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Literature: A Little Princess

A 1905 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Secret Garden. Also known as Sara Crewe and The Little Princess.

Sara Crewe, the daughter of a British Army officer, is refreshingly kind, generous and clever, despite her father's wealth buying her every luxury she could desire. She retains this attitude even when she is packed off to a boarding school for formal education. However, a couple of years later, word comes that a bad investment bankrupted her father, who subsequently died of Brain Fever brought on by the shock.

Since Sara can no longer pay for her education and has no known living relatives, she has no choice but to become a servant at the boarding house. Despite these hardships, she continues to keep her kind and generous personality, and endures graciously, mostly through stubborn optimism and a belief that there is a magic in the world that would not let things get as bad as they could be.

As she's about to give into dispair, it's discovered that her father's friend, Mr. Thomas Carrisford, has been searching for her since her father's demise. He gives her back her half of the "bad investment," which in the end turned out to be worth many times more than he and her father had anticipated, and takes her as his ward. Her fortune returned to her, Sara is restored to her former social station, but does not forget those who were kind to her when she was in need.

Inspired a few movie adaptations, most notably one starring Shirley Temple in 1939 (titled The Little Princess) and one directed by Alfonso Cuaron in 1995. The latter cast Liesel Matthews in the role. It has also had many stage adaptations as well as various television shows, including a critically acclaimed World Masterpiece Theater anime series in The Eighties and the more recent (and far more loosely-based) anime Soukou No Strain, which adds fanservice and mecha along with giving the heroine an alternative reaction to trauma. In SPACE. There's even a VeggieTales adaptation (2012's The Penniless Princess).

Not in any way a Distaff Counterpart to The Little Prince, though there's a paper to be written on that topic. Please do not confuse with Little Princess.

Tropes seen in this story include:

  • Adaptation Expansion: The novel originally began life as a novella called "Sara Crewe", that was serialized in St. Nicholas Magazine in 1888. But Burnett felt that the story was incomplete, so it was first expanded into a play, "A Little Un-fairy Princess", and finally into this version.
  • Adult Fear: Your death leaves your child penniless and alone in the world.
  • Alpha Bitch: Lavinia.
  • Amoral Attorney:
    • Mr. Barrow, Captain Crewe's solicitor. He's the one who comes to the school to announce his client's death, and suggests making a servant of Sara to Miss Minchin (as an alternative to throwing her out on the street, which would be bad publicity for the school).
    • Averted with Mr. Carmichael, Carrisford's solicitor. He's introduced as the head of a loving family that Sara envies, and when his profession is revealed, it's in a conversation where he offers to travel to Moscow to follow a vague lead on Sara's whereabouts.
  • Big "Shut Up!": Ermengarde gives one to Lavinia in the 1986 Wonder Works film.
  • Book Dumb: Ermengarde St. John, who has trouble with her lessons, particularly French.
  • Book Worm: Sara is an avid reader, even at age seven.
  • Brain Fever: Captain Crewe's fate.
  • Break the Cutie: The bulk of the story. Miss Minchin, the servants, and Lavinia deliberately try to break her further after she's ruined. The novel even points out that "her child heart might have been broken" had it not been for Ermengarde, Lottie and Becky.
  • Cinderella Circumstances: After Sara loses her fortune she becomes a servant in the school.
  • Comic Book Time: Sara goes to the seminary when she is seven and becomes poor when she is 11. On her first day Lavinia is already one of the oldest children and is specifically described as 14. By the time the main events play out she should be 18 and have left the school.
  • Common Eye Colors: Sara's are gray-green.
  • Companion Cube: Emily. Although in one moment of despair Sara screams at Emily that she's "just a doll".
  • Contrived Coincidence: Well, it is by a Victorian novelist: the old gent who moves in next door turns out to be looking for a particular young lady who is due to inherit a great deal of money. Since the 'Indian Gentleman' is not even sure which COUNTRY the little girl was sent to school in (he sends his solicitor in search of a girl schooled in Paris), it's somewhat serendipitous that he happens to move in next door from the right girl.
  • Costume Porn: Some paragraphs in the book are spent describing Sara's beautiful clothes. Indeed, lengthy paragraphs are devoted to describing the wardrobe of the doll.
  • Daddy's Girl: Sara and her father were very close, and her mother died when she was quite young.
  • Denied Food as Punishment: And smacked around a little, too.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: It's Sara's kindness in the worst possible circumstances that attracts the attention of her father's partner, laying sick in the house next door, and leads to their discovery of each others' identities.
  • Enfant Terrible: Lottie, before she meets Sara.
  • Extreme Doormat: Miss Minchin's sister is far kinder but is completely dominated by her until the end of the story when she finally speaks her mind.
  • Fallen Princess: Sara
  • Funetik Aksent: Becky and other Cockney characters.
  • Girl Posse: Lavinia's small band of hangers-on.
  • Greed: Miss Minchin
  • Have a Gay Old Time: The word "queer" is thrown around like a stuffed animal in the book, if only in the archaic sense. The girls also "ejaculate" a few times.
  • Heroic BSOD: Sara during her most despairing moment is no longer able to pretend that Emily is anything other than a doll and knocks her on the floor. She pulls herself together though and says that Emily can no more help being a doll than Lavinia can help being horrid.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Done with some of the story's more dramatic coincidences, including the news of Captain Crewe's ruin and death arriving immediately after Sara has a conversation about whether she'd be such a nice and happy person if she weren't so rich and the way Carrisford finally finds Sara.
  • Lonely Doll Girl: Sarah's doll Emily was bought by her father so she'd feel less lonely when he returned to India. She becomes one of Sara's few companions when Sara loses her fortune.
  • Meaningful Name: Sara is Hebrew for "princess." In the book of Genesis, Sarah — wife of Abraham — gives birth to Isaac, and is promised that she will be a princess of many nations. Becky's name is a diminution of Rebecca, Isaac's wife (Sarah's daughter-in-law), and the mother of Jacob / Israel. Maria (Miss Minchin's first name) means "bitter". Amelia means "lovable"- and she is the nicer sister.
  • Neutral No Longer: Lavinia's empty-headed friend Jessie reprimands Lavinia for tattling on Sara and her friends for planning a midnight feast (after Sara has been deprived of food for a day) and later says Miss Minchin has no right to starve Sara.
  • Nice to the Waiter: One of Sara's defining traits. Even when she herself falls on hard times, she's still kind and generous to those even worse off.
  • Number One Dime: The sixpence Donald Carmichael gives Sara.
  • Ojou: Sara before her father dies. Look at the title.
  • Parental Abandonment:
    • Sara's mother died in childbirth, and her father when she's eleven.
    • Lottie's father is said to be very "flighty" and to have left Lottie to others after his wife died.
  • Pretty in Mink: A few furs are mentioned, like a doll with an ermine-lined cape, and the fur coat Sara wears at the end.
  • Princess Classic: Or almost. In fact, Sara looks up to historical queens and princesses (notably Marie Antoinette in one instance) as role models, which helps her control her temper on occasions.
  • Princess in Rags: As a servant, Sara wears an old black velvet frock of hers, that is already too small for her when she puts it on. The book mentions a bonnet with ostrich plumes that also belonged to her, but becomes bedraggled from repeated errands in the rain.
  • Promotion to Parent: Sara acts as a stand-in mother to Lottie.
  • Rags to Riches; Inverted: The book and adaptations are frequently promoted as a "riches to rags" story. Though of course she becomes rich beyond her wildest imagination again when it turns out the diamond mines were real and her father's partner is still alive.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Miss Minchin's well-meaning but cowed sister Amelia finally snaps at the end of the novel and thoroughly tells her off. Miss Minchin is shocked and intimidated, and Miss Amelia takes a greater role in running the school thereafter.
    "And now you've lost her," she cried wildly; "and some other school will get her and her money; and if she were like any other child she'd tell how she's been treated, and all our pupils would be taken away and we should be ruined. And it serves us right; but it serves you right more than it does me, for you are a hard woman, Maria Minchin, you're a hard, selfish, worldly woman!"
  • Rich Bitch: Lavinia Herbert, who was the richest girl in school before Sara turned up, and sees the younger girl as a threat to her social standing. She's unmerciful in her ridicule when Sara loses her fortune.
  • Royal Brat: Lavinia again.
  • Sadist Teacher: Miss Minchin, who has a nasty cruel streak and cares about nothing more than money. Her sister calls her out on it right at the end: "You're a hard, cruel, worldly woman."
  • Said Bookism: There are some instances of words being "ejaculated" in the novel.
  • Spoiled Sweet: Sara's a bit naive about the state of the world at first, but even before things get horribly awful she realizes that there are people less fortunate than she is and doesn't act like a Rich Bitch.
  • True Colors: After Sara's father dies, Miss Minchin reveals her bitchy, greedy self.
  • You Dirty Rat: Subverted with the rat in Sarah's attic room whom she befriends and names "Melchisedec," after an Old Testament king. She comments on how hard it must be to an animal that everyone treats with fear and disgust when it is just trying to feed itself and its family.

Adaptations with their own trope pages include:

The 1939 film provides examples of:

  • Deus ex Machina: Or rather, extremely powerful convenient visitor. When Sara finds the hospital that may contain her wounded, amnesiac father, she is allowed to search it after asking a very old, important-looking woman for permission. Upon thanking her for this, Sara asks the woman's name, and then blushes and curtsies when she responds: "Victoria." It's a heartwarming moment, and kind of stops anyone this side of God from keeping father and daughter apart one second longer.
  • Disney Death: Sara's father.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Captain Crewe requests that Sara's room at the seminary be made "as gay as possible." We're talking about an all-girls school.
  • Karma Houdini: Miss Minchin. All we see happen to her is a look of utter shock upon learning Sara's father is still alive.
  • Pretty in Mink: Sara wears a blue coat with an ermine collar and ermine muff.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Sara's father is alive. He's horribly injured, but alive.
  • Spoiled Sweet: Sara has clearly been ridiculously spoiled but is still as sweet as Shirley Temple always was.
  • True Blue Femininity: In the 1939 film, Sara is first seen in a blue coat (with an ermine collar) and hat.
  • Title Drop: "She's just like a little princess, isn't she?"

The 1995 film provides examples of:

  • Adapted Out: The Large Family.
  • Adaptation Explanation Extrication: Sara wakes up to find her attic room filled with food, clothing and other luxuries. In the book, these things were brought to her in secret over a number of weeks by Ram Dass, the Indian man living next door, while she slept. In the film, they're just there with no explanation.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: From Sara to Miss Minchin:
    Sara: Didn't your father ever tell you you were a princess?
  • Black Best Friend/Race Lift: Becky. (In the original, she is a typical Victorian-era Cockney girl.)
  • Cacophony Cover Up: Lottie's ear-piercing scream creates a diversion under the cover of which the girls can fetch Sara's locket from Miss Minchin's office.
  • Costume Porn: Even more than in the novel. You can hardly blame Miss Minchin when she says Sara can't wear her finery looking at what she's wearing in that very scene.
  • Disney Death: Sara's father.
  • Dramatic Necklace Removal: Sara's locket.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: A rather satisfying change is Miss Minchin loses her job and is now a chimney sweep, and is working for a boy who she was a prick to earlier.
  • Repeat Cut: At the end of the film, when Lavinia hugs Sara.
  • Shoo Out the Clowns: The comical Amelia runs away with the milkman seconds before the dramatic climax. Sara is actually watching her go when Miss Michin bursts in and accuses her of stealing the locket.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Sara's father is alive. He's traumatized/amnesiac, but alive.


The Little Engine That CouldLiterature of the 1900sThe Man Who Was Thursday
Little DorritVictorian LondonThe Time Machine
The Hunchback of Notre DameFilms of the 1930sNinotchka
The Little PrinceChildren's LiteratureLittle Sophie and Lanky Flop
Les MisÚrables (1995)Films of the 1990sLiving in Oblivion
Evil ElevatorImageSource/Live-Action FilmsLike That Show but with Mecha

alternative title(s): A Little Princess; A Little Princess
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