At the end of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, Sara Crewe leaves Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary, where she had begun as a cossetted pupil before being savagely stripped of her finery and forced to work as a scullery maid when her father’s fortune and life were lost. Sara, once again a little princess, beloved, protected, given every luxury, scatters largess to the crowds: she takes her fellow scullery maid, Becky, with her when she goes to live with her guardian; and she goes to a bakery where she had once met a starving beggar girl, to arrange for a better future for that waif with the kind-hearted baker woman. The former beggar, Anne, meets Sara’s eyes and takes her hand and somehow, the two girls understand each other. Anne Shirley would say there was a meeting of kindred spirits. And there the novel ends.
Hilary McKay, in her Author’s Note which prefaces Wishing for Tomorrow, her sequel to A Little Princess, writes of the one flaw in what seemed to her the perfect ending:
When Sara, the little princess, drove away with her mysterious benefactor and the scullery maid, the rest of us did not go with her. We were left behind, exactly where we were before she arrived.
That could not have been the whole of it! Surely Lottie and Lavinia, Ermengarde and all the rest of that seething bunch of opinions did not just fade into the shadows! Did they not have a story too? What happened next?
And so I have written the answer.
Here are Lottie and Lavinia, Ermengarde and all the rest, stepping back from the shadows and into the light. This is the story of what happened next, after Sara went away.
Every subsequent story with the same characters – or rather, every well-written subsequent story with the same characters, particularly but not necessarily if it is written by different author or after several years have elapsed – reinterprets the characters and circumstances of its predecessor(s). Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series is an excellent example of this: in later stories, the reader learns things about the characters that was not revealed in the earlier novels – motivations, perspectives on the same event, depths of belief or worldbuilding that add new significance to what has happened before. The original narrative lacks nothing; the characters are not lacking in any way nor is the world flat; the new story, by offering new angles on what came before, does not detract from the first story but adds to it; the later story constructively reinterprets the first. This is also a technique for character growth: characters grow because things happen and they change; and characters grow (in the eyes of the reader) because things happened before and only now is the internal change made visible. Old actions, fully explicable at the time, are given new meaning, new life, made rounder with the advent of this new understanding of the character.
This is what Hilary McKay does for Sara’s fellow pupils at the Select Seminary. The most memorable characters – little spoiled Lottie, kind but stupid Ermengarde, silly, frivolous Jessica, and sharp-tongued, clever Lavinia – are made fuller, with backgrounds and futures of their own. Even Miss Maria Minchin, the villain of A Little Princess, is made more of a character with dreams and burdens of her own. Wishing for Tomorrow grants, like a benevolent literary fairy, story arcs for just about every character that Sara leaves behind.
Remarkably, McKay does this without vilifying Sara. In bad fanfiction, unlikable characters, even outright monsters, are sometimes made heroes or victims by the authors by dint of contorting the original story’s protagonist into someone she or he is not. This is, however occasionally amusing, false to the story, a deliberate misinterpretation, even one so minor as making a dull, insensitive sibling an unpolished gem by twisting her quick-witted elder into a thoughtless, self-centred sibling. McKay does not fall into that trap: Lavinia remains unhappy and sharp; Jessie still cares more for her dresses than for her studies; Lottie does not lose her terrible, endearing childishness; Ermengarde is still slow, though good at heart. What MacKay does is to reveal, throughout the narrative, in the most natural-seeming way, the families and desires of these girls so that their traits are natural, developed from their backgrounds and personalities, and still developing – changing – living – as the story moves on. Sara is still Sara: loving, imaginative, sensitive. The growth of the other four does not come at Sara’s expense, nor, though she is off-stage for almost all of Wishing for Tomorrow, does Sara cease her own growing.
Miss Maria Minchin – and even Miss Amelia Minchin, as well, that foolish goose of a woman – also has a story arc, a background and a journey that took her from childhood to the sour woman we meet in A Little Princess. This point, I think, is crucial to what McKay does in Wishing for Tomorrow: Miss Minchin is complicated and humanized, not excused.
In A Little Princess, the narrative perspective occasionally veers away from Sara Crewe to show a scene at which she is not present. Once the focal perspective is that of the attic rat, Melchisedec, that Sara tames. Wishing for Tomorrow capitalizes on this narrative tendency to wander away for glimpses of other persons; although Ermengarde is the primary focal point and protagonist, much of the story is seen from over the shoulder, as it were, of someone else. Lavinia, Lottie, Melchisedec – even characters created wholly or in large part by McKay, including Bosco, the cat-next-door, Alice, the new maid, and Ermie’s Aunt Eliza. These characters are a delight, casting light and laughter into the lives of the remaining pupils, as well as a good dose of common sense and sympathy.
At its core, Wishing for Tomorrow is a novel about friendship and the complications that arise within friendship between very different people and between friends who are divided by a plethora of causes – emotional, economic, physical. This is a story about girls and women, and the many interests and goals different girls and woman have, and the choices, good and bad, that they make, either to reach their goals, or because their dearest wishes are thwarted. This is a story about banding together and forming alliances, and all the fractions within alliances, and all the unlikely affections that spring up anyway. This is a story about the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we tell others, about what we don’t say and about what happens when a story tells us something we’d been hiding from facing. This is, in short, a story about very real people, told truthfully and with compassion and with hope.
And with all sorts of subtle details and quotable quotes that make for a satisfying, sweet and deep story.
I would love to Tell All about what happens, but more than that would I love for you go out and read it for yourself (and then come back and talk with me about it). No more talking from me until you have done so!
[If you have read the story, keep reading after the picture, okay? If you haven’t – you’ve been warned.]
A final passage to leave you with. The below, which is related in a letter from Ermengarde to Sara, follows a description of Lavinia’s peculiar and inexplicable behaviour: she takes all twenty volumes of the seminary’s encyclopedia to her room for reading and study.
“By the time she finishes she will know everything,” I said to Lottie.
“Only if everything is in those books,” said Lottie. (p. 84)
What do you think of the ending? I love how the most determined, difficult women and girls choose to love together – Miss Maria Minchin, Lavinia, Lottie, and Alice (and Cook) – it’s not as though they all get along or even like each other all the time. And yet they seem to draw a sort of strength from each other (or from bouncing off each other), with the possible exception of Alice, who doesn’t seem to need anybody else’s weakness or strength, though she likes the women she herds. (Herds is the only word for it, isn’t it? Definitely not “serves,” at any rate!)
And, more importantly, what do you think about Sara and her Uncle Tom going back to India? I thought, in one way, it made perfect sense, that it was the only possible happy ending for Sara. She is homesick for her father and India for all of A Little Princess; even with her guardian and the Large Family, what can dreary London really offer her? And yet I am aware that this interpretation of the best possible ending for Sara comes from my affection for the original novel and my whiteness, that Sara as a wealthy English girl grown up in India is part of the colonial machine, that her return to India means she will become part of the colonizers, rather than part of the colonized (as a child, as an unwanted child especially). Her very wealth, the source of so much happiness and misery in A Little Princess, is based on British seizure of Indian resources, very probably on the use (exploitation) of Indian labourers. Sara’s love of India and her Indian servants, even her fluency in Hindustani and appreciation of Indian art and mythology do not change the fact that she is part of an unjust system and that her return to India at the end of Wishing for Tomorrow reimmerses her in that world of colonial privilege. I think McKay handles this delicately – the pupils’ early knowledge of India only as “that fabulous land of tigers and temples” (11) is not meant to stand unquestioned but is meant to display their ignorance; Lavinia’s note that “India is a very germy country, I believe” (33) is part of a passage that shows Lavinia’s somewhat cold practicality, and remains historically accurate, as many English women who went to India (and men as well) died, unable to adapt to the climate. Near the end of the story Sara writes, “Oh, Ermengarde, I have been homesick for India all these years! The sunshine and the bright flowers and the spicy smell of Indian dust: I shall feel so close to Papa there too. It makes me feel strange and wonderful inside, just to think of it all” (223). I read this as a sort of Heidi moment. When Heidi is removed from her mountains, she sort of wills herself sick, and becomes so ill that she wins her way and is sent back to the Alps, where she is happiest. Sara, similarly, misses India and cannot be happy elsewhere.
But. There is still the whole huge problem of colonialism. Is the portrayal of India (and Ram Dass) in A Little Princess and in Wishing for Tomorrow offensive to Indians? To other POC who still live with the effects of colonialism and imperialism? Do A Little Princess and Wishing for Tomorrow present differing images of India and Indians?