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Frances Hodgson Burnett

Frances Hodgson Burnett

English-born American author Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924) had a long and productive writing career, during which she penned 55 titles, 5 of which became best-sellers and 13 of which were adapted for the stage. Although remembered primarily for her children's books, such as Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess, and The Secret Garden, Burnett also wrote for adults, including the well-received novel That Lass o' Lowrie's.

Burnett was born Frances Eliza Hodgson in Manchester, England, on November 24, 1849, to Edwin and Eliza (Boond) Hodgson. She was the middle of five children. When her father died in 1865, his hardware wholesaling business collapsed, leaving the family with few financial resources. A short while later, Burnett immigrated with her siblings and her mother to rural Tennessee, where they lived with her mother's brother. Burnett was about 16 years old at the time. The only education she had received was in a dame school in England, but she had spent vast amounts of time reading and educating herself on her own. The family had little money, and Burnett's first attempt at earning an income involved running a private school, which was unsuccessful. She then decided to try to sell a story to a magazine. She had been reading stories in ladies' periodicals since she was seven years old and had learned the formula quite well. She was so good, in fact, that the editor of Godey's Lady's Book, the magazine to which she submitted the tale, questioned whether it was original. It did not seem likely that a young girl from Tennessee could write such a good story for a British women's magazine. Burnett wrote a second tale to prove her authenticity, and eventually both stories were accepted for publication. "Hearts and Diamonds" appeared in the summer of 1868, and "Miss Carruther's Engagement" was published the following year.

In 1870, Burnett and her family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, to a house called "Vagabondia." Soon after, Burnett's mother died. At age 20, Burnett found herself in charge of the family, and she continued to write for women's magazines in order to earn an income. She published numerous stories over the next few years, as many as five or six a month. Her first long work, Vagabondia, was serialized as Dolly in Peterson's Magazine in 1873.

Wife, Mother, and Developing Writer

Burnett married Dr. Swan Moses Burnett, an ear and eye specialist, in 1873. Almost exactly one year later, they had their first son, Lionel. In 1875, the Burnetts moved to Paris, where their second son, Vivian, was born in 1876. During this time, Burnett continued to write and provide financial support for the family. In 1876 she published her first novel, That Lass o' Lowrie's, which had first appeared as a serial in Scribner's Monthly. The novel, a story of an independent woman in an English mining town, was well received and published in England only a few weeks after its release in America. One reviewer in the New York Herald stated that "there is no living writer (man or woman) who has Mrs. Burnett's dramatic power in telling a story…. The publication of That Lass o' Lowrie's is a red letter day in the world of literature." With the publication of That Lass o' Lowrie's, Burnett's popularity as a writer in both the United States and England grew quickly.

In 1877 the Burnetts moved to Washington, D.C., and the next five years became Burnett's most productive time as a writer. During this period she published many works, including Surly Tim and Other Stories (1877), which was a collection of early tales; Haworth's (1879), about Lancashire industrial life; Louisiana (1880), a portrayal of a farmer's daughter; A Fair Barbarian (1881), about a young American woman in rural England; and Through One Administration (1881), which was based on Burnett's observations while living in Washington. Her novels continued to be received with critical acclaim.

The strains of maintaining a household, raising two children, participating in Washington society, and writing so much during these years took their toll on Burnett. She was often ill and depressed, and referred to herself at this time as a "pen-driving machine." Her marriage was also troubled; she and her husband became estranged. Beginning in 1884, the couple spent more and more time living apart, with the children alternating between their father and mother. Burnett and her husband divorced in 1898.

Little Lord Fauntleroy

Even though Burnett's married life was not without flaw, she found she could still maintain the ideal through her fiction. She often stated, "The one perfect thing in my life was the childhood of my boys," and with the writing of Little Lord Fauntleroy, Burnett immortalized her statement. Basing the main character on her son Vivian, Burnett wrote a story about a disinherited American boy who wins back his noble title and fortune without corrupting his own innocence or debasing aristocratic values. The tale was published first as a serial in St. Nicholas, a magazine for children, in 1885, then as a book in 1886. The volume was a phenomenal success. Little Lord Fauntleroy became a best-seller, was translated into more than a dozen languages, and was produced for the stage in England and France. In addition, a variety of products were created based on the book, including toys, playing cards, writing paper, chocolate, and of course the dark velvet suits with lace collars that characterized Little Lord Fauntleroy in the book's illustrations. Much later, in 1921, Hollywood actress Mary Pickford starred in the first film version.

Because of the success of Little Lord Fauntleroy, Burnett and her sons were soon enjoying an expensive, international life-style, including trips to such places as London, Rome, and the French Riviera. The volume also changed the course of Burnett's writing career. From 1886 until 1896, she wrote mainly for children. She also continued to write for the theater, although her plays were not as popular as her novels. One of Burnett's works written during this time was her memoirs, The One I Knew Best of All: A Memory in the Mind of a Child, which was written in third person and published in 1893.

Trouble with the Critics

Phyllis Bixler Koppes noted in American Women Writers that Burnett's "life and writing were characterized by tensions between the serious artist and the popular writer, the independent woman and the self-sacrificing wife and mother." As Burnett's career advanced, these tensions were discussed by critics. Some claimed that she had given up serious writing in return for artificial, crowd-pleasing manuscripts that sold well. Other reviewers claimed she had a superficial personality. Details of her life were also critiqued, including her divorce and, later, her unconventional second marriage to her business and stage manager, Stephen Townesend, who was ten years her junior. When Burnett and Townesend separated permanently in 1902, just two years after their nuptials, the reviewers again focused on Burnett's personal life. In more recent times, a contributor to A Reader's Guide to Twentieth-Century Authors referred to Burnett as "the image of the popular Victorian lady novelist," who wore wigs, dressed in frilly clothing, and went by the nickname "Fluffy."

Not all critics were so harsh, and many praised Burnett's writing, especially her juvenile fiction. A contributor to the New York Times commented, "Many authors can write delightful books for children; a few can write entertaining books about children for adults; but it is only the exceptional author who can write a book about children with sufficient skill, charm, simplicity, and significance to make it acceptable to both young and old. Mrs. Burnett is one of the few thus gifted…." Another reviewer, Bookman contributor Katharine Tynan, had similar sentiments, declaring that "[i]t is a privilege when such a writer as Mrs. Burnett gives her fresh and living art to writing stories for children." In Children's Literature in Education, Rosemary Threadgold compared Burnett's adult fiction to her children's tales, noting that Burnett's adult novels tended to follow "the formula that had brought her so much success." In writing for children, however, Threadgold judged Burnett to be "something of a leader. Her attention to detail, her gifts as a storyteller, and her interest in children all stand her in good stead."

"The knowledge that she had never lost an appreciative audience for her adult and children's books, however, probably helped Burnett overlook the frequent condescension of the critics," declared Phyllis Bixler in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Burnett responded to the critics' demands for more serious writing by publishing A Lady of Quality in 1896. The heroine of the novel is a strong-willed girl raised as a boy, who later accidentally kills her former boyfriend, hides his body, and lives happily without punishment or regrets. To many reviewers, this book was a sign that Burnett was no longer interested in being taken seriously. Her popularity with the reading public, however, continued to grow.

Burnett published two more very successful children's books after Little Lord Fauntleroy. A Little Princess, released in 1905, was adapted for the stage and performed in London and New York. The book was also made into a feature film in 1939 that starred child-actress Shirley Temple. In 1911, The Secret Garden was published and has since become a children's classic. The novel tells the tale of an orphan who befriends her sickly cousin (based on Burnett's son Lionel who died of consumption at age 15) and finds an enclosed garden. The Secret Garden has been adapted into several films, a number of television programs, and a musical produced in 1993. "The Secret Garden will charm everyone from the children to the grown-ups," declared a reviewer in a September, 1911, issue of Literary Digest.

Burnett also continued to be popular with adults, and several of her novels made the best-seller list. Some of her better known works of this period are tales of fashionable American and British life, such as The Shuttle (1907) and its sequel T. Tembarom (1913). In 1922, she published The Head of the House of Coombe, about social life in London before World War I. During these years, she had moved from her country estate in Kent, England, called Maytham Hall, to a cottage named Plandome on Long Island in New York.

Remembered as a Children's Author

"Burnett's reputation as a superior children's author remains secure," according to Phyllis Bixler, who further noted that Burnett's best children's books "can entertain a child and often an adult reader almost a century after they were written, an unusual longevity for children's fiction." Fittingly, Burnett's last public appearance was at the opening of the film of Little Lord Fauntleroy. She died on October 29, 1924, in Plandome, New York. Burnett once commented to her son Vivian, "With the best that I have in me, I have tried to write more happiness into the world."

Further Reading

Bixler, Phyllis, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Twayne, 1984.

Carpenter, Angelica Shirley, and Jean Shirley, Frances Hodgson Burnett: Beyond the Secret Garden, Lerner, 1990.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 42: American Writers for Children before 1900, Gale, 1985.

Greene, Carol, Frances Hodgson Burnett: Author of the Secret Garden, Children's Press, 1995.

Mainiero, Lina, editor, American Women Writers, Frederick Ungar, 1979.

McGillis, Roderick, A Little Princess: Gender and Empire, Twayne, 1996.

Thwaite, Ann, Waiting for the Party: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett, Faber and Faber, 1974.

Ward, Martha, et al., editors, Authors of Books for Young People, Scarecrow, 1990.

Bookman, December, 1911.

Children's Literature in Education, fall, 1988.

Literary Digest, September 2, 1911.

New York Herald, 1877.

New York Times, September 3, 1911.

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