An Introduction to ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’

Mention the name of Little Lord Fauntleroy’s eponymous protagonist and one commonly receives a response centred on his iconic outfit.  That you would likely receive this same, possibly mocking response on either side of the Atlantic, attests to the intense popularity the text enjoyed during late 19th Century United States and England.  Published as a serial in St. Nicholas Magazine between November 1885 and October 1886 at a time of rapidly expanding horizons due to the development of, and increasing accessibility to, steam-powered travel, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s first children’s novel was forged in a furnace of burgeoning trans-Atlantic interest.  As both nations sought contact with their cousin, even if only to affirm their superiority, the Atlantic began to shrink from an ocean to the proverbial pond.  Immigrants from throughout mainland Europe and the British Isles poured into America’s ports, while American artists and the wealthy elite began touring and living in Europe’s capitals.  Individuals like Isabella Gardner, bought and shipped European art to America, opening galleries that exposed the American public to European and English culture, and authors from both sides of the Atlantic sought to explain the opposing nation to their readers.  This hive of trans-Atlantic activity drastically affected daily life, especially for those in the big cities, and Burnett herself became a trans-Atlantic figure.  Born in Manchester to a penniless family in 1849 during the Industrial Revolution, she relocated with her family to the United States in 1865.  She turned to writing for monetary gain, and in 1868 had her first story published.  Her mother died soon after, in 1870, and subsequently Burnett wrote ferociously, using the proceeds to remove the family from poverty and to visit England and Paris at least twice before the publication of Little Lord Fauntleroy.  It was in part, her intimate, first-hand knowledge of both nations’ defining outlooks and temperaments, penchants and peculiarities, that would help contribute to the novel’s success in both England and the United States.

The novel’s success with these two differing audiences provides a valuable entry point for thinking critically about the text, as historically, the relationship between the United States and England had been tense; indeed America had been born from violent conflict with England just over a century before, in 1783.  This dichotomy of ruler and rebel helped to solidify, on both sides of the Atlantic, identities advocating opposing qualities.  The English identity – English is deliberately used rather than British because it was the English who dominated the British Isles politically and economically at the time, it was from English persecution that the first American settlers fled, and because it is a traditional English, rather than Irish or Welsh, life that Cedric Fauntleroy enters – had long been defined and immortalised in English literature and art, and was constituted by the observance of hierarchy, pride in familial history and repressed emotion.  Americans had deliberately left this society through immigration and the impact of war, and it was this departure, along with America’s rugged, expansive landscapes, that helped pioneer the American identity as being exactly that, a nation of individual pioneers.  This young, expanding nation was rife with excitement, energy and immigrants, and this manifested itself in a more fluid, less definitive hierarchy, an emphasis on industry rather than familial connections and a more open, emotional existence.  Contemporary discussions of ‘Americanness’, naturally extended to include America’s literary history, which was accordingly recent and, therefore, largely dismissed by the English as amateur and unimportant.  These differing identities were occasionally supplemented by open hostility.  So, how did Burnett achieve success with Little Lord Fauntleroy in two societies that advocated opposing ideals?  Burnett’s knowledge of both nations is partly responsible, so too was rapidly advancing technology and its resulting metropolitan effect, but perhaps, the best explanation is Burnett relegating Lord Fauntleroy to exist as an object.  While he is a boy of seven and eight, his role within the text is more closely that of an object than a human, and nearly all criticism of Little Lord Fauntleroy revolves around this assertion, whether it acknowledges it explicitly or not.  Acknowledgment of this objectiveness is the foundation for trans-Atlantic readings, queer readings, readings of national character and identity – the list goes on.  The all-encompassing nature of Fauntleroy’s existence as an object is fortuitous, as it provides the reader with an inclusive, rather than a narrow view of the text as a basis for discussion and analysis.

However, before Little Lord Fauntleroy is introduced, a wider understanding of children’s fiction as a genre is required to help support the assertion that Fauntleroy functions as an object.  The term children’s fiction is itself different.  Whereas American fiction and Victorian fiction derive their names from their creators, “…children’s literature is whatever it is children happen to read.”[1]  This difference is important because it removes power and choice from the intended reader, the child, and places it in an outside force, the adult.  The child reader is only exposed to ‘whatever’ is deemed appropriate by:

The actual purchasers of children’s book [who] are and always have been, overwhelmingly, not children but parents, teachers, librarians: adults.  That this is the case seems part of the same cultural phenomenon that leads adults to write and publish the books to begin with – the conviction that children need things done for them by adults.[2]

This link between the adult and power and choice, and the child and powerlessness and lack of choice, confirms the idea that the child is an object controlled by the adult.  This notion is reflected in the seeming simplicity of children’s texts.  As C.S. Lewis opined, children’s fiction “…compels one to throw all the force of the book into what was done and said.”[3]  The subsequently simple prose that is driven by action rather than thought, simultaneously does two things: it reiterates the idea of the child as being without a well-developed cognitive ability to reason and evaluate, and it “…implies an unspoken and much more complex repertoire that amounts to a second, hidden text – what I will call a ‘shadow text’”.[4]  The assertion that a more complex shadow text may exist in children’s literature, suggests that children’s authors wish to write books that address both the child and the adult; targeting both the simplicity of a child and the more nuanced perception of an adult – assuming that the child cannot, in fact, comprehend the adult shadow text.  This removal of choice, ability and power from the child reader, bleeds into the action of the texts themselves and fictionalised children characters are depicted to exist without choice and power.  This is often achieved by the use of third person, which holds true in Little Lord Fauntleroy and creates “…a second point of view, that of the narrator.”[5]  This “…offer[s] hints that the focalised child character is not seeing everything there is to see or possibly not understanding events in the various ways they might be understood.”[6]  Burnett’s text partially rejects this view, as the narrator attributes Fauntleroy with an occasional insight that we are told would startle the adult characters.  But it is through the assured and demonstrated reactions of laughter and amusement by adults to his inquiries and actions, that Fauntleroy’s understanding is undermined and diminished, as established in the opening line of the novel, “Cedric himself knew nothing whatever about it.”[7]  Fauntleroy’s lack of understanding relegates him to exist as an object controlled by adults, as displayed in his interactions with Miss Vivian Herbert, the most popular debutante of the season, and her surrounding suitors.  His perceptiveness of her beauty is accurate, but his attempt to inform her of it through outright flattery, only serves to amuse her.  Ultimately, he is an object of her piqued interest, not a candidate for marriage, making him irrelevant and powerless, and emphasising that any influence or power he does hold is only invested in him by others.

Little Lord Fauntleroy is a good example of children’s fiction’s tendency to objectify children, and this tendency is central to understanding Burnett’s shadow text.  Little Lord Fauntleroy exists as a compromised amalgam of American and English identities – a manufactured object of trans-Atlantic identity – and his confusing alloy of divergent characteristics of youth and maturity, masculinity and femininity, embody the divergent characteristics of these identities.  This helps explain the popularity of the text with both English and American readers, as Fauntleroy is familiar enough for each to relate to and admire.  This fusion of identities also allows Fauntleroy to become an object on which English and American readers can project themselves, and serves as a vehicle for exploring the other nation.  Those characteristics outside their experience represent the other; for example, stately inherited estates for the American reader.  However, due to the similarities they share, or think they share, with Fauntleroy, these unknown characteristics become desirable rather than intolerably foreign:

What we believe we see is often precisely what we refuse to see: the operations of repression allow us to see only that which affirms what we choose to believe about ourselves.[8]

This introduces important questions regarding Little Lord Fauntleroy for the American and English reader: Which characteristics represent their own nationality and which the opposing nation?  How is this decided?  Can it be conclusively decided?

Little Lord Fauntleroy’s physical features form a foundation for self-projection for readers from both sides of the Atlantic, as he is painted as the epitome of the Anglo ideal:

…he started life with a quantity of soft, fine, gold-coloured hair, which curled up at the ends, and went into loose rings by the time he was six months old; he had big brown eyes and long eyelashes and a darling little face;”[9]

Apart from the explicitly stated colour of Fauntleroy’s hair and eyes, it can be presumed that, considering the audience, everything else is suitably Anglo-centric.  This strengthens Fauntleroy’s relationship with readers on both sides of the Atlantic and institutes his role as an object for the readers’ projection of identity from the opening pages of the book.  Burnett repeats these descriptions of Fauntleroy ad infinitum, but never with significant additional detail.  His face remains amorphous and his curls are “loose”[10], staking the middle ground.  This vague but positive description flatters the ego of all readers, and when combined with Burnett’s exhaustive repetition incites a tendency in the reader to skim over the descriptions and replace Fauntleroy’s features with their own.  Whether the reader is blonde haired and blue eyed, or brown haired and brown eyed, English or American, their own image can be projected onto Fauntleroy’s Anglo-centric ambiguity, making their investigation into the foreign culture less jarring.

Fauntleroy is, however, accorded almost unnatural characteristics.  He had, we are informed “…so strong a back and splendid sturdy legs that at nine months he learned suddenly to walk…”[11] which immediately raises the question of Fauntleroy’s actual age in the narrative.  The reader knows he is young, and while the celebration of his eighth birthday clarifies his actual age, Burnett contradicts this by frequently assigning him attributes more typical of adults.  Fauntleroy’s unusual and vague combination of youth and maturity allows readers to interpret and recast his age in a fashion similar to his physical features.  The issue of youth and age are important concepts and introduce divergent readings that result from the reader’s place in, and understanding of, the historical ruler-rebel dichotomy.  An American reader would likely understand Fauntleroy’s youth to be representative of the beauty and potential of their young nation, and his physical strength to represent their ability as strong, pragmatic and capable individuals taming their land.  The English reader would similarly recognise his youth as demonstrating the beauty and potential of America’s land, but would attribute his strength as stemming from the calibre of his English roots.

Fauntleroy learning to ride is a rich example of potentially divergent national readings.  To the American reader his courage symbolises America’s uncompromising, rugged individualism, and demonstrates that hard work is a means to overcome obstacles and rise in the world.  The English reader would acknowledge Fauntleroy’s unblinking courage, as indeed the Earl does, but ultimately he or she would understand that Fauntleroy’s success is owed largely to Wilkins, the groom.  It is not until Wilkins tells Fauntleroy to rise in the stirrups that Fauntleroy gains control of his movements.  Therefore, Fauntleroy’s success actually derives from the Earl’s servant and can be attributed to the opportunity provided by the gentry.  These divergent interpretations can be furthered by considering the symbolism of the Earl joining Fauntleroy after he has learnt to ride.  American readers would probably see this as the Earl acknowledging Fauntleroy’s achievement and welcoming him as his equal.  As Anne MacLeod posits:

…it was pleasing to read of an American child who carried the democratic virtues of an American upbringing into the very lion’s den of British aristocracy and won all their hearts thereby.  Little Lord Fauntleroy… appealed greatly to Americans who wanted to believe themselves better than their less successful countrymen, as good as any aristocrat and equal to anything…[12]

In contrast, the English reader would interpret the Earl joining Fauntleroy as a reinforcement of the significant role that the Earl played in Fauntleroy’s development.  Without the Earl, there would be no pony, no instruction, and no Wilkins, implying Fauntleroy’s need to be developed and controlled by a mature, English force.

These opposing interpretations are grounded in the previously mentioned historical and colonial context.  Depending on the readers’ context, the impact of colonialism gives rise to varied interpretations of the link between maturity and colonisation, and consequently differing readings of the text.  The idea that the colonised represent children, and that both the colonised and children speak a different language from the colonisers and adults, suits an English reader’s understanding.  This is highlighted in Burnett’s use of heavily accent-modified text.  The English view of American colonials speaking a different language would likely cause the American reader to counter that it is the English in the text who speak in the widest variety of accents.  To the English though, this variety would be an accepted part of the English landscape.  Whether you are from the North or the South of England is a significant aspect of English identity, and the multitude of accents presented is both realistic and natural.  This represents a regionality.  American characters, on the other hand, like Dick, speak unusually, or like  Mr. Hobbs, use unusual phrases, such as “I’ll be – jiggered”[13] and demonstrate what Crèvecoeur termed in his famous letters on Americans, to be the “melting”[14] of individuals into one;  which coined subsequent references to America as being a melting pot.  When this is combined with the assertions of the Earl and Mr. Havisham, figures of English hierarchy, law and order, that children are more or less the same, it confirms the link between colonials and children for English readers; and a view that all Americans speak, more or less, one melted, bastardised and substandard version of the English language.  This reading is supported by the development of Fauntleroy’s speech in the text.  When the novel starts he is living in America and his speech is littered with mispronunciations and words that are muddled and melted together.  His speech begins to improve and gain clarity after he moves to England, which notably is the site of his eighth birthday, an official clarification of his maturity.  This bolsters English perceptions that Americans are colonial and child-like, and therefore, unincorporated and different; and also, separates Americans from Englishmen, who are colonisers and adult, suggesting to the English reader that Fauntleroy’s more mature aspects derive from his English blood.

The idea of the colonised as the child and the coloniser as the adult, is emphasised for the English reader by the fact that both nationalities would agree that Fauntleroy’s youth is an expression of an American quality.  This is demonstrated in Fauntleroy’s acts of progression, or rather regression, which C.S. Lewis asserts is the force of the children’s book.[15]  He starts the novel as Cedric, a young boy in New York, but is revealed to be Little Lord Fauntleroy.  This revelation is important as it establishes that he has always been English and noble.  Although Fauntleroy tells the Earl he is American, this is easily forgotten and he quickly adapts to his English life, and by the novel’s end he enjoys the prospect of becoming an Earl.  For the English reader, his adoption of England, in concert with his improved speech, represents Fauntleroy’s return to his original bloodline imbued with maturity: from colonised to coloniser, from child to adult.

However, this movement from America to England can be reversed to suit the interpretations of the American reader.  That the American reader would agree that youth is an American quality, does not preclude a view that Fauntleroy’s maturity stems from his ‘Americanness’.  The English proposition that their version of the language is regional and better, could be invalidated for the American reader by the fact that the most difficult characters to read and understand in the text are English.  The text requires the reader, especially one who is not English, to carefully inspect Burnett’s spelling, consider possible pronunciations, and then match this to his or her knowledge of English accents.  A less than concerted effort can render some of the text almost impossible to decipher, discrediting the view that Fauntleroy’s improved language results from his return to his English heritage.  For an American reader, the source of the improvement is clear – the continual presence of his American mother, Dearest.  Accordingly, Fauntleroy’s adult qualities result from his American upbringing, rather than from any reconnection with England and his English hereditary background.  “Fauntleroy is his mother’s creation, the product of a regime of construction through sentiment… Fauntleroy functions as her proxy, for he represents her at every turn.”[16]  In a book rich in stereotypes, Burnett uses the lawyer, Mr. Havisham, as the incontestable voice of law, reason and measured morality, to confirm the vital role Dearest has played in the quality of Fauntleroy’s upbringing.  With Havisham’s redoubtable judgement cast, it is effectively law and it provides a means for the American reader to attribute Fauntleroy’s maturity to an adult American source.

The American source of Fauntleroy’s maturity is strengthened by Burnett’s depictions of the Earl and his two eldest children.  The eldest children are described as being utterly without merit and one notes an overwhelming characteristic: immaturity.  That they are the children of an Earl, a widely recognised symbol of English aristocracy, suggests a respectability they lack:

When they were at college, they cared nothing for study, and wasted both time and money… and [they] did not promise to end in being anything but… selfish, wasteful, insignificant…[17]

This depiction of the English hierarchy as immature even continues to the Earl, as he recognises through Fauntleroy’s injection of youth, that he has spent his life in largely the same vein as his two eldest children.  It is no mistake that the youngest son, the one least valued by English hierarchy, is the one who is described to be the epitome of man and therefore, the most mature.  To the American reader, the English hierarchy fails to imbue Fauntleroy with his maturity, confirming that the source is actually Dearest.

The validity of these divergent interpretations of Fauntleroy’s characteristics is supported by Burnett being labelled as both an English and American author.[18]  This derives from her many movements between America and England, and her residence on Long Island just before her death.  Possibly, Burnett herself could not decide whether she was American or English, which could validate American and English readers’ divergent interpretations.

Burnett’s own presence in the text is apparent in the fact “…that she ‘plagiarized’ the eponymous character of… Little Lord Fauntleroy, from her son Vivian.”[19]  It is documented that Burnett wanted her second child to be a daughter.  She changed the feminine name Vivien, to the masculine version Vivian, and let her son’s hair grow long into curls.[20]  This is the source of oft critically discussed queer readings of Little Lord Fauntleroy, as well as the origin of the androgynous nature of Fauntleroy.  His combination of masculine and feminine physical characteristics plays an important role within the text.  They establish Little Lord Fauntleroy not only as an object for the projection of divergent identities, but also as a universal object of attraction and desire.  That this is the object of Fauntleroy’s androgyny is supported by Jacqueline Rose’s assertion that:

…if children’s fiction builds an image of the child inside the book, it does so in order to secure the child who is outside the book, the one who does not come easily within its grasp.[21]

Surely then, Fauntleroy’s androgynous image must also act to secure adults.  This is asserted in Rose’s analysis of Peter Pan, in which she acknowledges there “…lies the desire of a man for a little boy…”.[22]  This desire is readily apparent in Little Lord Fauntleroy in the frequent homoerotic descriptions of Cedric’s legs, body and hair.  Additionally, Fauntleroy’s combination of childhood and maturity, and the confusing whirl of his sexuality correspond to puberty, making him ripe for exploitation and interest.  As in Peter Pan, this is problematic because:

…just at the moment when we are accepting the presence of sexuality in children’s fiction… we are asked to recognise it in a form which violates not only the innocence of childhood…but what we like to think of as normal sexuality itself.[23]

The attraction and desire that Fauntleroy elicits can therefore extend to areas that are taboo or unmentionable.  However, this sense of being off-limits or proscribed, also acts to allow readers to look across the Atlantic and seek to understand each other.  The United States and England have waged war on each other and share a history of hostility.  In Burnett’s time, a time of burgeoning trans-Atlantic interest, the two nations’ hostility was receding but remained fractious and difficult, and general opinion of the other was frequently not complimentary on either side of the Atlantic.  Little Lord Fauntleroy, with its aura of edginess acts to validate the reader breaching this trans-Atlantic divide, and endorses a genuine interest in, and desire for, the nation across the ocean.  Fauntleroy’s indeterminate gender can itself sanction this interest and desire as, “There is nothing too disturbing about a man desiring little girls – it is, after all, the desire in which little girls are in the end expected to recognise themselves.”[24]

The multiple interpretations and readings of Little Lord Fauntleroy explain the text’s popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, and support the notion that Fauntleroy simultaneously exists as an object on which readers can project their identity, and as an object of desire and attraction.  But it leads one to a critical question: Which reading would Burnett endorse, if any?  I argue that this question has no conclusive or exclusively correct answer, and that the answer depends on a reader’s own relationship with the England-America divide.  Burnett’s identification as both an English and an American writer supports this, as does her status as a trans-Atlantic figure.  The heart of the novel’s popularity and its commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic suggest that both nations simultaneously identified with, and desired, the trans-Atlantic identity that Fauntleroy represented.

Bibliography:

Burnett, Frances Hodgson, Little Lord Fauntleroy (London: Harper Press, 2012)

Carlson, Katherine L., Artful Artlessness: Authorship, Appropriation, and the Creative Child, 1858-1920 (Chapel Hill University Press: 2011) <https://cdr.lib.unc.edu/indexablecontent/uuid:b524734b-9a73-4d89-8979-8f3b487fa300&gt; [accessed December 26, 2013]

Crèvecoeur, Hector St. John, Letters from an American Farmer (Davies & Davies, 1782) <http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/4666/pg4666.html> [accessed December 30, 2013]

Havarth, Polly, Little Lord Fauntleroy (Aladdin Classics, 2004)

MacLeod, Anne Scott, American Childhood: Essays on Children’s Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995)

Nodelman, Perry, ‘Children’s Fiction as a Genre’ in The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature (Baltimore: JHU Press, 2008)

Riggs, Damien W., ‘Review: Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley, Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children’, Working Out Gender

<http://www.genderforum.org/issues/working-out-gender/steven-bruhm-and-natasha-hurley-eds-curiouser-on-the-queerness-of-children-minneapolis-minnesota-up-2004/> [accessed December 28, 2013]

Rose, Jacqueline, The Case of Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction (‪Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984)

Wilson, Anna. ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy: The Darling of Mothers and the Abomination of a Generation’, American Literary History, 8.2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press) <http://www.jstor.org/stable/490296&gt; [accessed January 1, 2013]


[1] Perry Nodelman, ‘Children’s Fiction as a Genre’ in The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature (Baltimore: JHU Press, 2008) p. 4

[2] Nodelman, p.4

[3] Nodelman, p. 8

[4] Nodelman, p. 8

[5] Nodelman, p. 8

[6] Nodelman, p. 20

[7] Frances Hodgson Burnett, Little Lord Fauntleroy (London: Harper Press, 2012) p. 1

[8] Damien W. Riggs, ‘Review: Steven Bruhm and Natasha Hurley, Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children’, Working Out Gender

<http://www.genderforum.org/issues/working-out-gender/steven-bruhm-and-natasha-hurley-eds-curiouser-on-the-queerness-of-children-minneapolis-minnesota-up-2004/> [accessed December 28, 2013]

[9] Burnett, p. 5

[10] Burnett, p. 5

[11] Burnett, p. 5

[12] Anne Scott Macleod, American Childhood: Essays on Children’s Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995)

[13] Burnett, p. 15

[14] Hector St. John Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (Davies & Davies, 1782) <http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/4666/pg4666.html> [accessed December 30, 2013]

[15] Nodelamn, p.8

[16] Anna Wilson. ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy: The Darling of Mothers and the Abomination of a Generation’, American Literary History, 8.2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press) <http://www.jstor.org/stable/490296&gt; [accessed January 1, 2013] p. 240

[17] Burnett, p. 3

[18] Wilson, p. 238

[19] Katherine L. Carson, Artful Artlessness: Authorship, Appropriation, and the Creative Child, 1858-1920 (Chapel Hill University Press: 2011) <https://cdr.lib.unc.edu/indexablecontent/uuid:b524734b-9a73-4d89-8979-8f3b487fa300&gt; [accessed December 26, 2013] p. 110

[20] Polly Havarth, Little Lord Fauntleroy (Aladdin Classics,2004) p.viii

[21] Jacqueline Rose, The Case of Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction (‪Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984) p. 2

[22] Rose, p. 3

[23] Rose, p. 3

[24] Rose, p. 3

© Guy Chandler and The Wide Sargasso Gyre, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Guy Chandler and The Wide Sargasso Gyre with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

4 comments

  1. Thanks for writing this. Little Lord Fauntleroy has been one of those books that has always escaped me. For some reason, I’ve never read it, yet the physical description has invaded speech when it comes to describing someone in those terms. Your look at the book as a bridge and/or comparison of the American to English reader is an interesting one.

  2. That was some serious research you did, and it resulted in some serious reading this evening for me!

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