BY the name of Frances Hodgson Burnett she is still known, although early in 1900, in Genoa, Italy, she became Mrs. Stephen Townsend.
Generally, too, she is thought of as an American, while, as a matter of fact, she is English by birth. However, during the greater part of her life she has been an American in sympathy, as well as in residence ; it is America which has awarded her the highest praise as a woman and the heartiest applause as an author ; it is American incidents which constitute the subject of her most ambitious novel; it was at an American university that her son Vivian was educated ; and numerous other ties have made her sufficiently American to warrant giving her a place in this book. As a writer said a few years ago ” Americans regard Mrs. Burnett as a country-woman.”
Mrs. Burnett was born in Manchester, England, on November 24, 1849. Her father, who was a well-to-do merchant, died when she was ten years old ; and not long after the father’s death the Hodgson’s moved to Tennessee, whither an uncle of Frances had preceded them. But even before leaving England the little girl’s remarkable powers of observation had been put into practice. The story goes : the English home of the Hodgsons was in Islington Square, and in the rear of it, at the end of the yard, was an alley on which were the homes of working people. Through the bars of an iron gate, as a little child, Frances watched the people who lived in the alley. One day, when the little Hodgson girl was only nine years old, she saw the face of the girl whom she after-ward called ” That Lass o’ Lowrie’s.” She saw the lass only twice. Once the little thing was in the midst of a group of children, knitting away and moving among them with an authoritative air ; the second time the lass was retreating home, proudly yet obediently, before a coarse and brutal father.
Upon reaching America the Hodgsons settled in Knoxville, but the War of the Rebellion ruined the uncle’s business, and so the mother gathered her two sons and three daughters about her and went to live in a log cabin in the country. At that time, Frances, according to a friend who has known her from childhood, was ” a bright girl of fourteen, who had been carefully educated in a private school, was thoroughly grounded in her English studies, spoke French fluently, and was a good musician.” This same friend, by the way, assures us that ” Frances was able to read by the time she was three years old, and before she was five she was writing little stories in her copy-book. She produced the greatest quantity of this sort of literature before she was twelve, but when it was decided that they were to come to America, Frances, with the courage of a Spartan, made a holocaust of the small library.”
The misery into which the Hodgson’s were thrown, first by an unprofitable settlement of the father’s estate and afterwards by the adversity of the uncle, acted as a heavy strain upon Mrs. Hodgson, who, the daughter of a cotton manufacturer of large means, had been reared in luxury; and at the end of a few years the strain proved her death.
But, meantime, the children took up hard work enthusiastically. Frances got a position as a school teacher. The parents of the children whom she taught paid her in eggs, flour, bacon, potatoes and other country produce; and on this primitive kind of salary the family subsisted. ” They were not an unhappy family even then,” says a witness of their struggles, ” though the boys had to undertake work of a humble and laborious sort, and their whole existence was one of dire toil and deprivation. They were jolly young people who, when work was over, had concerts together, each playing a different instrument ; and all of them were fond of books, of which they managed by hook or by crook to possess themselves.”
Frances’s hobby was story-writing, to quote what an intimate acquaintance of the author wrote when Mrs. Burnett first moved to Washington ; We can well imagine no day dreary and no evening long in that household, a circle which in later years has become familiar through her pen as ‘ Vagabondia.’ The first essay at a story that might go beyond the approving audience of ‘ Vagabondia’ was attempted in her thirteenth year ; written and read, not told, to her two sisters when she was nearly fifteen. Edith, the younger member of the household, saw practical financial results in this production and promptly advised sending it where such things were paid for. The young author was startled at the proposal, though doubtless her mind had al-ready awakened to the possibilities of a future success, if not fame. The only difficulty to the younger sister’s mind seemed to be postage stamps ; neither had the nerve to ask the head of the family, the elder brother, for the few pennies, lest the shy maiden and her aspirations should become the subject of ridicule. The difficulty was overcome by the Betsey Trotwood of the family, as Edith was significantly called, who proposed that they should gather a basket of wild grapes from a neighboring wood and the lucre thereby obtained should be used to send the precious manuscript to Ballot’s Magazine.”
And to that basket, we may remark hangs a romantic tale. But, first, let the other story go on ;
” The answer was gratifying and complimentary, but the offer was to publish the story without remuneration. It was far more than the young writer had expected, but it was not satisfactory to Trotwood, who sagely remarked that ” if it was worth praising it was worth paying for “; so by request it was returned. Then it was sent to Godey’s Lady’s Book, whose editor not only accepted it, but also several other manuscripts, on fair terms, thereby having the distinction of first giving encouragement to a pen that has won a world-wide recognition. Later Miss Hodgson became a regular contributor to Peterson’s Magazine.
Mr. Peterson not only was publisher, but became an interested personal friend. To him, more than to anyone else, she feels indebted for the encouragement that induced her to continue in the arduous work.”
Once Mrs. Burnett was trapped we use the expression advisedly, for she seldom unearths the past into a reminiscent mood, and she gave virtually the same version of her first experience with publishers. The story was ” Miss Carruther’s Engagement.” Mr. Ballou said it was a good story, but that he could not afford to pay for it. So at the author’s request, he re-turned it. Finally it reached Godey’s.
Their readers,” says Mrs. Burnett, ” doubted its orginality, and Mr. Godey wrote me that he liked the story, and if I could prove that it was original he would pay me twenty dollars for it and that I might set about writing another at once. I wrote in reply, showing them that the story was undoubtedly my own, and to prove it sent them another, called Hearts and Diamonds’ and for the two I got thirty-five dollars.”
” Do you remember your sensations on seeing your first story in print?” Mrs. Burnett was asked.
” Yes, I can,” she answered. ” I know I read the story over and over again, and it seemed much more interesting and better than it did in manuscript. The money I got seemed to be a great deal, and I felt that my vocation in life was fixed; and, indeed, I have been writing from that day to this.”
The old files have been ill-kept, and we have not been able to trace the author’s career back farther than a story called Ethel’s Sir Launcelot,” which appeared in Peterson’s in November, 1868.
The acceptance of “Miss Carruther’s Engagement ” and ” Hearts and Diamonds ” certainly did fix their author’s vocation, as the reading world knows ; but let us go back to the basket of fruit that the Hodgson sisters picked that memorable day. The fruit was sold to the mother of a young man named Burnett Swan Moses Bur-nett ; to which young man in 1873, after he had taken his degree as Doctor of Medicine, Frances Eliza Hodgson was married. He was twice Miss Hodgson’s age. It is said that in Mrs. Burnett’s ” Lass o’ Lowrie’s ” may be found a ” spiritual description of him as he first appeared to her. The hero with the crippled arm was in real life so crippled, that he was obliged to walk with one knee stiffened, using the toe of his foot to step upon. His face, while having somewhat of the painful expression of a physical sufferer, possessed in a high degree the beauty of intelligence. Its expression was sensitive, sympathetic, and, above all, intellectual. All these qualities distinguished the young man. Observation was habitual with him, and, at first, he be-came interested in the girl merely out of curiosity. She attracted him even more by her brightness than by her prettiness.”
They were married in 1873 and divorced in 1898. They had two children, Lionel, who died in Paris ten years ago of consumption, and Vivian, who is the subject of his mother’s most popular story, ” Little Lord Fauntleroy.” It is a curious circumstance that the petition for the divorce of the Burnetts was filed the day Vivian came of age. Yet the doctor, who, by the way, is a celebrated eye specialist, and his gifted wife, were uncommonly devoted to each other in the early days of their romance, as we shall see.
After Frances’s literary bow the Hodgsons prospered. They were able soon to move into a pretty, vine-covered house, which, at the young author’s suggestion, they significantly called Mt. Ararat. Just after Frances’s engagement to Dr. Burnett, Mrs. Hodgson died, and for some time literature and domestic economy were in each other’s way. But one of the Hodgson boys married a sister of Dr. Burnett, and, relieved of her new burden, Frances, already well-known as the author of ” Surly Tim’s Troubles ” (Scribner’s, 1872), visited England. Upon her return she and the ambitious young doctor were made husband and wife. But of what avail was his ambition without the means of satisfying it ? So his wife, in a little more than one year, wrote three novels ; then the Brunettes Lionel had been born moved to Paris. There Vivian, the second son, was born. When the doctor had completed his studies the family came back to this country and settled down in Washington. There Dr. Burnett still lives. He is spoken of by his friends as a kind and brilliant man.
” That Lass o’ Lowrie’s” was planned during Mrs. Burnett’s visit to Manchester just before her first marriage, and was published in 1877. So discriminating a critic as Richard Grant White referred to the story as “the flower and crown of all re-cent fiction.” That and ” Pretty Polly Pemberton” and ” The Fire at Grantley Mills ” were the tales which met the expenses of the journey to Paris.
One of her novels, ” A Fair Barbarian,” was the first work of an American romanticist to receive the compliment of publication in the Century after it had been published in another magazine Peterson’s. The success of ” Little Lord Fauntleroy,” by far the most popular of the author’s works, and, in truth, one of the most popular bits of fiction ever written, has barely faded, although it was achieved in 1886. The dramatization of the story alone brought Mrs. Burnett a handsome fortune. It was the talk of the literary world when the graduate of the Tennessee log cabin bought herself a palatial house on Massachusetts Avenue, Washington. The success of ” A Lady of Quality,” both as a novel and as a play, added another heap to the novelist’s gold; and then she took a house in Port-land Place, London, and a magnificent country seat, Maytham Hall, Rolvendon, Kent. She and Mr. Townsend collaborated in the dramatization of ” A Lady of Quality.” Mr. Townsend is also the author of a novel, ” A Thoroughbred Mongrel.”
Up to date, Mrs. Burnett’s or Mrs. Townsend’s great disappointment has been the comparative failure of ” The De-Willoughby Claim.” ” I now look upon it,” she said, before it was published a couple of years ago, ” as my greatest work, and what I hope to make the great American novel.” It was brushed aside by greater American novels, and some of Mrs. Burnett’s oldest friends among the critics, scolded her for it.
Mrs. Burnett’s new book, ” The Making of a Marchioness,” appears too late for our criticism. We understand that the author is at work on two other novels, at least one of which will be published next year.
Hard mental work,” says one who saw her lately, ” has not left marks with Mrs. Burnett. She is as rosy and young-looking as she was fifteen years ago, with the same tawny hair and the same baby-like eyes.”
Rosy then, and young-looking still, rich, happy in a new-found love, somewhat eccentric, enjoying praise such is Mrs. Bur-nett to-day.