a somewhat polemical princess

I was surprised to discover this week, via the Guardian Books Blog, that Hodder plan to publish a sequel Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1905 children’s classic A Little Princess, this September.

A Little Princess
is one of my all-time favourite children’s books, with a fabulous riches-to-rags-and-back-to-riches narrative arc. Sara Crewe, “the odd little girl with the big solemn eyes” is the wealthy but unspoilt heroine with a lively imagination, who travels from her home in India to London to attend Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies where her good manners and intelligence lead her to quickly become the “show pupil”. But when her beloved father’s sudden death leaves Sara unexpectedly penniless, the unpleasant Miss Minchin (surely one of the best ever children’s book baddies) forces her into drudgery, revealing a much nastier side of Victorian London life. However, with the help of a little courage and fortitude - not to mention a few loyal friends - just when things are at their very worst, magical things begin to happen. A Little Princess has a fantastic ending, and regardless of whether you’ve warmed to Sara, or found the whole thing a bit on the twee side, it is impossible to read it without melting into a happy, warm and sentimental Victorian mush.

The planned sequel will be entitled Wishing for Tomorrow (which I am afraid really is twee) and has been written by Hilary McKay, the author of a number of bestselling children’s books including Saffy’s Angel. The new story will not follow Sara herself, but some of the other characters we meet at Miss Minchin’s establishment, in particular Sara’s friend Ermengarde - the “monumental dunce of the school”, “a fat child who did not look as if she were in the least clever.”

Now I have to admit, A Little Princess is certainly a book that leaves the reader wanting more - but the prospect of Wishing Tomorrow fills me with dread. Partly that's because of McKay's decision to reject the style of the original, which she felt would not appeal to contemporary readers, to “make the children more childish” and to include “a few more jokes.” All of this seems to me to be based on a total misunderstanding of what makes the original book so charming and distinctive: after all, Sara is a brilliant heroine precisely because she isn't childish or cutesy, but solemn, thoughtful and a little bit quirky - a young person to be reckoned with. And A Little Princess is far from being without humour, but it is a humour which is always subtle and rather arch - I can't imagine why anyone would think chucking in a few "jokes" to liven things up would be a fitting tribute. Mostly, I think I just generally resent the notion that the book's style needs "improving" for today's audience - as if it isn't bad enough that we're already subjected to dire re-visionings of beloved childhood books in the form of Hollywood movies (see Northern Lights; The Secret of Moonacre; and also the grim new film of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, featuring Ian McShane - yes, that’s Lovejoy - as Merriman Lyon) we now find writers, who might be expected to know better, imaginatively "polishing up" our favourite childhood fictions into glossy, bland 21st century shadows of their former selves.

What is more, much as I love A Little Princess, I can't help feeling that there's something a little bit disappointing about the very notion that writing a sequel to a book published over 100 years ago is the best one of our leading children's writers can come up with. I can absolutely see the appeal of the project, but wouldn't it be better if we could see contemporary children's writers creating fictional worlds as exciting, compelling and delightful as Burnett's, but for our own times? Alternatively, rather than just continuing the story, wouldn't it be more interesting to do something a little more challenging and different with A Little Princess as source material - perhaps as Eva Ibbotson does in the excellent Journey to the River Sea which is undoubtedly in part a tribute to Burnett.

However, ultimately the fundamental problem I have with Wishing for Tomorrow is simply this: I am really not a fan of sequels. On the whole, they are just a Bad Idea. As I am sure anyone who has read Emma Tennant’s Pemberley (or any of the other dire Pride & Prejudice sequels - though strangely, the new “zombie” version looks quite appealing) will attest, there are times when (unless you are Jean Rhys) it’s best to leave well alone. Admittedly, Susan Hill’s Mrs de Winter, which follows on from Rebecca was slightly less painful, but I’d much rather have just left the story where it was - with a question mark. More often than not, a little bit of mystery is so much more appealing than tidy resolution.

I'm aware all this is not particularly fair or objective: after all, the poor woman hasn't even published her book yet, and I've already decided it isn't worth reading. For all I know, it might be brilliant. But right now, I have to say that I definitely won't be rushing down the shops to get my hands on McKay’s Little Princess continuation when it comes out in September. Instead I might just happily re-read my old Puffin copy of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s original, complete with evocative and nostalgic illustrations by Margery Gill:

Once on a dark winter's day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night, an odd-looking little girl sat in a cab with her father ...


16 April 2009 at 18:28 Anonymous said...

I really adore A Little Princess! The story has all the best elements! Both movies I've seen are beautiful too. :)

I hate the part when Sara's Mother's necklace is taken away... :(

17 April 2009 at 10:42 cynical ben said...

Obviously the cynical part of me agrees with almost all you say, but perhaps it will, as you allude to, be the next Wild Sargasso Sea. After all there are nice post-feminist parallels between the lost characters of “a fat child who did not look as if she were in the least clever" and the 'mad woman in the attic.' Perhaps the book will focus on that rather than being a cynical marketing ploy looking at film/tv rights before even looking at plotlines. Perhaps not.

What I cannot agree with is your easy dismissal of the wonderful award winning Iam McShane. Have you seen Deadwood? He is a colossus. He is easily the equal of Jonathan Pryce or Ian Holm. OK he has been in some rubbish, but as a rule if the material is good then Ian McShane is good also.

I've probably gone on a bit too much about Ian McShane there haven't I?

17 April 2009 at 10:44 cynical ben said...

Also there should be a comma between the words 'wonderful' and 'award'. I meant to say that he is wonderful and wins awards, not that he wins wonderful awards.

17 April 2009 at 12:20 Katherine said...

Good points Ben. Perhaps we should reverse roles and I should become 'Cynical Katherine'?

Far be it from me to diss Ian McShane, but I'm afraid I just don't buy him as Merriman Lyon. It's like the worst casting choice ever. Roguish villain in Deadwood? Yes, absolutely. Eccentric and mysterious Oxford professor-type who turns out to be Merlin? No, no and no again.

Do feel free to disagree with me though. I'm enjoying the debate.

17 April 2009 at 12:50 yankunian said...

This is another one of my favorites from childhood - I read it and re-read it until it was falling apart. The idea of a sequel is horrible. Why do they always do this? Come up with your own characters, people!

17 April 2009 at 16:45 cynical ben said...

I'm not sure how long I could keep up an unswerving faith in Ian McShane. To be honest as soon as I read the words eccentric and mysterious I did start to have doubts. I have to admit that when I hear the word mysterious, Ian McShane isn't the first person I think of.

18 April 2009 at 10:10 Katherine said...

Yep, exactly. If you want some amusement (also a read of a really excellent kids book) I suggest you get yourself a copy of 'The Dark is Rising' by Susan Cooper, and marvel at this monument of miscasting.

20 April 2009 at 09:43 cynical ben said...

Consider it bought. Allow 3-7 days for delivery and I will let you know whether or not I think McShane is ready for the challenge.

I will admit in advance that I am a little biased. I will even admit that Lovejoy is a guilty pleasure. There I said it. I am not ashamed.

20 April 2009 at 14:51 Katherine said...

Oh good! Let me know what you think.