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The Real Little Lord Fauntleroy
The lady author modelled her famous fictional creation after her own wonder boy —and condemned a generation of “manly little chaps” to velvet pants and curls
February 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 2
In the November, 1885, issue of St. Nicholas magazine there appeared the first installment of a romantic novel about a little American boy who inherits a British title and goes to England to live with his rich, grumpy grandfather in a suitably elegant castle. This is their first meeting: “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.” The story was an instant success; published as a book the next year, it was a best-seller. And so the sons of countless impressionable American mothers were condemned to velvet page-boy suits, lace collars, and the crowning burden—long, flowing curls. Little Lord Fauntleroy had arrived upon the American literary and sartorial scene.
The book is still in print and had passed the million mark in sales by 1955; but the vogue for emulating the style of dress is long past, even though Hollywood has twice lavished its best talents on the story. In 1921 Mary Pickford portrayed not only Fauntleroy but also his devoted mother, “Dearest,” and in the talking version in 1936 Freddie Bartholomew played the lead.
In the book Fauntleroy’s original name was Cedric Errol. His living prototype was Vivian Burnett, son of authoress Frances Hodgson Burnett and her physician husband, Dr. Swan Moses Burnett. They were themselves an Anglo-American family: in 1865, when Frances was sixteen, her widowed mother had emigrated to Tennessee when her small shop in the textile city of Manchester, England, was forced to close by the local depression resulting from the American Civil War. In Tennessee Frances met and married young Dr. Burnett, and there she began her writing career with popular stories looking back to her English girlhood.
Just before Little Lord Fauntleroy saw print the Burnetts were living in a three-story brick house in Washington, D.C., where they enjoyed a better than modest middleclass income as the result of Dr. Burnett’s increasing medical practice and Mrs. Burnett’s earnings as a writer. As a rising young author she had a reputation sufficient to attract Oscar Wilde to her salon during his American visit, and a neighbor, James Garfield, soon to be President, was listed among the family friends. In fact, once the White House had become home to the five children of the Garfield family, Vivian and his older brother, Lionel, were free to romp through its stately halls in their velvet suits.
Even before the publication of Little Lord Fauntleroy , Mrs. Burnett’s choice of clothing for her sons had caused critical comment in the Washington press, which alleged that the charming youngsters were artfully posed about her salon to impress strangers. Mrs. Burnett’s response was an indignant letter “to the editor”: That the little fellows have worn velvet and lace, and being kindly endowed by Nature, have so adorned it as to fill a weak parent with unbridled vanity, before which peacocks might retire, is true, but I object to their being handicapped in their childhood by stupid, vulgar, unfounded stories, and I advance with due modesty the proposition that my taste for the picturesque has not led me to transform two strong, manly, robust boys into affected, abnormally self-conscious, little mountebanks.
The writing of a book about a little boy very much like her sons was Mrs. Burnett’s effort to make up to them for the hours she spent in her third-floor study, isolated by the chores of authorship. Each day the youngsters heard the latest addition to the manuscript, and the entranced comments of eight-year-old Vivian often furnished the direction for the plot as well as the dialogue.
The story had really begun with Vivian’s birth in Paris on April 5, 1876. In the previous year, with Lionel scarcely more than six months old, the family had left Knoxville for grand adventure in Europe, to be partly paid for by remittances for stories written by Mrs. Burnett. After visits to Manchester, London, Rotterdam, D’fcsseldorf, and Rome, the Burnetts settled in Paris, where the young physician could continue his medical studies.
The arrival of a second child not only upset plans for extended residence abroad but kept Mrs. Burnett from the writing counted on to support the family. When Vivian made his debut, his parents called him Little Calamity and christened him with the masculine form of the name intended for the daughter they had expected. Short of funds, they packed their trunks and returned to America, where Dr. Burnett set up a practice as an eye and ear specialist in Washington.