Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Poor little rich girl

The cover of the version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess that I chose to download was all fuzzy, so I chose this cover (not all that easy to find, and this was courtesy of someone on Amazon who is trying to sell it) because this edition is the one that I own and still treasure. I don't own very many books from my childhood, but this novel made a remarkable impression on me.

Listening to it as an adult, I can just feel my nine-year-old tension of knowing that Sara Crewe's rescuers were right next door ... but they didn't KNOW IT! The suspense surely must have killed me. A Little Princess is the story of Sara Crewe, whose short life is filled with so much: loving father, precious belongings, affectionate and admiring friends, then utter loss and deprivation -- which she endures knowing that others are worse off than she, and finally, a new loving, secure home. (Let's just not think about the Africans who were no doubt dying right and left in her father's diamond mines.)

Yes, this is an entirely satisfying girly novel for those of us who love stories of good girls who ultimately triumph. Yes, Sara is occasionally quite ickily sweet-natured, but she is almost mistress of her own fate. She carries on in spite of adversity, she's intelligent and a loyal friend. I love her, just as Ermengarde and Becky do.

It's a good thing that I already loved Sara Crewe and her story before plugging in my headphones, because this audiobook was truly awful. There were two to choose from via Library 2Go (my library's downloadable service), and I have no idea why I selected the one narrated by Rebecca Burns. Was it because it was 90 minutes shorter? That I hadn't heard of the publisher (Sound Room Publishers: this web address links you very quickly to Playaway, with not enough time to read a tantalizing page of ... ?) of the one I didn't select? (I'm not going to say the name of the publisher of the one I did listen to because it was so very bad, although they evidently publish a series of audiobooks under the imprint "unabridged classics.")

Burns reads utterly without investment or interest in Sara's story. Each sentence sounds exactly the same as the one before it. There is no building of tension. Sara feels no sadness or fear. The words are read as if she were reading a newspaper. There are a raft of interesting characters in this novel (Miss Minchin, her ineffectual sister Amelia, the Lascar Ram Dass, excitable Lottie, mean girl Lavinia, simple-minded but loving Ermengarde, the cranky cook, the downtrodden Becky, I could go on); meaty characters that most voice actors would love to chew on, and Burns does nothing beyond raising the register and plaintiveness of her voice for Sara and speaking sharply as Miss Minchin. It was dull as ... well, I'm not sure I've ever listened to anything quite so dull. And so I'm not going to say anything more about it.

This book review by A.S. Byatt tells me that Mrs. Burnett led quite an interesting life and who perhaps revised her own childhood in later years so that it reflected that experienced by Sara Crewe (following her return to her rightful place in the universe). And because we just can't have enough sequels, the cheerful Hilary McKay has imagined the world of Miss Minchin's after Sara Crewe escaped in a recently published novel, Wishing for Tomorrow (which desperately needs a new title). I don't need to know what happens to Ermengarde, Sara's fate is enough for me. [Ooh, but Philip Reeve liked it, and I like Philip Reeve!]

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