I meant to post this last week, but as I write this I’m still battling the flu that’s been sweeping our house these last couple of weeks, so I’m a little behind. On the plus side it’s given me lots of time to read stories to my daughter (after all, when you have a young child who is very ill, you end up spending most of the night sitting up with them anyway) and over the last week or two we have been working our way though ‘A Little Princess.’
This was one of my favourite books as a child, and so far E is loving it too, but re-reading it as an adult is making me see things that I never noticed before. Mainly in terms of class barriers.
Now, when I was in school and university we looked at books such as ‘The Age of Innocence’ in terms of class and the expectation and conventions of society, but, looking back, we really should have started with books like ‘A Little Princess’ – books that influenced our thinking on class barriers without us even reaslising it.
Immediately Sara is set apart from the other children, with her teachers afraid to show dislike to her in case she is taken away and they loose money. This is a fear of the higher classes that can be seen in many books, but the fact that Sara is a child wielding so much power is slightly unsettling as an adult.
But even when Sara’s fortunes change, and she is considered to be little more than a slave, she is still treated like a lady by Becky, who refers to her as ‘Miss’ at all times. And when the Indian Gentleman next door starts to send her gifts etc, he only ever sends then to Sarah – lavishing her with comfortable and expensive things, while virtually ignoring the only other occupant of the attic – the blatantly working class Becky.
What bothers me though, is the fact that, when Sara and Becky move next door, Sara is to be treated like the princess that her wealth commands, while the huge hearted and selfless Becky is going simply to be another servant. Admittedly one with slightly better clothes.
The moral of the story, though my adult eyes, seems to be that the rich will always win.
This class divide is fascinating from an adult point of view, and I can’t help but compare it to modern children’s books. For instance, compare Harry Potter and Ron Weasly – surely the modern equivalent of Sara and Becky. How incredibly patronised and angry would readers be if, after all they had been through together, Ron went to work for Harry at the end?
Perhaps that comparison doesn’t play across so well, given that the stories were set in vastly different times with, supposedly, vastly different attitudes towards class and wealth.
I’ve found in many of the books I’ve recently, particularly young adult books, that there are characters, usually love interests, who are at polar opposites of the social or wealthy scale, and I find it interesting to see how that balance is weighted.
Most books are, at the end, a product of their time and we should always bear that in mind when we read something that makes us uncomfortable or infuriated. But remember, most books, despite what your English Lit teacher might have told you, aren’t written to convey a moral, political or religious message. They are instead written to tell a story. To entertain.
Now, go read!