NABOKV-L post 0002395, Sat, 27 Sep 1997 12:45:05 -0700

Subject
VN & *Little Lord Fauntleroy*
Date
Body
In view of the recent flurry of interest in Nabokovian chestnuts, I
thought perhaps a note on a more innocent sort of chestnut might restore
the balance and general moral tone of NABOKV-L.
The Editor
---------------------------------------------
I have been poking about in Nabokov's childhood English
reading. (My paper on this will be given at MLA and appear on ZEMBLA.)
*Speak, Memory* mentions a goodly number of "Lodi"'s earliest favorites.
Conspicuous in its absence is Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1886 classic
*Little Lord Fauntleroy*. We know, however, that his English governess, Victoria
Shelton (a.k.a. "Miss Clayton" in *SM,*) read the book aloud to him. In
fact, Boyd implies that the boy found *LLF* deficient in comparison with
the exciting Arthurian tales read to him by his mother (I 47-48). One assumes
it fell afoul of VN's (retrospective?) stricture against books that prized
"morality" above "entertainment.

*Little Lord Fauntleroy* apparently had a bad name even in my childhood in
the thirties. It was never suggested that I might enjoy it and, so far as
I can recall, the title carried only the connotation of a velvet-suited
young sissy. And presumably British at that. It somehow became mixed up in
my mind with Gainsborough's portrait "The Blue Boy." And so my impression
remained until yesterday evening when a copy came to hand. I was so
(en-)grossed by the volume, I tore myself away only to attend a workshop
on warbler identification, before hastening home to finish it.

Ms. Burnett (1849-1924) came to the U.S. at 16 and soon thereafter
launched her literary career. Although she wrote several adult novels, her
fame now rests upon *LLF* and another children's book, the 1911 *The
Secret Garden*. I had assumed that her fame had died with her person, but
was surprized to see that a branch of the local public library had
multiple copies of her books in the children's section -- a place your
happily childless correspondent had never ventured. I was even more
surprized to see that volumes' return-date stamps showed that they were
heavily circulated. The 1976 *LLF* that I checked out (Buccaneer Books),
the only one in small format with only small line pictures, had been out
over 20 times while the more luxuriously produced, handsomely illustrated
copies were still more popular.

Thinking that perhaps I am not the only Nabokovian to be remiss in
acquainting myself with this piece of Nabokov's childhood, I pass on the
following brief account of *Little Lord Fauntleroy."

Cedric Errol, age 7, lives with his widowed mother in a humble cot in
New York. His father, youngest son of the Earl of Dorincourt, had married
an American girl and been disowned by the irrascible Earl. "Ceddie" is not
only a lad of great beauty and unspeakably open, sunny disposition that he
entrances all who meet him. His closest friends are the grumpy
neighborhood grocery, Mr. Hobbs., and an orphan bootblack named Dick. The
Earl, whose concern for his own convenience is exceeded only his contempt
and dislike for all mankind, has never acknowledged the existence of his
daughter-in-law and his grandson. His only real affection is for his
family name and his vast holdings whose residents live in the direst penury. His
two older sons, Maurice and Bevis, wastrels both, have now come to early
graves. The
Earl sends his attorney to New York to bring back his daughter-in-law and
grandson. The boy is to live in the Castle while his hated mother stays in
nearby lodgings. The Earl hopes to win him away from his American
mother and lavishes gifts and money on him. The boy soon begins to better
the lot of many of the villagers attributing all of his good works to
his grandfather's generosity. The grandfather, eager to curry the boy's
favor, goes along with this. The two become friends and the old Earl
is so taken with the boy's winsome personality that he begins to assume
the character his saintly grandson ascribes to him. (Even his gout improves.)
The Earl still refuses, however, to meet his American daughter-in-law.

Dark clouds loom when the Earl learns of the appearance of an American
lady claiming to be the widow of the Earl's older son Bevis. She claims
the heirship in the name of Bevis' son. Her case seems strong. The
impending trial makes the newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic and is
seen by Ceddie's old friends Mr. Hobbs and Dick, the bootblack. Seeing a
photo of the claimant, Dick recognizes his ex-sister-in-law who had
absconded with his brother Ben's son, Tom, some years before. The woman is
indeed Bevis' widow, but her son is not Bevis' son. Mr. Hobbs, Dick
(and his brother Ben) rush to England to save their young friend Ceddie.
All is saved. All are amply rewarded.

An account would not be complete without a short sample of Ms.
Burnett's prose. In the following scene, Mr. Havisham, the Earl's
close-mouthed family lawyer, responds to the Earl's request for a first
description of Cedric:

"A very slight smile touched Mr. Havisham's thin lips. There arose before
his mind's eye the picture....the beautiful, graceful child's body lying
upon the tiger-skin in careless comfort--the bright, tumbled hair spread
on the rug--the bright, rose boy's face."(60)

or,

"What the Earl saw was a graceful childish figure in a black velvet suit,
with a lace collar, and with lovelocks waving about the handsome, manly
little face, whose eyes met his with a look of innocent good-fellowship."
(70)

I haven't checked but I hope this classic is on former Secretary Bennet's
recommended "moral" reading list. ANyway, lots of people are still reading
it.
-------------------------------------------------
D. Barton Johnson
Department of Germanic, Slavic and Semitic Studies
Phelps Hall
University of California at Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA 93106
Phone and Fax: (805) 687-1825
Home Phone: (805) 682-4618