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 has bankrupted her father, who subsequently died of Brain Fever brought on by the shock.

Unable to pay for her education and having no known relatives, Sara has no choice but to accept a position as a servant at the boarding house. Despite these hardships, she continues to be kind and gracious, keeping her spirits up by believing that there is still magic in the world and things will get better.

It becomes more and more difficult for her to keep that attitude glued on as time passes, especially when she is denied food as a punishment. Sara is about to give into despair when warm clothes, bedding and food begin to appear out of nowhere in her attic room. Her father's associate, Mr. Thomas Carrisford, has been searching for her since Crewe's death. He'd sent the gifts not knowing Sarah was "his" girl, just wanting to help someone in need. 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 restored, Sara returns to her former social station, but she 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 Cuarón 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 Princess Sarah anime series in The '80s and the more recent (and far more loosely-based) anime Str.A.In.: Strategic Armored Infantry, which adds fanservice and mecha along with giving the heroine an alternative reaction to trauma. In SPACE. See also the 2009 Japanese live-action drama Shōkōjo Seira, which move the action to Japan and age-up the characters. There's even a VeggieTales adaptation (2012's The Penniless Princess), and indie developer Hanako Games is currently producing a visual novel adaptation, to be released in 2016.

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 Alice Soft's Little Princess, or Tony Ross' Little Princess children books.


  • 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).
      • Well, he does also suggest that Miss Minchin might do her the "favor" of keeping her on as a student... but his primary reason for having to say that is because he has cleaned out what remained of her father's money to pay off his own bills, leaving nothing for the child but a huge amount of debt.
    • 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.
  • 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. In fact, she is Made a Slave — an indentured servant whose debt will never be repaid. As she grows older, Miss Minchin actually appoints her as a teacher — still unpaid.
  • 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 to Paris, then to Moscow, on the basis of vaguely similar names and backgrounds), it's somewhat serendipitous that he happens to move in next door from the right girl.
    • Possibly the greatest moment of coincidence is not necessarily important to the plot: a hungry Sara comforts herself with a fantasy of finding a lost sixpence, taking it to a bakery, and eating six buns without stopping. "Then," says the narrator, "if you can believe it--" Sara glances down to see a lost fourpence, then looks up to find she is in front of a bakery, where she is sold six penny buns for fourpence. The only difference is that she doesn't end up eating all six.
  • Costume Porn: Some paragraphs in the book are spent describing Sara's beautiful clothes. Indeed, lengthy paragraphs are devoted to describing the wardrobes of Sarah's dolls.
  • 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, lying 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. She pretends she really is a princess who's just fallen on hard times like in The French Revolution.
  • Funetik Aksent: Becky and other Cockney characters.
  • Girl Posse: Lavinia's small band of hangers-on.
  • Greed: Miss Minchin
  • Happily Adopted: In the end, when Thomas Carrisford reinstates Sara as an heiress, he effectively becomes her foster father, and the epilogue reveals that the urchin Sara saved from starvation is apprenticed to the baker.
  • 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.
    • The mention that Sara and her dad "were the dearest friends and lovers in the world" really sounds off to a modern reader.
  • 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.
  • Non-Royal Princess: Sara before her father dies. Look at the title.
  • Number One Dime: The sixpence Donald Carmichael gives Sara.
  • 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.
  • Princesses Prefer Pink: A significant scene in which Sara meets Becky is marked by Sara's carefully described rose-pink dancing costume, complete with rosy pink cheeks and a wreath of pink roses in her hair. Becky hammers the point home by comparing Sara to her memory of briefly glimpsing a real princess dressed all in pink.
  • 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.
  • Too Hungry to Be Polite: The street girl Sarah gives her buns to tears ravenously into them, exclaiming only, "Oh my! Oh my!" She is starving, as Sarah notes.
  • 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. Melchy also gets a What Happened to the Mouse? since it's not revealed how he fares after Sarah and her crumbs move out of the attic.

Adaptations with their own trope pages include:

The 1939 film provides examples of:

  • Adapted Out: Along with many minor characters, Ermengarde and Lottie are missing, despite their importance to Sara in the original.
  • Aside Glance: Shirley Temple looks straight in the camera as the film ends.
  • 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.
  • Dream Sequence: Sara has an elaborate dream in which she actually is a princess, and Miss Minchin is an evil witch.
  • 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.
  • Missed Him by That Much: At one point Sara turns a corner and goes in one direction while her father is wheeled out of his room and sent down the hallway in the opposite direction.
  • Pretty in Mink: Sara wears a blue coat with an ermine collar and ermine muff.
  • Public Domain Feature Films: Due to Fox failing to renew the copyright, this film is in the Public Domain.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: One of the soldiers in the hospital is making paper dolls.
  • 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: 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?"
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Becky is last seen being captured by the police while Sara escapes.

The 1986 WonderWorks film provides examples of:

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.
  • Allegory Adventure: The film weaves in bits of the Ramayana by making it Sara Crewe's favorite book. The strong implication is that King Rama's story mirrors Captain Crewe's—the two characters are even played by the same actor.
  • 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. With the setting changed from Britain to America, rendering a Cockney girl as black is a logical enough Cultural Translation.
  • 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 horrible to earlier.
  • Rags to Riches: Not only Sara becomes rich again but her father adopts Becky.
  • 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 Minchin 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 1996 animated film contains examples of:

  • Death by Adaptation: When Sara's father is revealed to be alive, it's explained that his business partner died and was mistaken for him.
  • Easily Forgiven: Miss Minchin no longer owns the seminar but she's still allowed to teach there in spite of how she treated the new owner's daughter.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Sara's father.