Frances Hodgson Burnett Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

0111205062-Burnett.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Burnett’s immensely popular stories and dramatizations brought pleasure and hope to many people and bridged divides between British and American audiences, the rich and the poor, and children and adults.

Early Life

Frances Eliza Hodgson was born into the family of a relatively prosperous hardware merchant who ran a store in Manchester, England, one of the foremost cities of the Industrial Revolution. Frances had two older brothers and two younger sisters. She had few memories of her father, Edwin, who died in 1853, leaving her mother, Eliza, to run the business. Financial constraints forced them to move to an inexpensive house in Islington Square, Salford, a little island of “respectable” houses in a sea of poor housing inhabited by cotton mill operatives. Frances was not encouraged to play with their children or speak the local Lancashire dialect. With a quick ear, however, she was able to precisely reproduce it.

Frances was an imaginative child, describing herself as having “a positively wolfish appetite for books,” and from three years old began “a lifelong chase after the story.” She also described how she discovered the delights of her father’s library, especially a shelf of Blackwood’s Magazine periodicals, which the Brontë sisters had also found influential in developing a taste for Romantic stories and poetry. Frances soon found an eager audience for her own first efforts at story telling at the small private school she attended.

Frances described her mother as a gentle person who instilled into her the moral priority of kindness and the need to be “always the little lady.” Eliza continued to run the family business until the depression caused by the American Civil War and the slow drying up of the supply of raw cotton. Eliza’s brother had previously emigrated to Eastern Tennessee, and he wrote to Eliza about the opportunities available in the United States; in 1865, the nearly destitute Hodgsons decided to join him in the small township of New Market, Tennessee. Unfortunately, postwar depression had affected business in the United States as well, and there was little work. Despite this, Frances described these as her “Dryad days,” especially when they moved to the outskirts Knoxville, Tennessee. For a city girl, the abundance of forests and mountains was overwhelming. However, the desperate need for income finally induced her to write a short story for one of the popular women’s magazines of the day. After a request for a second story, she had them both accepted by Gody’s Lady’s Book for the sum of thirty-five dollars, with an invitation to write more. She was eighteen years old.

Life’s Work

Frances had stated in the cover letter sent with her first story that “my object is remuneration.” After Eliza’s death in 1870, this became even more vital. Frances began writing five or six stories per month at ten or twelve dollars each. These early stories were stylized romances of the period. In 1871 she tried a realistic story written in the Lancashire dialect called “Surly Tim,” which was accepted by Scribner’s Magazine, a literary magazine. This began a long association with the Charles Scribner’s Sons publishing house.

At this time Frances was being courted by Swan Burnett, the son of a doctor in New Market. He too was training to be a doctor. Frances was reluctant to marry, preferring to return to England for fifteen months in 1872, the second of her thirty-three transatlantic crossings. On her return, however, they did marry and lived in Knoxville, where their first son, Lionel, was born in 1874. Burnett wanted to further his medical studies in ophthalmology and also wanted Frances to get away from the South. A stay in Paris, France, was arranged with advances from Frances’ publishers. While there, the couple’s second son, Vivian, was born at the same time that Frances was writing her first novel, That Lass o’ Lowrie’s, a story of a Lancashire mining girl, in the style of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848). Serialization began in 1876 and complete publication came in 1877, to much acclaim.

After some financial hardship upon their return to the United States, they managed to settle in Washington, D.C., still supported by Frances’ writings. Frances became a society hostess and boasted President James Garfield among her acquaintances. Sales of That Lass o’ Lowrie’s soared, as did a collection of short stories, Surly Tim and Other Stories (1877). Haworth’s, also set in Lancashire, followed in 1879. Some twelve novels and five collections of stories were published at this time, climaxing with her novel of Washington life, Through One Administration (1883). Signs of an unhappy marriage showed through, however: The book was one of her few novels without a happy ending.

In 1885, Frances wrote the novel that was to make her name, Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), published with illustrations by Reginald Birch. The story was based on her own son Vivian, who never quite threw off the image constructed by...

(The entire section is 2128 words.)