- Historic Sites
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
The fast-mounting royalties swept the Burnett family to a new plane of affluence that included a move to a more fashionable Washington address at 1734 K Street N.W. For the first time it was possible for Mrs. Burnett not only to indulge in extravagantly romantic plans for the boys but to make them come true, even at the cost of a diminished role for her husband, who was now caught up in hospital duties and a professorship at Georgetown University Medical School.
It was not the first disappointment of his marriage. A few years earlier the physician, afflicted by a limp resulting from a boyhood knee injury, had found his physical characteristics borrowed by his wife to clothe the wretched soul of one of her more repulsive creations—Richard Amory in “Through One Administration.” Dr. Burnett was further saddened when she swept off to England with the boys in May, 1887, so they could join in celebrating Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, which had already filled London with a gaggle of continental royalties and exotically garbed potentates from India.
From seats opposite the mounted band of the Royal Horse Guards, Vivian and Lionel watched wide-eyed the unmatched pageantry of the jubilee procession in which the Queen moved in a carriage of state drawn by cream-colored horses. Then came a stay at a farm in Wangford, near Southwold, before they were hastened off to an apartment in Florence, where Mrs. Burnett was soon spinning in the city’s social whirl. The boys were popped into a French-Italian school where they could absorb two additional languages, while Mrs. Burnett was entertained by flirtations at masked balls and by the charming silhouettes cut for her by a talented first lieutenant in the crack Bersaglieri army corps.
Her heady idyll was suddenly interrupted by word from England that someone had plagiarized Little Lord Fauntleroy for the stage. According to a biography of his mother later written by Vivian, the plagiarist had the effrontery to appear in Florence to offer her a share of the royalties he anticipated from the theft of her work. When he fled her wrath it was with a determination to hasten his production regardless of her feelings. Mrs. Burnctt followed on the next train, heading for her London solicitors.
The literary thief, whose name appears to have been Seebohm, counted on the haziness of English law with regard to the ownership of plays adapted even from copyrighted books, but he failed to reckon the adamantine quality of FlufTy’s determination. To waste no time on the journey, she began her own stage adaptation as her train clattered out of Florence.
Seebohm’s play opened to favorable reviews at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre on February 23, 1888, but by May 12 Mrs. Burnett had won a landmark court decision on property rights to a work of fiction which forced his production off the boards. Just two days later, at Terry’s Theatre, she opened her own version of The Real Little Lord Fauntleroy , and the reviews became raves. The Society of British Authors was so moved that she was bracketed with James Russell Lowell, sturdy defender of international copyright laws, as guest of honor at a banquet at Queen’s Hall. The boys had by now rejoined Dearest to share her London triumph.
Next came successful productions of the play in Boston, New York, the English provinces, and even France, and the wolf was permanently banished from the Burnetts’ door. By December of 1888 Mrs. Burnctt was engaged in buying a splendid residence of twenty-two rooms at 1770 Massachusetts Avenue; but after a few months of entertaining she was again on the Atlantic with thirteen-year-old Vivian in tow. Lionel, who had elected to spend an American summer with his father, wrote to his mother in July, 1889:
I have not received a letter from you for about three weeks, but I suppose you have a great deal to do. …
Yesterday, Monday July 8, 1889 was the day of the great prize fight between Sullivan and Kilrain for the championship of the world. Sullivan knocked out Kilrain in seventy two rounds. I suppose you do not care for prize fights, but you can tell Vivian about it.
After a summer of accompanying Dearest to stately affairs where he was sometimes required to hand a bouquet to a duchess, Vivian returned alone to Washington. His capacity for enthusiasm was now directed to tennis and football, and to valiant efforts to learn Greek and avoid flunking geometry. When he and Lionel took up experiments in electricity, which turned even the doormat into a burglar alarm, Mrs. Burnett sent the requested scientific books from abroad. She also supplied the funds for their basement printing press, which was operated busily until its proprietors were felled by the 1890 epidemic of grippe.
Mrs. Burnett was herself convalescing from a nearly disastrous carriage accident caused by a fractious horse when word came that Lionel was sick again—this time with the most virulent form of tuberculosis, then called galloping consumption.