Frances Hodgson Burnett

(1849 - 1924), British Novelist

Frances Hodgson Burnett found great fame as a children’s fiction writer and helped popularize the genre as a result. Frances Hodgson Burnett is an Anglo-American novelist, playwright, and socialite famous for her children’s stories. She drew from her own childhood experiences, adult romance, fascination with nature, and spirituality to create children’s stories that became incredibly popular both within her lifetime and after she was long gone. Frances Burnett lived an eventful but stressful life, being forced to cater to her family through income from her writing while still attending to her duties as a homemaker and mother.

Life Facts

  • Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in Manchester, England, on November 24, 1849.
  • Frances was three years old when her father died- the situation plunging the family into poverty.
  • Frances only turned to writing professionally so she could support her family. Her first story was published in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1868.
  • Frances struggled with depression for large parts of her life due to the stress of supporting her family, as well as the loss of her first son, Lionel, to alcohol poisoning.
  • Frances was convinced to write children’s fiction after a visit to Boston in 1879, where she met Louisa May Alcott and Mary Mapes Dodge, editor of the children’s magazine St. Nicholas.
  • Burnett was a semi-vegetarian who, at one point, succeeded in eliminating meat from her diet.
  • Burnett was a well-known host in Washington society, and the literary salon she hosted on Tuesday evenings was frequented by politicians as well as local literati.
  • Burnett died on 29 October 1924, aged 74.

Interesting Facts

  • Frances wanted to postpone her wedding with Swan Burnett because the wedding dress she ordered from Paris was delayed.
  • Burnett personally made the clothes her children wore to save money.
  • Burnett’s play, Esmerelda, published in 1881, was the longest-running play on Broadway in the 19th century.
  • Burnett chose a feminine name, Vivien, for her second child before he was born, believing he’ll be a boy. She changed the name to its masculine form, Vivan, after giving birth and discovering the child was male.

Famous Books by Frances Burnett

The Secret Garden was first published in a serialized version by ‘The American Magazine’ in 1910. It was published as a novel in 1911.  The Secret Garden tells the story of Mary, the neglected daughter of British colonialists in India, who was forced to go live with her uncle in his big Yorkshire manor after a cholera outbreak claimed her parents. It follows her transformation from a sickly, lazy and ill-mannered child to a boisterous and kind one after she discovers a secret abandoned garden that she nursed back to life.  Mary changes from hating everyone to being the catalyst for the healing of her cousin, young Dickon, who has been physically incapacitated, bringing joy and life back into a desolate, sad, and dull household. Although the Secret Garden was not counted among Frances’ best efforts for a long while when and after it was published, it has grown to be Frances’ most memorable book due to the growing reputation of children’s fiction over the years, as well as the wider availability of the book as it entered Public Domain and became the focus of numerous abridged and unabridged editions.

Just like ‘The Secret Garden, ‘A Little Princess’ first appeared in some form in a serialized novella that appeared in 1888 titled “Sara Crewe: or, What Happened at Miss Minchin’s.” When Frances decided to construct a play in 1902  inspired by the Sara Crewe story called ‘The Little Un-fairy Princess,’ her publisher suggested she draw more material from the original for an expanded novel instead. The story follows the ordeals of Sara in boarding school, who preservers with her noble character and courageousness intact in the face of unjust opposition by a jealous and cruel headmaster. Originally born into wealth, Sara was sent to a boarding school by her father, Captain Crewe, because he believed it to represent the best education for Sara. However, the school’s headmaster grew jealous of Sara but however pretended to be kind to her- although Sara was not fooled. The headmaster only shows her true colors after Sara’s father dies, and she suddenly found herself indebted to the school. Although the headmaster tried to cruelly overwork Sara under the pretext of making her work to pay off the debt, Sara keeps her head high and triumphs in the end.

Like the previous two books and true to the norms of the time, Frances Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroyfirst appeared as a series in 1885 and was republished as a book in 1886. The book was Frances Burnett’s most popular and successful during her time and helped establish her reputation as a writer. The story picks up the pace with the unexpected news that young and poor New Yorker, Cedric Errol, was, in fact, the heir to the Earldom of Dorincourt in England, making him Lord Fauntleroy. The young pauper’s status has changed overnight, but he faces a challenge in the old Earl, his grandfather, who had morphed into a paranoid and bitter old man. Little Lord Fauntleroy documents Cedric’s patient but successful attempt to change his father’s behavior for the good of everyone in the Earldom. The book was the object of controversy when Frances discovered a playwright had adapted it for stageplay without her permission. This inspired Frances to publish and stage her own dramatized version.

Published in 1915, ‘The Lost Prince’ follows the story of young Marco Loristan and his father, Stefan, two dissidents who try to overthrow the brutal dictatorship of their Samavian homeland. In exile in London, Marco strikes up a friendship with a street urchin, and together the pair work to bring restore ‘The Lost Prince,’ a mythical figure who was supposedly the rightful king, to the Moravian throne. Both of them then embarked on a secret mission around Europe to galvanize a secret society devoted to the same goal. The story emphasized common themes found in Frances’s books, like discipline, self-respect, initiative, and resourcefulness in children, among others.

Early Life

Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in Cheetham, Manchester, England. She was born in 1849. After her father died in 1852, the situation of the economy made it hard for her mother to keep up with the financial responsibility of the household. Soon, the once well-to-do family started to struggle with poverty. Eventually, they had to move from Manchester in 1865. Frances started to write at a young age. She was just a bit formally educated, yet she was an avid reader. She often scribbled her literary work in a notebook during leisure. Her mother had her burn the articles before they vacated England, however. Still, she continued telling stories and writing. It did not take so long before she realized she could provide help to her struggling family by selling stories she wrote to popular ladies’ magazines. After freely entertaining her sisters and schoolmates with her natural talent, she decided to write to earn a living. At first, she was turned down by a magazine publisher. She wrote again, and her entry was accepted. This was the beginning of something new as she started publishing stories for public consumption. Her first story was published in Godey’s Lady’s Book when she was nineteen. At Godey’s, two stories earned her $35. She wrote in magazines for a while and only started publishing full novels after her first child was born.

Literary Career

Her first stories were romantic in nature, usually set in aristocratic English parlors.  She was soon writing five or more stories per month and publishing them in periodicals such as ‘The Atlantic Monthly.’ Frances wrote books like ‘TheLass o’ Lowrie’s’ (her first book written in 1877), ‘Surly Tim’ (1877). ‘Lindsay’s Luck’ (1878), ‘Louisiana’ (1880), ‘A Fair Barbarian’ (1881).

Literature by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Explore literature by Frances Hodgson Burnett below, created by the team at Book Analysis.