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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
While her husband struggled to get started, Mrs. Burnett balanced her days between the task of caring for two little boys and the resumption of the literary grind. To save money she made the boys’ clothing, but it became a labor of love enhanced by the young author’s romantic imagination. The result was the flamboyant page-boy costume to be made famous by Fauntleroy.
“The one perfect thing in my life was the childhood of my boys,” Mrs. Burnett would often remark, even after she had become one of the most highly paid writers in America. She had decided at the outset that Vivian must be an exceptional child; and although intimates called her Fluffy and FlufFina, she was possessed of a formidable will.
“Your brother walked alone beautifully when he was nine months old,” she would tell the baby, “and if you wait until you are ten months old I shall feel that you have dishonored your family and brought my reddish hair with sorrow to the grave.” Obediently, Vivian walked at nine months, an achievement later to be credited to Fauntleroy.
As he grew older, Vivian also developed the charming personality that his fond mother attributed to her fictional creation. Encouraged to meet the adults whom she entertained, Vivian displayed a particular ability to delight his elders with a mixture of boyish sincerity and courtly manners that often proved touching. A visitor who had recently lost his wife found himself suddenly confronted by a six-year-old’s outstretched hand and earnest address: “Mr. Wenham—I’m very sorry for you … about your wife being dead. I’m very sorry for you. I know how you must miss her.” The startled guest accepted the proffered handshake and with a voice not quite steady succeeded in mumbling, “Thank you, Vivvie, thank you.”
Mr. Silas Hobbs, the stout groceryman friend of Cedric Errol, Lord Fauntleroy, was in real life a gaunt, crusty Vermonter named Page who operated a store at the corner of Twelfth Street and New York Avenue in Washington, where a seat on a cracker barrel could always be found for a well-behaved youngster who liked to discuss politics.
Both Vivian and Lionel were ardent Republicans as a result of their friendship with the Garfield children, and in the election that followed the assassination of the President, Vivian’s party loyalty remained intact. Dearest was away in Boston suffering a sensitive author’s recurrent “nervous prostration” when she received a reassuring letter from her eight-year-old son:
My Dearest Mamma:
I am sorry that I have not had time to write to you before. I have been so occupied with the presidential election. The boys in my school knock me down and jump on me because they want me to go Democrat. But I am still a strong Republican. I send you a great many hugs and kisses.
Your obedient and humble son and servant, VIVIAN
When Vivian discovered the American Revolution, his mother was touched by his intensity and later recalled: He sat in a large chair, one short leg tucked under him, a big book on his knee … He looked up glowing. … “Dearest,” he said, “Dearest, listen. Here’s a brave man, here’s a brave man! This is what he says: ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’ ”
The idea of placing a boy like her son in a setting that would test his assured American principles against the still-hardened class system of her homeland began as idle speculation and ended in a tale “easily written … lived before my eyes.” Vivian, unconscious of her intent, accepted each new chapter with enthusiasm. “Do you know, I like that boy,” he said. “There’s one thing about him, he never forgets about Dearest.” A few months later, after his ninth birthday, Vivian’s picture was furnished to artist Reginal Birch as a guide for illustrations that in time became almost as famous as the book itself.
Within a year of its magazine publication, when ten year-old Vivian had finally shed his curls, the book was at the top of the list at Charles Scribner’s Sons, with 10,000 copies sold in a week and another 10,000 ordered from the press. An English edition was also a best seller. Even William Ewart Gladstone, recently British prime minister, fell victim to the charm of Fauntleroy, stating that “the book [will] have great effect in bringing about added good feeling between the two nations.”