression that she'd been sent to school in Paris because of her mother's French origins. This will cause them to follow a red herring all the way to Moscow (or rather, Carmichael will follow it). This quest is how Carrisford earns his eventual success: by undergoing the pain of failures. In the conversation about the Moscow trip, we see another one of those peculiar digs at pragmatic businesswomen.

Madame Pascal, head of a girls’ school in Paris, had a pupil who was orphaned when her father--an English officer named Crewe or Carew--died in India. The girl was then adopted by the Russian parents of her best friend at the school, who had died. But Carrisford and Carmichael seem to take it as a personal affront that Madame Pascal can’t provide further details of the adoptive parents. And Carmichael notes, “She was a shrewd, worldly Frenchwoman, and was evidently only too glad to get the child so comfortably off her hands when the father’s death left her totally unprovided for. Women of her type do not trouble themselves about the futures of children who might prove burdens.” Evidently Madame Pascal is to be understood as a duplicate of Miss Minchin, rather than as someone who facilitated an adoption that addressed the sorrows of both parties in a positive way. Of course, we aren’t privy to Carmichael’s discussions with Madame Pascal, but there’s that word “worldly” again--one we hear again and again applied to Miss Minchin. It makes me suspicious, that’s all. Wealthy people have the luxury of not being "worldly". The headmistresses of girls' schools need to be worldly to survive.

But before we gloss over it, it’s when Carmichael notes that the girl’s surname was Carew or Crewe that we are first given to understand that it’s Sara they’re talking about. Carrisford immediately confirms this by confirming the details of Sara’s history and berating himself for failing his old friend and the friend’s daughter, ending with the observation that he never learned the details of that daughter’s present situation, not even her actual name. Just the nickname she’d been given: Little Missus. And so the chapter closes, with Carrisford agonizing over his so-far fruitless search for Crewe's "Little Missus" and Sara thinking sorrowfully on the long-lost days when she was that very "Little Missus".

I may, at some point, digress on the topic of how this book fits into Victorian images of girls as "wives in training". From a modern point of view (and I try hard to suppress reading this through a modern point of view) there are some borderline-squicky echoes in how Sara is set up to imagine herself as Captain Crewe's "junior wife". (E.g., visualizing herself as returning to India to function as his hostess, in addition to the whole "little missus" thing.) Some of my own "what happens after" imaginings have asked the question of exactly what Sara's relationship to Carrisford will eventually be. Guardian, yes, but it feels like the door is left open for it to turn into something other than paternal. And the main reason that there are no direct hints in that possible direction is the complete absence in the book of any projection of any of the girls into adulthood. No question of what they will be doing when they leave school. No speculations on eventual love and marriage. It's very refreshing, to be honest. But it means that there are some big blind spots.

My primary blog has moved, but feel free to comment in either place.

hrj: (doll)

Today’s discussion springs off of the later part of Chapter 11 (Ram Dass) but ranges backward and forward to examine Sara’s concept of what it means to be a princess. After the encounter with Ram Dass, and being reminded of what it was like to be treated as someone rich and privileged, Sara contemplates her current expectations and makes a resolution. “If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.”

But what does that essence of princess-hood mean to her? It wouldn’t be easy to extract from the next passage, where she imagines the final days of Marie Antoinette in prison and  sees her as an inspiring figure of strength, dignity, and nobility. I don’t know—maybe Marie Antoinette did become a tower of strength and dignity at the end, but she seems a very odd sort of role model, especially given the behaviors Sara invests with royal meaning.  But conversely, having chosen Marie Antoinette as her icon of royal behavior, the imagery of revolution and the Bastille and all the rest provides a framework for turning the school garret and Sara’s menial duties into a Story.

It is in the behaviors that Sara performs when she is “being a princess” that we truly see her touchstones.

A princess is polite to everyone, high or low, no matter how rude or harsh other people are to her. When she was riding high, Sara always said please and thank you to the school servants. When she was riding low, she continued to do so, even when they were rude to her and mocked her.

A princess performs her duties without external complaint, even when those duties have been thrust on her without her consent. And even when she is seething inside. When Princess Sara took on the role of mothering Lottie, she didn’t always enjoy it, but she carried through. Now that her duties involving cleaning and running errands in all weather and following whatever orders the other servants give her, Sara takes pride in performing everything asked of her as best she can.

And “pride” is a good word for it. Not just the pride that one assigns to the downtrodden who have nothing left but pride, but a privately smug, self-satisfied pride. This is one of the things that humanizes Sara consistently: she is not inherently and reflexively “good”, she works hard to perform goodness no matter what she feels. We see this in Sara’s silent internal dialogue directed at Miss Minchin, “You don’t know that you are saying these things to a princess, and that if I chose I could wave my hand and order you to execution. I only spare you because I am a princess, and you are a poor, stupid, unkind, vulgar old thing, and don’t know any better.”

It’s clear that Miss Minchin accurately senses that hidden pride and smugness. There’s a point later in the book when Miss Minchin describes it as “defiance” and the authorial voice contradicts this, saying it was nothing like defiance. But I disagree: Sara is defiant. And we applaud her for being so. She uses her politeness and calm demeanor as a sword and shield to maintain her integrity in the face of circumstance.

A princess is generous; she grants largesse. When Sara was rich, she expressed her generosity through tangible gifts, such as the food she sneaks to Becky., but also through the generosity of spirit that led her to tutor Ermengarde, and to invite the younger students to play with her dolls, and to share her stories with anyone who wanted to listen. Now that Sara has so little to give of tangible benefit, she comes to understand the nobility in giving until it hurts, simply because you can. Because you have the ability to give and the insight to know another’s need. We will see this later on “the dreadful day” when Sara’s lucky fortune in finding a coin to buy bread turns into a challenge to her Princess Nature when she is faced with a starving beggar.

And with Sara’s rededication to this model of princess-hood, understood through a new lens, she is ready to enter the next phase: earning her reward.

hrj: (doll)

My primary blog has moved, but feel free to comment in either place.

OK, let's just plunge into this.

It is, I suppose, a testament to Burnett's talent that the character of Ram Dass as an interesting, sympathetic, inventive, witty, and accomplished human being shines through from under the layers of Orientalism, condescention, and an oblivious racism that is shared by both the author and the viewpoint character. As the barest of backgrounds: Sara is up in the attic, taking a brief opportunity to view a gorgeous sunset through her garret window, when Ram Dass appears in the corresponding window of the house next door, holding a pet monkey. They acknowledge each other wordlessly, and then the monkey escapes and makes for Sara's open window, precipitating a closer encounter. Sara invites the man to climb over to her attic to catch the monkey. (I suppose we should imagine this to be a set of connected row houses, based on this scene and later ones.) He does so, gets a good look at her living conditions, thanks her, and leaves again.

A great deal of emphasis is placed on Ram Dass's subservient manner and his verbal performace of respect and gratitude. "He poured forth a flood of respectful thanks. ... [he] thanked Sara profoundly ... as if he were speaking to the little daughter of a rajah ... those moments were given to further deep and grateful obeisance." But his manner is not simply presented as a performance. And it never seems to occur to Sara that it is a performance, as opposed to a spontaneous expression of inner nature. When Sara reflects that, in her old life in India, she was "surrounded by people who all treated her as Ram Dass had treated her; who salaamed when she went by, whose foreheads almost touched the ground when she spoke to them, who were her servants and her slaves," she finds irony that she, who had been set so high is now insulted and mistreated by the other servants of the school. But it never seems to occur to her to map her experience onto those "servants and slaves" and recognize their equal personhood.

Well, no, why would it? This is a story about Sara's inherent nobility, not about her being a class revolutionary. And so she accepts the respect of Ram Dass as her due--as a reminder of a now-lost world. And that reminder inspires her to re-dedicate herself to being a princess, in behavior if not in station. I want to come back to Sara's peculiar notion of what it is to be a princess, but this entry is about Ram Dass.

It would be more comfortable if we were able to to read Ram Dass's behavior purely as a performace of servitude, necessary for comfortable survival in his situation of employment. But the authorial voice of Burnett disrupts this possibility by assigning elements of this performance as essential characteristic. When Sara greets him in Hindi, "The truth was that the poor fellow felt as if his gods had intervened, and the kind little voice came from heaven itself." (Note that if we are reading Ram Dass correctly as a Sikh, then "his gods" is wildly inaccurate, as Sikhism is monotheistic. So it's quite likely that despite the cultural trappings of the Sikh religion, the author is presenting him as relgiously Hindu. Or we can just chalk this up to an error from ignorance.)

There continues to be an interesting conflict between interpreting offensive stereotypes as authorial truth and as meta-performance. Ram Dass inhabits the trope of the "Ethnic Magician", but in a way that is explicitly fictional. That is, he is never ascribed actual supernatual power, but rather he is assigned--and takes up--the role of magician in being the driving engine (and most likely the mastermind) behind the "magical" transformation of Sara's attic, later in the story. Jumping ahead, we are repeatedly told of his ability to move soundlessly and invisibly, to observe without being obeserved. And in his discussions with Mr. Carrisford, the image of the magician is repeatedly invoked: "When she awakens [to the transformed attic] she will think a magician has been here." Mr. Carrisford's secretary tells him, "It will be like a story from the Arabian Nights. Only an Oriental could have planned it. It does not belong to London fogs."

In addition to tropes of supernatural Orientalist fantasy, Ram Dass is occasionally infantilized--he does not simply enjoy things, he experiences "a childlike pleasure" or is "filled with rapture" (a description he shares with Becky). On one element under this general umbrella, I will acquit Burnett. When Ram Dass describes how he would sneak across the roof at night to spy on Sara in her bedroom, the lack of any whiff of a sexual element is not a specific desexualization of Ram Dass but a blanket desexualization of the story entirely.

It is not enough simply to say that the book is a product of it's times, or that Burnett is actually quite enlightened in how she presents Ram Dass for her day and age. One of the reasons I have labeled this series as a "problematic favorite" is that I recognize that the presentation of his character is offensive and riddled with stereotypes, and that this presentation goes unchallenged even by the nominally enlighted protagonist. Despite the positive character traits that shine through it all, I squirm every time I read or listen to these passages. (In the same way I squirm every time Georgette Heyer's The Grand Sophy gets to the Jewish moneylender chapter. Though it isn't nearly as bad as that one.)

Next week, I'll tackle Sara's rather startling choice of Marie Antoinette as a role model.

hrj: (doll)

My primary blog has moved, but feel free to comment in either place.

Before I dig into the chapter in which Sara meets Ram Dass, I'd like to talk a bit about one curious inconsistency regarding him.

I presume that the character of Ram Dass in A Little Princess was named after one of the significant early figures in the development of the Sikh religion in the 16th century, Guru Ram Dass. I have no idea whether it is a typical Sikh practice to name children after significant founding figures. It's interesting that the book never identifies him as a Sikh specifically, but rather as a "lascar", which is neither an ethnic nor religious label, but more in the line of a job description. Per Wikipedia, the term lascar applied originally to sailors from India or south-east Asia generally who took service on European ships. But it also came to be used to indicate an Indian servant, especially those employed by British military officers. It is in this latter sense that Ram Dass is identified as a lascar, although the nautical sense is used early in the book as well. Ram Dass is desribed as wearing a turban, which is strongly consistent with identifying him as a Sikh. We may easily presume that he entered Mr. Carrisford's employ in India at some time well previous to the disaster around the diamond mines, and traveled with him to England.

One of the first things we learn about Ram Dass is that he speaks Hindi. (WIkipedia indicates that the primary language associated with the Sikh community is Punjabi, but that Hindi is also spoken.) In fact, later in the book, in the context of his interactions with the Carmichael children, it is noted, "[Ram Dass] could have told any number of stories [about India] if he had been able to speak anything but Hindustani." And when Sara first meets him and speaks to him in Hindi, "[Sara] thought she had never seen more surprise and delight than the dark face expressed when she spoke in the familiar tongue."

So. In that case, when Ram Dass is describing his interaction with Sara to Mr. Carrisford, how does it never come up that the little girl who lives in the attic next door speaks Hindi? Now, it's possible that Ram Dass never mentions this point, and that he describes Sara's circumstances without ever mentioning that they'd had a conversation. But the subject is touched on again when Ram Dass and Mr. Carrisford's secretary are surveying Sara's attic in preparation for redecorating it as a surprise. Ram Dass mentions that he spies on Sara sometimes at night and has heard her describe to her friends her "pretends" about how the attic could be made over into something more comfortable. Presumably Sara wan't speaking Hindi to the other girls!

We can squeak through on plausibility if we make two allowances. First: that Ram Dass--as most multilingual people--has a passive linguistic competency that's larger than his speaking competency. So it's plausible that he could follow what Sara was describing in English but that he wasn't comfortable telling stories in English to the Carmichael children. Secondly: we may presume that Mr. Carrisford's secretary is fluent in Hindi and this is the language in which they are discussing the redecoration of the attic.

But that still leaves us with the puzzle that Ram Dass knows that his employer is searching for a little girl who was born and raised in India, and he knows that the little girl in the attic next door speaks Hindi, and he never thinks to mention this matter. It is, of course, an essential plot element. But this goes beyond Donald Carmichael's observation that if he'd just asked Sara's name when he gave her his Christmas sixpence, then he could have told Mr. Carrisford exactly where Sara Crewe was, the first time Carrisford mentioned who he was searching for. After all, one doesn't typically ask the names of beggar girls. But conversely, running into a servant girl in London who speaks fluent Hindi would seem to be a matter worth mentioning.

Of course, the other option is that I'm looking for logical consistency in an idiot-plot motif.

* * *

Obviously, my usual weekly schedule got hijacked yesterday in favor of the Storybundle announcement. For the next three weeks, you're going to get regular reminders about the Historic Fantasy StoryBundle that Daughter of Mystery is included in. I'll be running some guest-posts on that topic periodically. If you want a sampler of a variety of great stories by fabulous authors (and especially if you like your history a bit on the queer side), check it out!

hrj: (doll)

(A reminder that I'm running an e-book give-away this week on the version of my blog for Through the Hourglass, a (now) Goldie-winning anthology of lesbian historical romance, that includes my story "Where My Heart Goes". Comment over there to be entered.)

* * *

If the first half of chapter 10 shows Sara recovering her ability to turn her life into a story, the second half reminds the reader why she needs to do so. Despite the passing interaction she has with her few friends, and the way she tames the sparrows and rats, she is deeply lonely. The doll, Emily, who even in brighter times represented a connection with her absent father, now becomes the focus of her concealed rage and frustration. The outbursts that she is too controlled to reveal even to her closest friends, are displayed to Emily. And it is to Emily that she voices her understanding that her “pretends” are only make-believe, and that her life is awful, and that she sees no hopeful future out of the relentless present.

When Lottie visited the attic room, Sara shared her fantasies about a family moving in to the house next door to the school, and someone inhabiting the facing attic window, even if it were only another servant girl. And then—in the most strained coincidence of the story (though I’m quite willing to allow every story at least one strained coincidence)—someone does.  And not just any someone, but someone who brings a reminder of her childhood in India, in his furniture and decorations, and in particular in his Indian manservant. (But more on that in the next chapter.)

We are, in fact, about to plunge into a morass of missed connections and conveniently overlooked clues. But the one thing that I don’t see as conveniently overlooked is Sara’s failure to put meaning in Mr. Carrisford’s (the Indian Gentleman’s) origins. Surely wealthy men returning from India with such souvenirs of their time there were not uncommon. There is no reason for Sara to attach any meaning to that fact than a general sense of nostalgia.

Becky continues to cement my fondness for her in being openheartedly curious about the possibility that the Indian Gentleman will turn out to be a person of color, bringing a family with interesting foreign ways. To be sure, when she speculates on them being “heathens”, she feels this is a characteristic that would need to be corrected by evangelism.  Both of their fantasies about the new inhabitants are disappointed: Becky’s when he turns out to be an ordinary English gentleman, and Sara’s when he turns out to be a single man with seemingly no potential for intriguing new attic-neighbors. But Sara’s sympathies are immediately engaged—as they so often are—when it turns out the man is an invalid, recovering from some serious unknown illness.

And part of both their fantasies come true in the person of Ram Dass, who is the titular focus of the next chapter. And with that, we will enter into some of the most uncomfortable characterization of the story.

hrj: (doll)

In Chapter 10 (The Indian Gentleman) we see that Sara is regaining her balance in the way that she starts inventing “pretends” about the world around her once more. First, it was turning her garret into the Bastille. Now she watches the other people in the neighborhood of Miss Minchin’s school and starts telling herself romantic stories about them.

In particular, she begins inventing fanciful romantic names for the members of one rather large family (known sometimes as The Large Family). One might imagine that she feels envious of the eight children who--in addition to living in comfortable circumstances--are obviously loved. But there doesn’t seem to be anything of envy in her thoughts, only an appreciation of how happy they are.

What Sara hasn’t accounted for is that even as she’s telling stories about The Large Family, they’re telling stories to themselves about her. In particular, the little boy she calls Guy Clarence tells himself a story about how Sara is a poor, hungry beggar-girl for whom the gift of his Christmas sixpence will represent a fortune sufficient to turn her life around. This is a mortifying shock to Sara. Intellectually, she knew that strangers were reacting to her much differently than they had before her fall. But she had never been forced to confront the fact so blatantly.

Once again, a turning point in her life hangs on her willingness to put other people’s needs ahead of her own. Because rather than simply refusing the gift, she gives Guy Clarence the gift of accepting it. That action (along with her upper-class speech mannerisms) makes Sara memorable to the whole Large Family clan. While this fact isn’t completely essential to her later fate, it will certainly smooth her way.

One of the repeating themes that I find both utterly believable and discomfiting is how Sara’s polite and confident demeanor communicates to others that she doesn’t really belong to the working-class life she’s been thrust into.  Believable: because the reflexes and behaviors you’ve been trained into by your upbringing are impossible to shed entirely. The best you might manage is to learn to act out a different role convincingly. I know that I have reflexes and behaviors that derive from spending my entire life with the sure and certain knowledge that I don’t have to worry about my next meal, or where I’m sleeping, or whether my medical needs will be met, or what to do if an unexpected expense comes out of nowhere. (That “sure and certain knowledge” could become wrong overnight if the right conjunction of circumstances happened. But I retain those reflexes because it’s never been wrong yet.) But at the same time, this theme is discomfiting because it’s presented with a flavor of essentialism. That is, one gets the impression that Sara has these reflexes not as learned behavior due to her environment, but because she simply is, deep down and through and through, a genteel person, in the same way as she has gray-green eyes. Her behavior doesn’t simply signal that she has known a better life than she now leads, it signals that she deserves a better life because she is a better person than someone who didn’t have her history.

And one of those reflexes? Sara turns the sixpence into something of a lucky charm, making a hole in it and wearing it as a pendant. She is never tempted to spend it, even when she fantasizes about finding money in the street to buy bread with. Because if she spent it--and especially if she spent it on bread--then she would be the beggar-girl she’d been taken for.

Although we begin to see glimpses of the old Sara returning, there are still dark days. And that’s what the next installment will cover.

hrj: (doll)

My primary blog has moved, but feel free to comment in either place.

The deadline for getting Mother of Souls off to the publisher made a hash of my usual blogging schedule this week. So to get back on track, we get Sara Crewe on Saturday rather than Wednesday.

Chapter 9 (Melchisedec) is all about how Sara’s compulsive empathy and drive to do things for other people (and creatures) turns her attitude around. Lottie (who I’ve noted before seems frozen in a state of emotional immaturity and neediness) asks Sara a lot of tactless questions about her new status, trapping her between the desire to be kind and the desire not to get into trouble with Miss Minchin. Lottie--incapable of taking a hint--persues Sara up to her attic room and is on the verge of making a scene out of her own unhappiness at what she finds, that would largely fall on Sara’s head.

Sara distracts her by trying to find all the positive things that can be said about her garret, including showing Lottie the little skylight where she can look at the sky and watch the sparrows. This is a key foreshadowing for the importance of the skylight as a portal to a magical world. For now, her dreams are limited to the possibility that another little girl might someday live in the attic opposite and they could become friends.

Lottie is encouraged to feed the sparrows with a bit of bun she has in her pocket (a return of the “largesse” theme) and Sara seems to have entirely forgotten Becky’s warning about being careful about crumbs due to the rats. That is, she forgets until Lottie has left and she is sitting quietly thinking about the contrasts in her life, and a rat comes right out into the middle of the room to examine them.


Once again, Sara’s reflex to empathize with everything around her takes over. The rat is given a name and a personality (and an implausibly anthropomorphic family life) and becomes part of the fantasy framing Sara is creating to pad the sharp corners of her new life.  This new “pretend” -- the Prisoners in the Bastille -- is explained to Ermengarde when she, too, sneaks up to the attic. And in that scene, we can see that Sara’s sprits have significantly recovered. She is telling stories, and making new friends, and supporting her existing friends, and drawing all of them together into a world of imagination. And by that, we know she is ready for the next step in her adventure.

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My primary blog has moved, but feel free to comment in either place.

Sorry about missing posting this yesterday. (Well, technically I missed writing it.) It's be a hectic week at work, and I haven't quite gotten into the rhythm of the new posting process yet. So you're getting the Princess Re-Read in place of a Random Thursday.

The second part of Chapter 8 (In The Attic) briefly touches on Becky's very practical support for Sara, which consists of giving her advice on how to behave in her new position (by the tactful means of explaining what her own behavior means: "Someone would be down on us if I did [say please and thank you]." Becky takes a few moments each day to help Sara dress and undress. It's an interesting echo of Mary Lennox's experience in The Secret Garden. Both Sara and Mary are accustomed to being assisted in dressing by servants. But while Sara's transition to doing for herself is eased by Becky's eagerness to play lady's maid, Mary is ridiculed for expecting someone else to help dress her.

Mind you, Mary is very much in need of some shock therapy to get her rebellious spirit working in productive ways. But I find the parallels between the two characters fascinating. Both come from financially priviledged British colonial families in India. Both lose their parents abruptly. (And although Mary didn't lose her mother at birth, in an emotional sense, she might as well have.) While both girls might be considered dreadfully spoiled, Sara has emerged with a happy and helpful disposition, while Mary is self-centered, rude, and exploitive of anyone she has power over. If we are to identify a cause of this, it would be that Sara was loved and knew she was loved, while Mary knew herself to be not only unloved, but essentially forgotten.

But we were talking about Sara. The majority of the rest of the chapter involves Sara's rapprochement with Ermengarde. Somewhat conveniently for the plot flow, Ermengade was temporarily taken out of the picture for family reasons just after the tragic birthday party. So by the time they see each other again, Sara has settled into her new life of service, and has gotten used to the expectation that she will no longer interact with the students as an equal. Her diffidence sends Ermengarde into awkward confusion when they next meet and Sara shows one of her few flashes of mean-spiritedness: she snaps at her friend's rather tactless question and drives her away. One expects that there's a bit of pre-rejection going on, so that Sara doesn't have to deal with Ermengarde snubbing her.

But Sara's friendship is so important to Ermengarde that she risks another rejection by going up to Sara's attic room to plead for forgiveness. It never, in any of her dealings with Sara, occurs to Ermengarde that her demands for continued friendship put Sara at a great deal of risk. Their relationship continues much as before, with Ermengarde gaining emotional and academic support, but now Sara does get something in return: she has one continuing relationship with someone who treats her as a social equal. (Becky doesn't treat her as an equal--Becky always and ever treats Sara as her superior.)

And Ermengarde gives Sara one more thing: she re-awakens Sara's imagination, transforming the garret into a cell in the Bastile or the Count of Monte Cristo's dungeon in the Chateau d'If. These transformations (and others) will enable Sara to manipulate her relationship with her environment and to re-negotiate her relations with the Minchin sisters, at least in her own mind.
hrj: (doll)
I suspect that the structure of Chapter 8 (In the Attic) is affected by the expansion of the original story. (This is one of those places where I'm curious to look at the original shorter version.) The first half is something of a brisk summary of at least the first several months (maybe longer) of Sara's new life. But then the chapter returns to the morning after Sara first moves to the attic and begins a more detailed look at her new relationships. I'll cover the first part in this blog.

I feel that the first several paragraphs capture the trauma of Sara's sudden transition vividly: the physical discomfort, the emotional distress, the sense of being removed from herself and looking for something to hang on to, even if only the painful truth, "My papa is dead!" We get some foreshadowing of Melchizidec in the scampering noises she hears in the night. And then, the next day, it's as if her life as a student has been erased. Her belongings have disappeared from her old suite of rooms. Lavinia has reclaimed the position of honor closest to Miss Minchin. And Sara is assigned a task that actually suits her abilities perfectly: a sort of teaching assistant to watch over and coach the youngest students.

But beyond that, she is turned into something of a maid-of-all-work: cleaning, and shopping, and running errands, and anything else that the rest of the staff can dump on her. Anyone who has experienced a sudden change of occupation, and especially when the new one involves physical labor, can easily imagine how time would blur together as Sara simply tried to make it through each day. And yet she made time to continue studying on her own and she connects education with class very directly. If she doesn't hold on to the things she has learned, she fears that she will "be like poor Becky" and lose her upper class speech mannerisms.

Behavior is one of the few things Sara has control over. She now wears plain, shabby clothing that she is always outgrowing and that becomes an object of ridicule. And there is now an enormous social distance between her and the other students, even when she is interacting with them. Those interactions become more constrained when Sara is told to take her meals with the other servants. (For all of Miss Minchin's instruction that Sara's transition is to be immediate and complete, there does seem to be a more gradual withdrawal in some areas.)

In combination with Sara's decision to set the best, most hardworking example that she can, she survives emotionally through her role-playing. At first, she sees herself as a soldier like her papa. "Soldiers don't complain. I will pretend this is part of a war." It will be some time before she returns to the role of princess.


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