little Bantam Classic Book with a blue cover with Sir John Millais's painting 'Nina' on the front. This is, of course, a 1987 reprint. The book was originally published in 1905 and like many of the other works by its author, most notably 'The Secret Garden', became an immediate best-seller. It is still a very good read, although far from being perfect - there are many obvious and rather incredible discrepancies, like the ages of the characters; some grow older, while others apparently retain ever-lasting youth - and the over-sensitive PC crowd will also no doubt find much to take offense at. It is after all a tale of an Upper Class, Rich, India-born, English Girl, set in the Victorian times, and so, of course, some of the attitudes are accordingly dated. Some things, however, never go out of fashion - although there are some that might cynically scoff at them as sentimental - things like humanity, kindness, imagination, and fortitude in face of the most demanding trials and tribulations. And it is the generous sprinkling of these values - without any cloying sermonizing, I should add - in the well-written, sometimes dream-like prose that has made this book so well-beloved over so many generations.
Sara Crewe, the heroine, is seven at the start of the story and has just arrived in England, after a long voyage from India, to be admitted into a boarding school or, rather, 'Seminary for Young Ladies', run by a certain Miss Minchin. Sara is an imaginative, clever child, much wiser and self-reliant than her years, and is the only, much-indulged daughter of the widowed Ralph Crewe. He is an Army Captain, stationed in India, and is young, merry-spirited, and exceedingly rich. He and Sara have a very close relationship and are really not looking forward to be parted. But, as everyone knows, 'the climate of India was very bad for children' and it is customary 'as soon as possible' to bundle them off to the cold and damp of England. No matter how heart-breaking, it is just a thing done - as Sara tells her father, "Well, papa, if we're here, I suppose we must be resigned."
It doesn't look as if it is going to be easy to become 'resigned' to Miss Minchin and her Seminary though. Sara has a candid way of looking at things and what she sees is a harsh place run by a harsh, vulgar, and fawning woman. She does not like her at all. She spends the next few days until his departure with her father in his hotel and the two of them have a fine time spending a preposterous amount of money on quite preposterous things for Sara. A magnificent ward-robe of fur-trimmed velvet dresses, muffs, and so on that probably no seven year old would think of having in present times - and, given the peer-pressure thing, probably shouldn't want either - but most important of all is the acquisition of Emily. Emily is 'A doll I haven't got yet. She is a doll Papa is going to buy for me.' And she is important because 'She is going to be my friend when Papa is gone. I want her to talk to about him.' Emily, as we will see, more than fulfills her expectations.
At the Seminary Sara soon becomes the 'star pupil'. She has her own room, a French Maid, a Pony, and other things that the other pupils don't. So there is a lot of curiosity and resentment towards her. Fortunately Sara has a kindly, generous disposition - and a fine temper every now and then - and she soon settles in. She befriends the dull but good-hearted Ermengarde, takes the spoiled but lovable Lotte under her wing, and makes life brighter for the over-worked, under-fed little scullery maid, Becky. She also becomes popular with the other girls for her general helpfulness, her attractive character, and her talent for imaginative story-telling. And because she likes to pretend to be a Princess - "So that I can try and behave like one" - they all start calling her 'Princess Sara'. There is however no chance of any sympathetic bonding with the jealous Lavinia, the oldest student at the Seminary, and the greedy, snobbish Miss Munchin; Sara, however unintentionally, makes both of them feel inadequate and foolish, and there's nothing that antagonizes people more than the intimation of their own shortcomings.
The years pass and soon it is Sara's eleventh birthday. Her father sends her 'The Last Doll' and Miss Minchin arranges a party for all the girls. In the midst of the celebrations, Sara's father's lawyer appears with the bad news - Captain Crewe is dead of 'jungle fever' and moreover has lost his entire fortune in speculating in a friend's Diamond Mine Enterprise. The friend, having lost all the money, had apparently fled the scene and Captain Crewe, betrayed and crushed, had died worrying about his little girl. Miss Minchin at first cannot believe the awful news. Then, within minutes, she undergoes a remarkable change from fawning to furious - especially as the lawyer is quick to relieve his firm of any responsibility of the now orphaned and penniless Sara and furthermore points out that Miss Minchin can't very well turn her off into the street as she wants to, since this won't look too good in public view. Miss Minchin, in a rage, decides that she will keep Sara, but as a Scullery Maid cum Slave, and immediately sets about imparting Sara with the news of her changed circumstances. To her intense annoyance, Sara receives the news with a 'strange' composure. She does not break down and cry as other children might. She seems almost relieved that she is to work for her living from now onwards. She calmly accepts all her possessions being confiscated by Miss Minchin and having to leave her comfortable room for the rat-infested attic. What is a bit harder to take is the suddenly changed way in which people, taking the cue from Miss Minchin, now regard her - now that she is no longer rich, she is no longer worthy of any respect. Sara finds herself receiving more or less the same treatment as Becky - she is overworked, fed inadequately, sometimes even deprived of food altogether, and moreover is made the butt of cruel jibes and ill-treatment. She grows thinner and her clothes become shorter, tighter, and shabbier. She is no longer recognizable as the little girl whom everyone once called 'Princess Sara'. Her tormentors relish this change. However, there are some things they have not contended with - Sara's indomitable spirit and her rich imagination, and the steadfast loyalty of her three friends Becky, Ermengarde, and Lotte. These sustain her in her bleakest moments. As Becky tells her, "Whats'ever 'appens to you - whats'ever - you'd be a princess all the same - an' nothin' couldn't make you nothin' different."
In her attic, Sara also befriends the birds that hop on the roofs outside and a rat that scurries about her room. She derives comfort in talking to her doll Emily. She likes to look out over the roofs and wonders about the attic opposite her own. She observes and starts liking a family living in the Square and names them 'The Montmorencys'. The youngest son of this family, taking her for a beggar, gives her his Christmas sixpence. Sara is aghast to be taken for a beggar, but then she laughs and thanks him. The children, not expecting such a response from a beggar, become curious about her and start observing in turn 'The-little-girl-who-is-not-a-beggar'. They see her grow thinner and shabbier. One day, when she is especially starving, Sara finds a fourpenny outside the Baker's shop. As she goes inside to inquire if the money belongs to the Baker, she sees a little girl outside who is even worst off than herself. The money does not belong to the Bakerwoman, who, seeing Sara's poor appearance, is both puzzled and interested that she should try to return money she obviously needs. Being a kind-hearted person, she gives her six instead of four buns in exchange. And then she is amazed to see Sara leave and give five of these buns to the starving child outside. Touched by this incident, the woman fetches the child inside and later on takes her under her care.
Meanwhile, an 'Indian Gentleman' has moved into the next house and the attic opposite Sara's is now occupied by his Indian Servant Ram Dass. Given her Indian background, she becomes very interested in them and befriends Ram Dass. He, another kind-hearted soul, mentions her circumstances to his master Mr. Carrisford and they hatch a romantic plan to help the child. While she is asleep, they transform her attic into a comfortable, warm place and see to it that both she and Becky are well-fed hereafter. It is like a dream coming true for the two little girls and their flagging spirits revive. They stop feeling, as they have been pretending, like two prisoners in the Bastille. Miss Minchin can't understand what is going on. She becomes especially alarmed when packages of expensive clothes arrive 'For the little girl in the right-hand attic'. Perhaps they might be from an eccentric Uncle who has just discovered Sara whereabouts - and this relative is not likely to look kindly upon the way Miss Minchin has been treating his niece - and so, belatedly, she starts behaving better.