Thursday, June 15, 2006

Little Lord Fauntleroy, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1886

Cedric Erroll is a well-loved fatherless American boy with a sweet widowed mother and an irresistable head of curly golden hair. Armed with these assets, the world is his to conquer with kindness, and what more straightforward route could there be than to discover that he is heir to England's most wealthy earldom? Cedric cum Fauntleroy travels to England and melts his crusty grandfather's heart with his lovelocks and lordly legs. All proceeds smoothly until another claimant to the earldom appears...

Though LLF enjoyed considerable popularity in its day, and for a generation afterwards, Secret Garden and Little Princess have kept Burnett alive in children's literature, and LLF has been all but forgotten. For modern readers, there are some reasons why: it's hopelessly sentimental; characters are flat; it's a class monologue that constantly reinforces the innate worthiness of the aristocracy to rule and the eagerness of the lower classes to be ruled; and it persistently equates beauty with virtue. If you can set all that aside, LLF has an undeniable sweetness, and as an almost-rags to riches story mixed with sensationalism, it's fun. I'm sure I would have devoured this as a child; as an adult it's a bit harder to swallow, but taking it for what it is, good fodder for a nostalgia binge, and so sentimental as to be harmless for young readers.

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