Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Birthday/Book of the Day: Frances Hodgson Burnett and Little Lord Fauntleroy

On its author’s 166th birthday, Henry Bemis Books celebrates with an offer of a timeless young adult classic:
Burnett, Frances Hodgson, Little Lord Fauntleroy (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1st ed., 1886; 1889 printing). Hardcover, quarto, 209 pp. with 16 pages of ads in the back. Classic Reginald Birch illustrations that kicked off a regrettable American craze for dressing boys like a Gainsborough painting. Grey-green cloth boards.  No dust jacket. Covers and spine faded with some staining, front hinge slightly separated. Brown endpapers. HBB price: $50.

It is hard to understate the significance of Little Lord Fauntleroy on 19th Century American life. Serialized in St. Nicholas Magazine in 1885-86, it created a sensation. One critic has written that Little Lord Fauntleroy "was the Harry Potter of his time and Frances Hodgson Burnett was as celebrated for creating him as J.K. Rowling is for Potter." The book has been recreated for film and television dozens of times for over a hundred years.

The drawings for the book, by Reginald Birch, set off a fashion trend that swept the nation: the classic Fauntleroy suit was a velvet cut-away jacket and matching knee pants worn with a fancy blouse with a large lace or ruffled collar. These suits appear right after the publication of Mrs. Burnett's story (1885) and were a major fashion until after the turn of the 20th century. Many boys who did not wear an actual Fauntleroy suit wore suits with Fauntleroy elements such as a fancy blouse or floppy bow. Only a minority of boys wore ringlet curls with these suits, but the photographic record confirms that many boys did. It was most popular for boys about 3–8 years of age, and nearly killed off the previous fashion of clothing toddlers in dresses and letting their hair grow like girls’. Among those raised in that time of transition was a future president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, born in 1882 and shown here at the age of two, in a dress but with Fauntleroy hat, shoes and curls:

Burnett’s novel also made a name for itself in copyright law when she sued an English theater producer for turning her work into a play without paying licensing or royalty fees, and won. The case was codified into British law in 1911, and, when another producer tired the same trick, she wrote and staged her own production, The Real Little Lord Fauntleroy, and from its runs on Broadway and London’s West End made as much as the book had before.

In a time when rags to riches tales were Horatio Alger’s bread and butter- and the stuff of popular fiction on a large scale, Fauntleroy was a corker. The plot runs on these lines:
In a shabby New York side street in the mid-1880s, young Cedric Errol lives with his mother (known only as Mrs. Errol or "Dearest") in genteel poverty after the death of his father, Captain Cedric Errol. One day, they are visited by an English lawyer named Havisham with a message from Cedric's grandfather, the Earl of Dorincourt, an unruly millionaire who despises America and was very disappointed when his youngest son married an American lady. With the deaths of his father's elder brothers, Cedric has now inherited the title Lord Fauntleroy and is the heir to the earldom and a vast estate. Cedric's grandfather wants him to live in England and be educated as an English aristocrat. He offers his son's widow a house and guaranteed income, but he refuses to have anything to do with her, even after she declines his money. 
However, the Earl is impressed by the appearance and intelligence of his American grandson and is charmed by his innocent nature. Cedric believes his grandfather to be an honorable man and benefactor, and the Earl cannot disappoint him. He therefore becomes a benefactor to his tenants, to their delight, though takes care to let them know that their benefactor is the child, Lord Fauntleroy. 
Meanwhile, a homeless bootblack named Dick Tipton tells Cedric's old friend Mr. Hobbs, a New York City grocer, that a few years prior, after the death of his parents, Dick's older brother Benjamin married an awful woman who got rid of their only child together after he was born and then left. Benjamin moved to California to open a cattle ranch while Dick ended up in the streets. At the same time, a neglected pretender to Cedric's inheritance appears, the pretender's mother claiming that he is the offspring of the Earl's eldest son. The claim is investigated by Dick and Benjamin, who come to England and recognize the alleged heir's mother as Benjamin's former wife. The alleged heir's mother flees, and the Tipton brothers and Benjamin's son do not see her again. 
Afterwards, Benjamin goes back to his cattle ranch in California where he happily raises his son by himself. The Earl is reconciled to his American daughter-in-law, realizing that she is far superior to the imposter.
The Earl planned to teach his grandson how to be an aristocrat. Instead, Cedric teaches his grandfather that an aristocrat should practice compassion towards those dependent on him. He becomes the man Cedric always innocently believed him to be. Cedric is happily reunited with his mother and Mr. Hobbs, who decides to stay to help look after Cedric.

There was more than a little of her own life in Burnett’s books. English-born, her father lost his business in the depression the American Civil War caused the British cotton trade. The family emigrated to Knoxville, Tennessee, and spent their first year in a log cabin. Determined to elevate herself- and her family- Burnett turned to writing, and by age 19 was published in Godey's Lady’s Book, Scribner's, and Harper’s Bazaar. She called herself “a pen driving machine,” but the labor paid: by the time she came of age, she had moved the family into comfortable digs in Knoxville.

She married a young doctor at 23, he had trouble building and maintaining his wife’s tastes, which prompted her to tackle longer writing projects to make money. Her first novel came out in 1877, to good reviews; on an 1879 trip to Boston she met Louisa May Alcott and Laura Mapes Dodge, editor of St. Nicholas, the nation’s leading kids’ magazine. Encouraged to try her hand at young adult literature, she began writing stories, and, by 1884, had Little Lord Fauntleroy ready for serialization.

Burnett seemed to be able to master any form: her 1881 play, Esmeralda, had the longest Broadway run of the 19th century. She wrote adult romances, and a successful series of historical novels. Her published output ran to over forty volumes.

The endless pace of her work, and her socializing- by the 1880s she ran one of the more trendy salons of Washington, D.C.- combined with running the household, keeping up her less prosperous husband, and raising two boys, led her to bouts of exhaustion and depression, during which she explored, and eventually embraced Christian Science.

She wanted her second child to be a girl so badly she masculinized the name she chose- only just- to Vivien, and dressed him in the girlish clothes immortalized in Fauntleroy. Every day for years, she delighted in personally curling both her sons’ hair, which she kept long and feminine, a la her fictional boy-girl who became an earl.

In 1887 she began her annual sailings to England, and held court during the London season. She met, and fell for, an actor ten years her junior; she arranged a separation from her husband for the two years necessary to divorce him for desertion. The Washington Post called her a “New Woman” for her “advanced views regarding the duties of a wife and the rights of women.” Burnett settled in an 18th century mansion in Kent and installed her lover, Stephen Townsend, to no end of village scandal. She wrote a star vehicle to advance his acting career in London, and married him in 1900. Within months it was apparent the wedding had been entirely wrong. Townsend resented feeling a kept man, and Burnett divorced him in 1902.  She kept the house, and in a 1721 walled garden wrote to more blockbuster hits, A Little Princess (a reworking of one of her plays, published in 1905) and The Secret Garden (1911).

As much as Burnett made; she needed more. She took American citizenship in 1905, triangulating between the English house, a Long Island estate and a winter place in Bermuda. Her last book came out in 1922, and she died two years later, at 74. She outlived both of her long-suffering sons.


Henry Bemis Books is one man’s attempt to bring more diversity and quality to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg market of devoted readers starved for choices. Our website is at www.henrybemisbookseller.blogspot.com. For more information about any listed book, or more photos, please contact Lindsay at henrybemisbookseller@gmail.com. Henry Bemis Books is also happy to entertain reasonable offers on items in inventory. Shipping is always free; local buyers are welcome to drop by and pick up their purchases at our location off Peachtree Road in Northwest Charlotte if they like. #RareBooks #HenryBemisBooks #FrancesHodgsonBurnett #LittleLord Fauntleroy

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