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Edith Wharton, Linda Wagner-Martin
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Leo Tolstoy, Louise Maude, Alymer Maude

A Little Princess (Penguin Classics)

A Little Princess - Frances Hodgson Burnett Though I wallowed in Burnett’s A Little Princess as a girl, in re-reading it as an adult and considering the movie adaptations, it is hard not to view it through a postcolonial lens.

The 1995 movie adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess begins with the voice-over of Sara Crewe, the main character, stating, “A very long time ago there lived a beautiful princess in a mystical land known as India . . ..” Against the otherwise blank screen, a small circular image of the imaginary princess appears, then dilates to reveal the fantastic space of Sara’s story, admitting the audience into its secret spectacle.

The “mystical land known as India”--this exotic spectacle--functions as a key element in both of the original Burnett works, the 1995 movie, and two earlier movies (the 1986 Wonderworks film and the 1939 Hollywood film). Indeed, though the 1995 film’s first scene does not derive directly from any part of Burnett’s story, it reinscribes a number of ideas that do appear in Burnett’s novels and the other two films. Access to the vision of India is, in all of them, a connection to the power of empire. Sara is a “little princess” because she imagines India.


In the 1995 film, Sara tells a story about Princess Sita and her husband, Prince Rama. Rama attempts to protect Sita by drawing a magic circle around her, explaining, “So long as you stay inside it, no harm can come to you.” But when Sita hears what seems to be Rama’s voice calling for help, she leaves her circle and is soon threatened by a ten-headed demon. Although Sara appears to be controlling events in this “mystical land” by narrating them, and while the plot of her story suggests her own ability to transgress boundaries, Sara’s symbolic authority remains circumscribed and entirely derived from her father. It is Ralph Crewe’s position as a wealthy Englishman and an officer of the Raj that enables the representation of India as a commodity and spectacle--as Crewe calls it, “the only place that stirs the imagination.” He passes on to Sara his view of imagination as a resource, a “magic [which:] has to be believed, that’s the only way it’s real.” Or, as Sara refers to it in Burnett’s book, “the Magic that will never let the worst things quite happen.”

Sara, a dutiful daughter in all three film adaptations and Burnett’s two versions of the story, faithfully produces “magic” whenever she becomes particularly needy, and--like her father--uses the spectacle of India as her impetus. It is this dependence on colonialism that marks the story as essentially Victorian, even more than the references to period objects, class relations, and so forth [Burnett’s first version of the story, Sara Crewe, was published in 1888; the longer novel, A Little Princess, was published in the 1905.:] Sara may lose her father (permanently in the Burnett novels, temporarily in the films), she may seem to lose her social position and become a servant, she may seem to be rebellious or transgressive, but she is still a “princess,” a true daughter of the Empire.

Imperial India is hyperreal, in Jean Baudrillard’s term: an object fetishized by its loss, a reality rendered unreal by its “hallucinatory resemblance to itself” (“Symbolic Exchange and Death”). Producing language, narrating India, Sara is also reproducing the same ideological structures that generate the plot-problems she is trying to overcome. Her every effort to retain self-respect in her poverty reinforces her difference from the story’s other poor characters; her friendly gestures toward the Indian servant Ram Dass reiterate her standing as a member of the Raj’s officer class; her ability to survive without her father demonstrates her dependence on the symbolic economy she inherited from him. A Little Princess, in text and film versions, sets forth the hyperreal spectacle of empire in a particularly clear way.