I finished reading a biography about my old famous aunt Frances Hodgson Burnett a while ago, the most recent comprehensive biography that was published in 2004: Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Unexpected Life of the Author of The Secret Garden
I recently came across some quotes I had pulled from it, little tidbits I thought were interesting.
From page 137:
It was about this time that Frances fell into the habit of “adopting” other children while she was absent from her own. In Rome she took up two “tiny pretty little beggar boys” who sang for tourists near her hotel. … Over time she would bring in sick children to educate them, and would help establish a club for boys in London. She saw these disadvantaged children as somehow substituting for her own, and she expected her own children, so far away, to respond with enthusiasm toward those they might well view as their substitutes as rivals. Frances in some way believed that lavishing attention and gifts on other children, then telling her own children about it, would make her sons feel closer to her rather than jealous or replaced.
This just made me laugh. It’s of course easy to admire her charity, but telling her own children about it as if it excused her from lavishing similar attention on them leaves me scratching my head. Maybe her children were not as hungry for attention as others, but I can’t see myself as a child much appreciating hearing about strangers getting gifts from one of my parents. Even when you’re a mature adult, it’s like getting one of those donation non-gift gifts, “a donation has been made in your name to blah blah blah”, to which you must politely and humbly reply, “Gee, that’s great, thanks!” rather than, “Thanks for reminding me that I’m already too fortunate for a gift and that you’re charitable. What a great gift.”
Frances was a famous writer at a time when high powered women were not so common and surely the idea of “feminism” meant something far different than it does these days (especially the Internet’s bizarre brand of “SJW feminism”). She was once asked to contribute a set of her works to woman’s exhibit at the World’s Fair in Chicago in the 1890’s, an exhibit meant to “instruct men as to the work and importance of women”, paying tribute “to the achievements, public and domestic, of women.” From page 166:
As one of the world’s most popular living women writers, Frances was asked to contribute a set of her works, but she did not take this as the honor it was doubtless intended to be but rather as one in a series of requests. Her apparent annoyance seemed to lie more in the fact of a building devoted to womanhood than with anything else. “Will you please send a complete set of my books … ” she wrote to Scribner’s. “It is in response to one of those endless demands that one should send some of oneself to some Womans Department of Something at the Worlds Fair. I have grown so tired of Woman with a W though I suppose it is the rankest heresy to say so. I dont want to be a Woman at all. I have begun to feel that I want to be something like this ‘WOMAN.’ Nevertheless if every body is sending books I must send mine.”
I thought that was an interesting response; I reckon she didn’t like the idea of others seeming to define for her what a ‘Woman’ should or shouldn’t be, or that she was automatically obligated to support the cause by virtue of being a famous woman. Hard to tell for sure though.
A hint of how the book business worked in the days of old, from page 178. Frances wanted a book of hers to be published immediately rather than having to follow the publisher’s schedule, and she was apparently a popular enough author that she had some pull. Scribner’s offered to skip the novel serialization and the income that would have come with it, but offered an advance on royalties. Here’s what I thought was interesting: Frances rejected this deal because accepting an advance on royalties could be risky in those days because the advance might have had to be returned if the book failed to earn it out. Can you imagine having to pay back an advance? That would stink. I was surprised publishers and authors apparently used to make those sorts of deals.
Back to womanhood for a moment, from page 187, Frances was being interviewed and was asked questions about the sexes:
“The man and woman question has no interest for me,” she told the interviewer. “We are not to be divided into mere men and women; we are human beings who are part of each other. Each part should be as noble as the other, and the one who is stronger should teach the other strength. To be a man’s wife and the mother of human beings is a stately thing. Frequently it is not, but it should be. And to be a woman’s husband and the father of human beings should be quite a stately thing. When it is not it is rather disgraceful. . . .”
“Then I gather that your ideal woman must be a mother?” [The interviewer putting words in her mouth?]
“She must be a mother if she has children. . . . She must have the reason and sense of honor and justice which one expects from the ideal man.”
Having written a book that both bowed to and called into question the proper role of women, she ended the interview with a statement that seems to have sprung from her lips without forethought. “It is my opinion,” she told the interviewer, “that the ideal woman, among quite a number of other things, should be a ‘perfect gentleman.'”
Skipping 100 pages into Frances’s future, here’s another part I found funny. In 1914, Little Lord Fauntleroy was turned into a British film for the first time. From page 279:
[The film] made its New York screen debut at the Lyric Theater. In true Frances fashion, she made a “fairy story” of it, taking the hundred seats the producer had offered her for the first performance, a benefit for the Newsboys’ Fund, and instead of distributing them among her friends made a children’s party of it. With Frances as hostess, the dozens of boys arrived half an hour before the curtain went up and waited in great excitement.
This reminded me of J. M. Barrie doing something similar in the film Finding Neverland, inaccurate as it may be, in which the playwright invites children to fill seats throughout the theater for the premier of Peter Pan, both as a gift to them, and to provide a spirited laugh track for his fairy tale to ease what the typical adults may otherwise try to take too seriously. “What is it called, James? A play!”
Anyway, Frances’s little plan does not go so well…
Although she had been told that there would be a few “novelties” in the production, neither she nor the children were quite prepared for the fact that the director decided to kill off each of the heirs to Dorincourt, one at a time, in florid details of hunting accidents and delirium tremens. By the third miserable death, one of Frances’s small guests cried out, “I don’t like this play! If I knew this play was going to be this kind play I wouldn’t have come to this play. I want to go home.” With that he bolted up the aisle in tears, and most of the other children followed suit. Frances could only herd the wailing children out of the theater in dismay.
Sad, but hilarious.
Finally, it seems Frances did not much like editors or criticism. Nowadays, writers quickly learn that taking criticism is part of the craft, and one must learn to use it to fine-tune one’s work and one’s skill. Frances, it appears, did not quite operate that way. She believed her work came from a higher power, so it was not for others to criticize or edit. From page 294, emphasis mine:
Elizabeth [a friend] was a sounding board, one whose job was to admire but not to criticize. Frances once recounted in amazement the time she’d read a story to a young man who dared to offer criticism, something Elizabeth would never dream of doing. In fact, the only other time someone had dared such a thing, it ended with his losing his job. Apparently Frances sent the manuscript of one of her novels to the publisher at a time when her editor was unfortunately in Europe. His new young assistant wrote out a list of improvements and passed them on to the equally new assistant editor, who made the mistake of mailing it to Frances. “The result,” Elizabeth wrote, “was an explosion that shook the building which held the magazine and its employees. Mrs. Burnett gave a magnificent illustration of the tempest that can be aroused in gentle souls.” She withdrew the manuscript, to the astonishment of the editor who’d known nothing of what happened, and refused all their calls and letters and cables. By the time it was resolved, months later, Frances had their written agreement that they would continue to publish her work without any alterations whatsoever, as they had all along. When Elizabeth later asked why Frances was so averse to criticism when she averred that stories came from outside of herself, the answer was that “I am the custodian of a gift. It is for me to protect its dignity from the driveling of imbeciles!”
That’s it! Overall, it was a fascinating book, I very much enjoyed it!