Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924) is a very prolific novelist, playwright and short-story writer of the English tongue who was born in England and who spent her lifetime between her home country and her country of adoption, the United States of America. She is famous for being the author of more than fifty works including the bestseller That Lass O’Lowrie’s, among many other successful novels. She is equally the author of a number of children’s classics such as the celebrated The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy.
On November 24th, 1849, in Manchester, Frances Hodgson was born to a family with little financial resources. The father soon died and the family, composed of a mother, three daughters and two sons, suffered from pecuniary difficulties before deciding to move to the United States. During the period after the death of her father, Frances lived with her grandmother who inculcated in her a passion for books and literature. This passion was further reinforced at school and helped enrich her imagination. Frances soon felt the need to write stories and tell them to her siblings and cousins.
In 1865, the family settled with an uncle in the rural area of Knoxville, Tennessee, and worked together for a living. Unfortunately, according to her biographers, Frances Burnett’s very earliest stories were lost just before their trip to the New World. Frances’s widowed mother tried various activities to support her family. Later, the uncle became unable to take care of his guests and the latter were forced by circumstances to move to live alone in a very modest log house in Newmarket. Furthermore, Frances’s mother passed away soon after, which pushed Frances to assume the responsibility of financially supporting her brothers and sisters. This was mainly through writing and publishing.
In fact, Frances Burnett became aware at quite a young age of her writing skills and learnt that she could make money from publishing her writings and stories. Her first stories were published around 1868 in literary magazines such as Godey’s Lady’s Book and later in the famous American Scribner’s Magazine. It was in the latter that That Lass O’Lowrie’s was serially introduced to the public before being published as a book. The story was narrated in the Lancashire dialect with which Burnett was familiar during her childhood. The dialect was one of the aspects that led to the novel’s success according to critics. Such seminal success naturally led to the publication of other works, the most famous of which were Through One Administration and A Fair Barbarian. Things gradually became much better as Burnett succeeded in guaranteeing a decent income from her writings and was able to guarantee the family a decent home and a decent living.
Burnett also had considerable earnings from the dramatization of many of her stories. Having been fond of acting since her early childhood, she felt the need to put her stories on stage by herself. In 1888, her fame was further boosted when she triumphantly won a lawsuit over the copyright on her Little Lord Fauntleroy when the latter was produced on stage without her permission. Her unprecedented legal triumph was hailed and celebrated by fellow literary figures in Britain who had suffered from the same problem for long.
It was in 1773 that Frances decided to marry Dr. Swan Burnett, the boy from their Newmarket neighborhood that she had known for long. They had two sons, Lionel and Vivian, of whom Burnett was so fond. She used to take much care of them and of their health and appearance in a very meticulous way. The first children’s stories that she wrote, such as Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), were dedicated to them. Even some of Burnett’s young characters were modeled on her own children. Unfortunately, the unexpected death of Lionel in 1890 represented a tragic turning point in Burnett’s life. It actually flavored the rest of her years as well as many of her writings with melancholy and depression. Indeed, Burnett always repeated that she could never forget this great loss which was probably behind her resort to theosophy and spiritualism. In 1893, she devoted to Lionel an autobiography entitled The One I Knew Best of All and in 1920 she dedicated to him another work entitled The White People.
Generally, Frances Burnett’s marriage was not happy or successful. Swan Burnett was being trained as a medical doctor when they married and they both depended mainly on Frances’s income. They first travelled around Europe before setting in Washington D. C. where they were often apart and ended up divorcing in 1898. By that time, Frances Burnett had already known Stephen Townsend, an actor who performed in some of her plays. Though he was much younger than her, she married him two years after her divorce. However, Frances Burnett’s second marriage was even a worse experience than the first and ended within only two years.
Throughout her career, Burnett was regularly travelling between the US and England as well as other parts of Europe. She was mainly after suitable weather, but also after inspiration. This started in 1872 when her income allowed her to travel to England and then to Paris. Later, she returned to Paris after marriage where Swan had to finish his medical training. When later they settled in Washington D. C., Frances Burnett became very active with her writings, started publishing children’s stories in St. Nicholas magazine, and established a city literary salon.
Starting from 1887, Burnett travelled to England on a yearly basis. She kept two homes, one in Washington D. C. and one in London and almost divided her time between both. She needed to visit England mainly because of the heat in D.C. and also because of her charity activities there. Towards the mid 1890s and after the end of her two marriages, Burnett remained in England at Great Maytham Hall. The latter was known for inspiring The Secret Garden. Indeed, the large house had a beautiful garden where Burnett used to flee.
Burnett wrote a considerable number of books during her stay in England such as A Lady of Quality, The Shuttle and The Making of a Marchioness. However, her early years of the twentieth century were characterized by poor health. This pushed her to return to America and to spend some time in a sanatorium. For reasons related to her deteriorating health and after she obtained American citizenship in 1905, Burnett soon decided to stay definitively in America. In 1907, Burnett settled in Long Island, New York, where she built a house and continued writing, publishing and editing Children’s Magazine. Important publications followed including The Secret Garden (1911) that she had been working on for years.
Today many believe The Secret Garden to be her masterpiece. Being initially published in series, it has now become a celebrated children’s classic. The protagonist of the story is a ten-year-old girl named Mary Lennox. After losing both her parents in British India, she is sent to her uncle Mr. Craven to live in his English manor. Mary is told about a secret garden in the large house before she discovers it by herself. With twelve-year-old Dickon, she discovers a small child in the garden who happens to be her cousin. Mary and Dickon decide to help the boy recover from bad health while keeping their secret from the adults surrounding them.
Though written by an aged adult, Burnett’s children’s stories were very successful mainly for their vivacious description of nature and sceneries and for the action of the innocent children that populated them. Frances Burnett’s latest publications included The Dawn of Tomorrow (1909), The Lost Prince (1915) and The Head of the House of Coombe (1922). Although she remained very active throughout her whole life, Burnett’s biographers agree that her hectic life and the pressures of her responsibilities as a professional writer and editor contributed to her deteriorating physical state. On October 29th, 1924, Frances Hodgson Burnett died in her Long Island home.