Frances Hodgson Burnett was born on this day in 1849. Burnett published her first story at age eighteen, hoping to help her impoverished family, recently emigrated from Manchester to a log cabin in Tennessee. Through the next half century she published over fifty novels, thirteen plays, and a steady flow of magazine stories and articles, becoming famous on both sides of the Atlantic — and the highest-paid female author of her day. The majority of her books were for adults, though she is remembered now for her children’s books Little Lord Fauntleroy (celebrating its 125th anniversary this year) and The Secret Garden (celebrating its centennial this year).
The Secret Garden is now considered a children’s classic, but Little Lord Faunterloy was far more popular in Burnett’s lifetime, though perhaps not with those boys whose mothers were swept up in the ensuing fashion craze. News reports and memoirs of the day refer to “the Fauntleroy pestilence” and “insufferable mollycoddle” that turned rugged American boys into genteel Oscar Wildes in lace collars and knee breeches. One early biographer of Stephen Crane notes that he so detested the Fauntleroy craze that he would give money to little boys so they could cut off their girlish hair; most biographies of T. S. Eliot carry a photo of him as a boy peering out dubiously from behind his Fauntleroy curls and velvet suit.
Burnett’s popularity had the society and gossip reporters following and quoting her at Mark Twain levels. Unlike Twain, she did not always enjoy the attention; the following is excerpted from an 1889 letter to the editor in which she complains at the “monument of fiction” contained in a recent news report:
It describes me as encircled by an army of young men. I am encircled by an army of two young men — aged respectively twelve and fourteen [her children]. They draw themselves up in battalions and form themselves into hollow squares, and I am rather popular with them.… It is next stated that during my stay in New York I was known as the “Empress of Bohemia.” This sounds like a pleasant title, but a person Bohemia did not once see during my stay in New York is scarcely entitled to such a distinction. It announces that I wore Kate Greenaway dresses of vivid silk belted under the arms with wide sashes: I do not own such a costume, and I am also not mad.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.