Frances Hodgson Burnett

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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...

(This entire section contains 2128 words.)

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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 book throughout his life. It was one of the three best-sellers of the year, and over one million copies sold in Britain alone. The novel was also dramatized, a process that involved a court case over the copyright laws of the day. Much of the later criticism that the book was sickly sentimental was misplaced: Compared to other popular late Victorian fiction, Little Lord Fauntleroy was filled with political and psychological insights, and the “lost heir” motif was used for moral purposes in a focused storyline. Sentimentalities arose out of Frances’ self-projection as “Dearest,” the ideal mother, and in the strange mix of childish and adult language given to the seven-year-old hero.

Now in her thirties, Frances was famous. She was described as being plump and short with a square, projecting forehead and possessing large, soulful eyes and luxurious hair. Some accounts depicted her as being animated in talk and affable in manners. She also enjoyed excellent health during this period. As the need to write lessened, the urge to travel grew. Leaving her boys behind, she stayed longer and longer in Europe. While in Rome, Italy, during the winter of 1889-1890, she heard that her son Lionel was ill. Frances returned to Washington, D.C., and found that the diagnosis was tuberculosis. She refused to tell him, and went everywhere looking for cures and nursing him devotedly. Lionel died in Paris in December, 1890.

Little Lord Fauntleroy had been her first book to have a child hero; thereafter followed a series of books about children, including The Pretty Sister of José (1889). In 1896 she returned to adult heroines, most notably in In Connection with the De Willoughby Claim (1899) and The Making of a Marchioness (1901). By now Frances was reunited with her sister Edith, was based in London, and was involved in the theater and philanthropic work. She moved in high society and adopted an increasingly expensive lifestyle. She met the novelist Henry James frequently. She had also met Stephen Townesend, a doctor ten years younger than herself and a would-be actor who became her personal assistant. In 1898 she officially divorced Swan and then, to everyone’s surprise, married Townesend in 1900. He had a volatile temper and was often possessive and bullying. The marriage only lasted two years. Parts of this tempestuous marriage are reflected in her novel The Shuttle (1907).

Another autobiographical detail reflected in The Shuttle was Maytham Hall, an old country mansion in southern England that Frances leased from 1898 to 1907. During this time she took up her previous children’s story Sara Crewe (1888) and dramatized it as Little Princess (1903). The extra material generated was then rewritten into an enlarged novel of the same name, which was published in 1905. Although not immediately as popular as Little Lord Fauntleroy, Little Princess has since become much more so. The heroine showed the same qualities of gentillesse as had the hero of Little Lord Fauntleroy, but she also demonstrated courage in adversity, a development of Frances’ favorite Cinderella theme. A surge of other children’s books followed, the most popular being Racketty Packetty House (1906).

My Robin (1912) recorded Frances’ last visit to Maytham Hall and also provided a clue to the setting of her greatest novel, The Secret Garden (1910). The Secret Garden’s real genesis was probably an incident recorded in a memoir of finding an abandoned garden in a Manchester house and, by sheer force of imagination, seeing it as intensely alive. The development of her rose garden at Maytham Hall and her observation of a robin combined with this memory. The Cinderella motif was reversed, for neither the heroine nor the hero of The Secret Garden possessed any moral qualities. Both were neglected, unloved, and unlovely children. The novel avoided much of Frances’ earlier sentimentality, and the psychological realism was completely convincing. Its structure and movement demonstrated her storytelling abilities at their best.

In 1905 Frances became a U.S. citizen and, after 1908, never leased an English property again. Instead, she bought land in Plandome, Long Island, New York, and built an ornate Italianate house and gardens. She continued to write popular works such as The Dawn of a Tomorrow (1906; dramatization, 1909), which contained elements of fashionable Christian Science thinking. Her final children’s book was The Lost Prince (1915), based on a meeting with exiled Serbian aristocracy during her last visit to Europe early in 1914. By then, the cinema had begun to attract Frances, and she gained the interest of Mary Pickford, who starred in four films based on Frances’ books, including Little Lord Fauntleroy. No less than three other motion picture versions of this book were made. After World War I, public taste turned against Frances’ Victorian style, and her last books received poor reviews. In 1921 she became ill in Bermuda and then recovered. In constant ill health, she commuted between summers at Plandome and winters in New York hotels. She died in Plandome in 1924 and was buried in Roslyn, Long Island.


The New York Times obituary suggesting that Frances’ greatest successes were her work to bring about the 1911 Copyright Act and her book Little Lord Fauntleroy merely recorded the reaction against her at the time of her death. Biographer Ann Thwaite cites the claim that Little Lord Fauntleroy changed “relationships between America and Britain” as well as the dress styles and even the emotional health of countless young boys of the day. To this must be added Frances’ own claim that she “tried to write more happiness into the world,” especially with regard to the books that have now become classics of children’s literature. Her understanding of childhood and her ability to recreate it have certainly helped develop modern children’s literature. The Secret Garden still stands as a pinnacle of Romance literature that holds realism and fantasy in perfect tension.

As a career writer, Frances Hodgson Burnett was at the forefront of defining “the new woman” as she balanced traditional views of motherhood with those of emancipation and the liberty to develop her own career. The role of wife was the one role she could not fit into the equation, though she was an excellent breadwinner, combining this with a “fairy godmother” role of philanthropist. Thwaite suggests that what she cared for most was “the invincibility of the human spirit . . . the acceptance of all experience, courage born of adversity.” This was precisely what Frances portrayed in her best fiction.


Bixler, Phyllis. Frances Hodgson Burnett. Boston: Twayne, 1984. The first chapter surveys Burnett’s life and writings. Successive chapters deal with the three main periods of her writing career. The final chapter seeks to define her achievement. Includes a selective bibliography and index.

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The One I Knew the Best of All. London: Frederick Warne, 1974. Burnett’s only attempt at autobiography. Written for children, the book follows her life as far as her first publication.

Burnett, Vivian. The Romantick Lady: The Life Story of an Imagination. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927. An invaluable memoir by Burnett’s son Vivian and the only source for some of her correspondence.

Dusinberre, Juliet. Alice to the Lighthouse. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. An invaluable study of the link between children’s and adult literature from Lewis Carroll to Virginia Woolf. Includes an excellent chapter on The Secret Garden and a bibliography.

Laski, Marghanita. Mrs Ewing, Mrs Molesworth and Mrs Hodgson Burnett. London: Arthur Baker, 1950. One of the earliest critical studies of Burnett’s writings; Laski sets her in the context of late Victorian children’s fiction, especially by women authors.

Thwaite, Ann. Waiting for the Party: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett. London: Secker and Warburg, 1974. This is the definitive biography even though its thesis that Burnett never quite succeeded in achieving her ideals or her need to be loved can be questioned. Includes a complete list of all her writings and dramatic pieces.