Little Lord Fauntleroy: Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924)


It is interesting to speculate if Mrs. Benett was an American or English author. One of the purposes of this website is to try to see what social trends in different countries can be found by assessing clothing styles. Mrs. Benett is difficult to categorize as she was born in England but lived in America. She clearly wrote for an international audience; she crossed the Atlantic numerous times after immigrating to Tennessee as a child. She seems to have remained very British at heart. Little Lord Fauntleroy, of course, was based on her all American son, Vivian. Even so, her book and resulting teatrical production was an enormous success in England suggesting the story appealed to both American and English sensibilities.

Some observers appear to categorize her as a clearly American author writing for an American audience. One observer opines, "I think her sentimentilizing of the `poor little rich boy' is more graphic in her Little Lord Fauntleroy. My question is, was she lamorizing the working class/farm boy Dickons and ridiuculing the infantile "lording" of Colin partly because she was an American?" (Collin was the sickly boy in her other well know book, The Secret Garden.)


Mrs. Burnett was born Francis Eliza Hodgson on November 24, 1849, at Cheetham Hill on the edge of Manchester. She was the eldest daughter in a family of two boys and three girls. Their father, a wealthy iron monger and silversmith died when she was only 3 years old.

Frances was only 4 years old when her father died. Her mother tried for a while to run the family home-furnishings business. The family experienced financial problems after the death of her father. The family moved to Salford where the young Frances for the first time witnessed the lives of the poor. The theme of poverty or a orphaned child would figure prominently in her future writing. The parallels with Charles Dickens are quite striking. She would later deal with the issue of poverty in such novels as That Lass o’Lowries (1877) and became fascinated by dialect which she used to advantage in The Secret Garden.


Frances and her sisters were sent to a school in a neighbour’s house, a Select Seminary for Young Ladies and Gentlemen, she was popular as a storyteller amongst her peers and wrote her first stories at this time on the family cook’s old notebooks.


The family eventually had to take refuge with a brother in Tennessee. Her mother emmigrated to the United States, moving to Knoxville, Tenessee in 1865. Frances was 15 years old.Their arrival in 1865, just after the Civil War, coincided with the ruin of the brother's fortunes, and the family took shelter in an abandoned log cabin. In America the Hodgson women were dependent on the small earnings of the two sons. They lived at first in a log cabin and Frances briefly set up a school. This was far below their former circumstances. There were eight pupils who paid in kind with vegetables and eggs. Frances was just 16.

Miss Hodgson began writing for magazines soon after. She has always been a teller of stories and poems. Now, at age 18, she began to use that talent. To get the money for paper and postage stamps, she picked and sold wild grapes. When she sent one of her tales to the prestgious women's magazine of the day, Godey's Lady's Book, she said in her cover letter: "My object is remuneration." And she got it. Her story was accepted, and she was paid $35--a more impressive sum at the time than it seems to us today. She became the family's chief breadwinner, writing five or six stories a month. From then on she earned increasingly substantial sums as a writer of short stories, novels and plays. This was at a time when women did not normally have careers. Her first widely-known story appeared in Scribner's Magazine in 1872. She published several works before Little Lord Fauntleroy, most notably That Lass O'Lowries, her first big success.

Other Key Influences


Burnett loved gardens, and later in life, gardening. One garden she saw in Salford as a child perhaps contributed to The Secret Garden it "had been a garden once, and there were high brick walls about it, and the little door so long unopened, and once there had been flowers and trees in it." The first book she was given was The Little Flower Book, an alphabet based on flower names with pictures and verse.


Burnett married Dr. Swan Burnett in 1873. They had two sons but it was not a happy marriage. The marriage and the birth of her son Lionel in 1874 did nothing to slow her output. By the time she bore a second son Vivian in 1876, her stories were supporting the family as her husband advanced his medical education. Vivian had been somewhat of a disappoinment. She had dearly desired a daughter, to be named Vivien, for hersecond child. Frances masculinized the name and called the new baby Vivian. It was to be her beloved Vivian who inspired Little Lord Fauntleroy: "It is not a portrait; but certainly, if there had not been a Vivian there would not have been Fauntleroy." Much of what he said and did as a child found its way into the character and Burnett read her sons instalments of the book before publication. "The one perfect thing in my life," Frances Burnett often said, "was the childhood of my boys." She was a classic fauning mother. The emotionl failure of her marriage mean that all of her love was devoted to her boys. The boys reciprocated their mother's love. Even after the torments Vivian endured as he grew older, he has a hard time actually criticizing his dear mother. Mrs. Burnett personally cared for the boys, although once the money was available, with help. She took a particular interest in their appearance. She was fond of romantic, picturesque clothing and often dressed her sons in velvet suits with lace collars. Both boys wore their hair long and in curls.

Velvet suits

Mrs. Burnett was attracted to the fancy velvet suits she saw boys wearing while the family was in Paris. The Burnett's had lived in Paris during the 1870s. She noticed the Crispin suits and other fancy velvet outfits that well dressed French boys wore in the the 1870s. She may have also been influenced by childhood memories of England, but I am less sure about this. Her interest appears to have developed into almost a passion for fancy, aesthetic dress and decor by 1880. One motivating influence may have been the visit of famed English playwrite, Oscar Wilde, to Washington, D.C., where the Burnetts were living. [Burnett, p. 113.] Wilde was already know for wearing fancy velvet suits and knee breeches--unusual for Englishmen at the time, let alone Americans. He was often mauked for his attire in the press. Washington newspaper society columns began remarking about Mrs. Burnett's weakness for picturesque clothing and younger men. Mrs. Burnett's writing had brought her some fame so even New York papers would mention her. A New York Times theatre columnist commented wryly about her "vivid silk Kate Greenaway dress and her army of young men." ["The Theatrical Scene," p.3.] This was rather a shocking comment at the time. Her passion for fanciful dress was perhaps most notably expressed in her outfitting of her sons, as well. Her passion did not go beyond the existing bounds of fashion, as fancy velvet suits for boys had also appeared in America. Her son son Vivian, who had to endure wearing the suits, defended his mother in this regard. He later wrote a biography of Burnett in 1927. A local newspaper writer charged that the mother was "decorating her parlor with her sons." This was, however, an accusation Vivian consistently took issue with. [Burnett, p.136.]

Hair curling

Mrs. Burnett took great care with every aspect of the children's appearances. It was not just the fancy velvet suits she sewed herself. She scrubbed them throughly to keep them presentable ans she would devote hours to combing and curling their hair. To make it less of ordeal she would make up stories for them. In such circumstances, to occupy the boys while curling their hair was Cedril Erol, better known as Little Lord Fauntleroy born.

Literary influences

As a child Frances read eagerly and enjoyed poetry, Coleridge's "The Ancient Mariner" and Keats’ "The Eve of St. Agnes" and the novels of Dickens and Thackeray. These two poems deal with the transforming power of love and both novelists were concerned with reversals of fortune: both strong elements employed in Burnett’s work. The element of escapism to be found in Burnett’s children’s books was also enjoyed in other books at the time: Alice in Wonderland and the adventure stories of RL Stephenson and Rider Haggard. Critics have made links between The Secret Garden, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights with their Yorkshire settings. It was her personal experiences that profoundly influenced her work. Her family had and lost money anf her personal story is that of a person trying to regain lost financial and social status. This element plays in many of her worksm including Little Lord Fauntleroy, Secret Garden, Little Princess, and others. Of course, Mrs. Burnett's famous heros were girls, but at the promting of her youngest son, she created one of the classic boy characters of all time.

Figure 1.--Mrs. Burnett's book was considered a serious novel at the time. It had an impact in the late-19th Century that is not well-understood today.

Vivian's suggestion

Dr. Burnett established his medical practice in Washington, and Frances moved from magazine stories to longer, more demanding novels. Writing took ever more of her time, leaving less and less for her small sons. One evening at dinner, little Vivian made a proposal. "Dearest," he said, using his mother's pet name, "you write so many books for grown-ups that we don't have any time at all with you now. Why don't you write some books that little boys would like to read? Then your staying up-stairs wouldn't be so bad." The result of course was Little Lord Faintleroy. Vivian, like many boys was to learn the hard lesson that one must be careful what one wishes for, lest one get it. It was to begin a love hate relationship he was to have with his mother's mythic hero that he was to have all his life. In later life he was to write, "I could write a book about what Fauntleroy has been to me," he once said. "I try to get away from it, but I can't."

Writing the Book

It was a short step from Mrs. Burnett's velvet clad, becurled bys to Little Lord Fauntleroy. The now-classic story featured a young American boy sent to live with his English nobleman grandfather. For the American boy, Frances had the perfect model. "Vivian shall be he -- just Vivian with his curls and his eyes, and his friendly, kind, little soul," she wrote. A photograph of Vivian dressed in his finery was sent to the book's illustrator to show him how Fauntleroy was to look. His mother later said, "It is not a portrait, but certainly, if there had not been Vivian, there would not have been Fauntleroy."

Book Editions

The Little Lord Fauntleroy story first appeared as a serial in the November 1885 issue of St. Nicholas. A year after it first appeared as a serial, Burnett's publishers released Fauntleroy as a novel and it became a huge bestseller. In 1893, only "Ben Hur" was in more American libraries than "Little Lord Fauntleroy." It also brought Frances more than $100,000, a fortune for the time. Enthusiasts snapped up Fauntleroy playing cards, Fauntleroy models and a Fauntleroy perfume. It changed Mrs. Burnett life, bringing her the financial security that she had always wanted.

It was not just American mothers that rushed to but copies of Little Lord Faintleroy. The book sold more than a million copies in English and was translated into more than a dozen languages. Foreign language editions abounded. Since that time a steady stream of editions followed, in foreign countries as far a field as Japan and Soviet Russia. Interestingly, Little Lord Fauntleroy was an American book that even communist censors approved of.

The craze condemned many small boys of that generation to the outlandish "Fauntleroy suit," an outfit so hated by the boys forced to wear them that one 8-year-old in Iowa burned down the family barn in protest. And it was not just American and English boys that were affected. The translations of the book and the many theatrical productions popularized the Faintleroy look throughout Europe. Many a European boy was to get the same unpleasant surprise that American boys had to endure.

Foreign language editions abounded. Since that time a steady stream of editions followed, in foreign countries as far a field as Japan and Soviet Russia. Interestingly, Little Lord Fauntleroy was an American book that even communist censors approved of.


The most famous illustrator of Little Lord Fauntleroy was Reginald Birch who also worked with the St. Nichlos Magazine. She personally selected him for the job. Since then many other well known illustrators in virtually every European country have had a chance to illustrate her book.

Figure 2.--Mrs. Burnett devoted a great deal of energy to the highly successful theatrical productions following the publication of her book. Unlike many later movie productions, great attention was given to costuming with velvet suits, elaborate lace collars, and often ringlet curls.

Theatrical Productions

Soon after the publication of Little Lord Fauntleroy, the enormous popularity also ensured that the story would appear on the stage. Mrs. Burnett who was by then becoming a wealthy lady, energetically entered into the job of producing her work. This was somewhat complicated by the appearance of unauthorized productions. The play was produced in New York and London at the same time. At the peak it was earning the authoress $1,500 weekly, which added to the book revenue made Mrs, Burnett a very wealthy lady. Productions of the story were popular sucesses even into the 1900s. The play soon moved from the London stage to Paris, Berlin, and other Continental cities.

Literary Assessment

Mrs. Burnett's most memorable works are children’s books: especially Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886) and The Secret Garden (1911) about the spoilt, bad tempered orphan, Mary, who finds a neglected garden, her sickly cousin Colin and the working class boy, Dickon. As they work on regenerating the garden, Colin’s health is restored and Mary finds love and contentment.

Burnett was highly successful as a novelist and playwright in her day. Her children’s books were also immediately well received and The Secret Garden has become a classic, praised for the originality of the at first unlikeable Mary and Colin, psychological accuracy in their characterisation and fine attention to detail.

The Author on her Work: "With the best that I have in me I have tried to write more happiness into the world."

What Others Said About Her: "Beauty, romance, imagination - they possessed her all three..." (A contemporary)

"These stories were very romantic. Someone in them would be forlorn, sickly or miserable... And there would be someone else, who was brave and strong and helpful. The strong ones would have to go through all sorts of trials and tribulations. But in the end things would come out right for everybody in a fairytale sort of way." (Her sister on the stories Frances told at school)

"Cedric’s simple, truthful, earnest and loving nature is what one would like all children to have.." Manchester Guardian review of Little Lord Fauntleroy

"The Secret Garden is a book of the new century. Far from encouraging the attitudes instilled in Frances as a child... it suggested children should be self-reliant and have faith in themselves, in that they should listen not to their elders and betters, but to their own hearts and consciences." (Ann Thwaite, biographer)

The Secret Garden, of all children’s books, deals most successfully--from a woman’s point of view--with the miseries of spoiling." (Ellen Moers, literary critic)

"It is the most satisfying children’s book I know." (Marghanita Laski, biographer, on The Secret Garden)

Other Books

Little Lord Fauntleroy, (A) Little Princess, and (The) Secret Garden are the two best know books written by Mrs. Burnett. Other books include: (The) Dawn of A To-morrow, (A) Lady of Quality, (The) Lost Prince, Sara Crewe, (The) Shuttle, and (The) White People. Many of these classic works are available online.

Final Years

Mrs. Burnett died October 29, 1924, at her home in Plandome, Long Island.


Burnett, Vivian. The Romantick Lady (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1927), p. 113.

"(The) Theatrical Scene," New York Times, 10 Feb. 1889, p.3, col. 1.

Thwaite, Ann. Waiting for the Party, The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett (Secker and Warburg, 1974). A detailed, very readable account of Burnett as both an adults' and children's writer.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: March 31, 1999
Last updated: June 27, 2002