Little Lord Fauntleroy (by Frances Hodgson Burnett)

Browsing through my Kindle, looking for something light but enjoyable to read on a flight, I spotted ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’, one of the children’s books by Frances Hodgson Burnett. She is probably best-known for her classic ‘The Secret Garden’ but I recalled reading and liking this (her first published book) many years ago.

The story is about a boy called Cedric, who lives with his mother in a fairly run-down New York neighbourhood in the late 1800s. His father, who was English, died some years earlier. Cedric is a lovable child, who has a knack of making friends with people of all ages: from the local grocer to a bootblack who struggles to make ends meet.

One day, a lawyer arrives from the UK, explaining that Cedric’s two uncles have also died, without any children, so he has inherited the title of Lord Fauntleroy; one day he will be an earl. The lawyer has been sent by Cedric’s grandfather, who disowned his youngest son when he married an American. He asks that Cedric and his mother move to England, so that Cedric can become accustomed to his title and duties. However, he refuses to see Cedric’s mother, and will install her in a house nearby.

The mother (we never learn her first name) is almost heartbroken, but she knows it’s the right thing to do. So without a word against the grandfather, they bid farewell to their many friends, and the only country Cedric has ever known, and embark on the long voyage to the UK.

The plot is probably well-known: the crusty old grandfather is pleasantly surprised by Cedric’s polite manners, and frank - but well-spoken - dialogue. He never liked his own sons much, but quickly becomes very fond of his young grandson. Much of the book describes their growing relationship, watched with astonishment by the Earl’s servants and the local Vicar.

Inevitably there’s a crisis - one which includes such an enormous coincidence that I found it a tad hard to swallow. But it’s a children’s book, initially serialised in a magazine, and extremely popular with its young readers. It paints a good picture of the contrast between aristocratic homes in England and the poorer parts of New York, but is not in any way anti-American despite the Earl’s sentiments. The author was clearly comfortable in both cultures, and shows well how different the two countries were, even 130 years ago.

Well worth reading for anyone - child or adult - who likes this era of fiction; it would make an excellent read-aloud too, with much to discuss and think about from a social history point of view.

Definitely recommended. I read it in about three hours, and it made an excellent distraction from an otherwise rather boring flight. Free versions are widely available from Amazon or Project Gutenberg, as well as paperback and other Kindle editions.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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