Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Lessons from A Little Princess

"It had been hard to be a princess today, Melchisedec," she said.  "It has been harder than usual.  It gets harder as the weather grows colder and the streets get more sloppy.  When Lavinia laughed at my muddy skirt as I passed her in the hall, I thought of something to say all in a flash--and I only just stopped myself in time.  You can't sneer back at people like that--if you are a princess.  But you have to bite your tongue to hold yourself in."

Sara Crewe, protagonist of Frances Hodson Burnett's A Little Princess, seemed to be living a royal life.  Though her mother had died when Sara was quite young, she was raised by an adoring father who lavished her with attention, affection, and gifts.  Money was not lacking, so Sara wore the finest of clothing and played with the most exquisite dolls--dolls who had their own luxurious wardrobe. 

Captain Crewe, who is stationed in India, decides to enroll Sara in a private boarding school in London, run by Miss Minchin.  Sara enjoys special privileges there, such as her own room and maid, as well as a carriage and pony.

Yet, despite this finery, Sara remains a humble, generous, and kind girl.  She seeks out the chubby, slow-witted Ermengarde as a friend and becomes an adoptive "mother" to Lottie, the little girl who throws tantrums.  Sara also finds ways to comfort and help the serving maid, Becky.

Sara speculates about her position in life, realizing that she has been blessed.  It is easy to be kind when life is easy; how do we act when our comforts are removed?  It is not as though we are entitled to a hot shower, a car with no dead battery, or short lines in the grocery store.  

"Things happen to people by accident," she used to say.  "A lot of nice accidents have happened to me.  It just happened that I always liked lessons and books, and could remember things when I learned them.  It just happened that I was born with a father who was beautiful and nice and clever, and could give me everything I liked.  Perhaps I have not really a good temper at all, but if you have everything you want and everyone is kind to you, how can you help but be good-tempered?"

Then, abruptly, Sara's comforts are completely gone.  Her father dies.  Her fortune disappears.  She is penniless and alone, without any family at all.  From princess to pauper, Sara moves to the attic with Becky and toils long hours for Miss Minchin, cleaning, tutoring, and running errands through the sludge and cold of the London streets.

Sara is stripped of everything she had, but there is one gift left that even poverty and the abuse she receives from Miss Minchin cannot take away: her imagination.

Sara is gifted with an incredible ability to create stories that become as real and vivid as reality.  Before her father's death, she would captivate the other students with her tales.  

When she sat or stood in the midst of a circle and began to invent wonderful things, her green eyes grew big and shining, her cheeks flushed, and, without knowing that she was doing it, she began to act and made what she told lovely or alarming by the raising or dropping of her voice, the bend and sway of her slim body, and the dramatic movement of her hands.

Thus her bare attic room with the broken fireplace, threadbare blanket, and single window becomes her cell in the Bastille and she communicates with the other "prisoner" (Becky) through secret knocks.  Sara imagines herself a solider, who must march on through battle, despite thirstiness, wounds, or hunger.

She stares at the large family who lives nearby, brothers and sisters who have a loving father and mother.  Sara gives them pretend names and feels affection for them, though she has never met them.  

Most importantly, it is her imagination that allows her to maintain her spirit of kindliness and generosity.  For though she is penniless, Sara can still remain a princess  in her actions.  

"Whatever comes," she said, " cannot alter one thing.  If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside.  It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold , but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it." 

And that is how she conducts herself through her suffering: as a princess in disguise.  When she faces Miss Minchin's irrational wrath or scolding from the staff, Sara remains silent, fighting back her words to maintain a composure fitting royalty.  For, as she explains, the only thing stronger than rage is being able to hold it in.

Imagination allows Sara to find joys in the small things, just as much as she had in her wealth before.  It helps her give, even when the cost is great.  On one occasion, Sara, completely famished, finds a sixpence in the muddy streets and buys six fresh buns from the bakery.  She spies another young girl, more destitute and starving than herself, huddled in the street.  

"If I'm a princess," she was saying, "if I'm a princess--when they were poor and driven from their thrones--they always shared--with the populace--if they met one poorer and hungrier than themselves.  They always shared ... "

Sara gives her widow's mite.  She shares in her poverty because she is a princess. 

Imagination is a curious thing.  It is unique to humans.  With it we can perceive something beyond the concrete here and now.  Sara saw beyond her rags and the injustice of her condition.  Her imagination allowed her to infuse a supernatural purpose to everything she did.  It gave her strength and courage to be generous when giving truly hurt.  

Sara was a princess, a reality that became more brazenly obvious when it was disguised behind her beggar's apparel. 

But we are all royalty by our baptismal birthright.  God is King of Kings and we?  We are His sons and daughters--princes and princesses.  If we can imagine that ... if we can make that mental picture as vivid and powerful as Sara was able ... then how differently would we live our lives?  

Beyond my social class, profession, or possessions, would my actions, words, and disposition show me to be a daughter of the King?  


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