Frances Hodgson Burnett’s books A Little Princess and The Secret Garden are two of my favorite childhood reading experiences. I did not find out until I was a grownup that Burnett also wrote books for grownups. I read one of her first novels, That Lass o’Lowrie’s and enjoyed it for the Victorian entertainment it was, but I didn’t read any more of her novels until I found one in an unexpected place – on my Kindle.
I vaguely remember downloading A Fair Barbarian as a potential bedtime story for my daughter before deciding that I should read the book myself first, since I didn’t know whether the book was intended for adults or children. Now that I’ve read it, I’m still not sure. It is a short, vaguely romantic, late-Victorian novel; nothing occurs that would be inappropriate for young readers. But the language is so stiff and flowery that few young people today could wade through it.
For anyone with the patience to slow down and meander through all the parenthetical phrases, however, A Fair Barbarian is a charming read. Hidden under the layers of wardrobe lies a biting social commentary. More than a comedy of manners, Burnett wrote a scathing mockery of conformity and social control. It draws a bit from Jane Austen and foreshadows Cold Comfort Farm. One online reviewer called it a simplified retelling of Henry James’ “Daisy Miller,” but I can’t speak to that because I haven’t read it. Burnett’s fair barbarian is an American girl of nineteen who arrives in a parochial English village and shakes things up a bit. She does this entirely by accident, simply by virtue of not being afraid of what other people think.
In the course of events, she improves herself (she learns to stop over-accessorizing her wardrobe) while improving others (her friend learns to stand up for herself). By the end of the book, all the young women are engaged to men of quality as befits any Victorian romance. When I googled the book to see if it was intended for adults or children, almost all the reviews described the surprise ending as abrupt. Nonsense. Burnett telegraphed the ending all through the middle third of the book.
Burnett was English, raised in America, and lived in both countries during adulthood. A Fair Barbarian was one of her earlier novels – published in 1881, well before her most famous children’s books, which actually came out in the 20th century – and it’s easy to imagine that she saw herself in its brash American heroine. For all its attention to century-old fashions and tea party invitation etiquette, the book is surprisingly relevant today. The details of conformity may have changed, but people still make decisions based on appearances and what other people do. It still requires courage and/or cluelessness to present yourself as you really are rather than mold yourself to others’ expectations. And it’s still worthwhile to do so.
The more I think about it, the more I think I will make my daughter read this book.