FRANCES HODGSON BURNETT
(November 24, 1849 - October 29, 1924)
British-American novelist and playwright who penned three internationally famous novels: Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885-1886), A Little Princess (1905), and The Secret Garden(1911).
"I am writing in the garden. To write as one should of a garden one must write not outside it or merely somewhere near it, but in the garden." Frances Hodgson Burnett
"Two things cannot be in one place. Where you tend a rose, a thistle cannot grow." Frances Hodgson Burnett
She was born in Cheetham Hill, Manchester, England, the third of five children of an ironmonger and a mother from a well-to-do Manchester family. The good life was not to last long for the Hodgsons. In 1852 with a fifth child on the way, her father died of a stroke leaving the family without an income. She was cared for by her grandmother while her mother ran the family business.
Her grandmother bought her books which in turn taught her to love reading. The Flower Girl, her first book had colored illustrations and poems. Her mother moved with her children to a new home where they lived with relatives in a home that included a large enclosed garden which became her playground. Perhaps because of the dire living conditions she endured, she developed a very active imagination and wrote stories in old notebooks. She enthused over Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel
Uncle Tom's Cabin and spent hours acting out scenes from the book. She and her siblings were sent to be educated at The Select Seminary for Young Ladies and Gentlemen where she was described as 'precocious' and 'romantic'.
Manchester's cotton economy was ruined by the American Civil War and in 1863 her uncle William Boond asked the family to join him in Knoxville, TN, where he had a thriving dry goods store. In 1865 the Hodgson family emigrated to the United States. Poverty still hung in the shadows when the uncle lost much of his business and her family went to live in a log cabin outside Knoxville. They then moved to a home in Knoxville she dubbed "Noah's Ark", Mt. Ararat' inspired by the house's location atop an isolated hill. She became a writer to earn money and was published in Godey's Lady's Book in 1868. Her stories also appeared in Scribner's Monthly, Peterson's Magazine, and Harper's Bazaar. In an effort to escape from the family's poverty, she tended to overwork, thus calling herself 'a pen driving machine'. By 1869 she had earned enough to move her family into a better home in Knoxville. After her mother's death in 1870 she returned to England for an extended visit. What followed were a series of episodes that included: her marriage to Swan Burnett, an eye and ear specialist; The birth of two sons--Lionel (1874) and a first full-length novel,
That Lass o' Lowrie's; birth of a second son Vivien. She made clothing for her sons which was frilly and designed velvet suits with lace collars for them. She also allowed her sons' hair to grow long, which she then shaped into long curls. And that is how Little Lord Fauntleroy was born!
After a visit to Boston where she met Louisa May Alcott (celebrating her 184th birthday November 29, 2016) and Mary Mapes Dodge, editor of
St. Nicholas, a children's magazine, she began to write children's fiction.
In 1881 she wrote the play Esmeralda in collaboration with
William Gillette which became the longest running play on Broadway in the 19th century. (Mary Pickford starred in the silent film in 1915).
Despite exhaustion and depression from work, family and household maintenance, she became well known in Washington society and hosted a literary salon on Tuesday evenings with celebrated guests. She also suffered from the heat in D.C.. In the early 1880s she became interested in Christian Science as well as Spiritualism and Theosophy.
She began work on Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1884 with a serialization in
St. Nicholas (1885) and the book publication in 1886. Receiving good reviews, it became a bestseller in the U.S. and England, was translated into 12 languages and secured her reputation as a writer.
Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887, the beginning of many transatlantic trips from the United States to England. Not being able to stand the heat and crowds in the U.K., she took her sons to Florence. That winter Sara Crewe or What Happened at Miss Michin's was published in the United States. She adapted it into a stage play and later rewrote the story into A Little Princess.
Tragedy struck in 1890 when her eldest son died from consumption in Paris. She sank into a deep depression. She sought the distraction of charity work, forming the Drury Lane Boys' Club in 1892. In 1893 she published an autobiography, devoted to her eldest son, The One I Knew Best of All.
She continued to write novels as a source of income. Her controversial divorce from Swan Burnett in which she used the cause as desertion (they had orchestrated the dissolution of their marriage some years earlier) was criticized by the press. They referred to her as a New Woman with the Washington Post writing that the divorce resulted from her "advanced ideas regarding the duties of a wife and the rights of
Maytham Hall--which had a large garden where she indulged her love of flowers and resembled a feudal manor house. She socialized in the local villages and enjoyed the country life. After a rather bizarre courtship and marriage to a would be actor ten years younger than her who wanted her money and complete control as a husband, she ended the marriage.
Maytham Hall had a series of walled gardens and in the rose garden she wrote several books; it was there that she had the idea for The Secret Garden in 1904.
It was initially published in serial form beginning in 1910, and first published in its entirety in 1911. It is now one of Burnett's most popular novels, and considered a classic of children's literature. Several stage and film adaptations have been made.
In 2012 it was ranked number 15 among all-time children's novels in a survey published by School Library Journal which has a U.S. audience.
In 1936 a memorial sculpture (pictured here)
by Bessie Potter Vonnoh was erected in Frances' honor in Central Park's Conservatory Garden. It depicts her two famous Secret Garden characters: Mary and Dickon.
"If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden." The Secret Garden
"There's naught as nice as th' smell o' good clean earth, except th' smell o' fresh growin' things when th' rain falls on 'em."
Dickon The Secret Garden
She wrote fifty novels between 1877 and 1922. She dramatized thirteen of them and involved herself in the rehearsals of all her plays. Not only did she write for a huge audience, but she also fought for the rights of ownership in works of fiction. Her legal action in 1888 to establish her claim to the dramatic rights of her famous story Little Lord Fauntleroy effectively stopped unauthorized dramatizations of novels in England. The 1911 Copyright Act was a direct result of her action. The Authors' Association of England celebrated her victory at a banquet and presented her with a diamond bracelet and an illuminated memorial inscribed with the names of many leading writers of the time. During her lifetime she made a lasting contribution to juvenile literature.
Rosemary Gipson. Notable Women in the American Theatre, A Biographical Dictionary 1989