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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
This news brought her home in April of 1890 to begin a desperate pilgrimage with the dying boy to specialists on both sides of the Atlantic. Her letters to Vivian gave a moving account of a losing fight. She never revealed to the older brother that his adversary was death, and she was at his side when the end came in her Paris apartment on December 7, 1890.
Not until March, 1892, was Mrs. Burnett reunited with her husband and Vivian, now a husky high school boy approaching his sixteenth birthday. Mrs. Burnett noted the changes and mourned for “two little fellows, with picture faces and golden love-locks, whom I have … longed for … with my kisses on their little mouths.” She saw how Vivian now smiled “with eyes not quite the same"; and for many years in the future the direct contacts between Vivian and his mother consisted of brief visits and much letter writing. However, she was on hand to introduce him to President Eliot of Harvard when he became a freshman in 1894, still weak from a bout with typhoid fever. The illness got Vivian off to a poor start with a late enrollment. Even more damaging to his college career was the widely read article by his mother that had appeared in The Ladies’ Home Journal in December, 1893. It revealed that Fauntleroy had been modelled closely after Vivian Burnett. The article had not affected Vivian’s chums in Washington, who had grown up with him; but for others it was a cue for smirking sarcasm that was to annoy him the rest of his life.
The Harvard Archives preserves a clipping indicating that Vivian was hazed by being forced to roam the campus in Fauntleroy’s velvet knickerbockers and ruffed collar, and wearing a golden wig. Members of the Burnett family deny the story and state that when a fellow student sought to infuriate him with taunts of “Fauntleroy,” he ended the discussion by bringing a chair down on the head of his tormentor.
At any rate, Vivian was never to lose entirely his ingenuous Fauntleroy approach to life or his respect for the motivations of Dearest. In his freshman year she wrote to him, “If I had not entire faith in your wits and also your taste, it would disturb me to hear that you are going about with ‘A fast set.’ ” When Vivian was fifty-one and writing his mother’s biography he described the letter as revealing “an understanding of her college boy, and an understanding of the understanding between them.”
A for his mother’s actions, Vivian was equally understanding, although before leaving Harvard he did suggest that she legalize her separation from his father with a divorce. This paved the way for her marriage to Stephen Townesend, a stage-struck English physician whom she appointed as her business manager and for whom she wrote stage roles. The union with Townesend also ended in divorce but failed to shake Vivian’s faith.
Unquestionably, Mrs. Burnett was given to romantic attachments and ardent friendships with both men and women. The depth of them can only be guessed from the florid Victorian embellishments of some of her letters. There was another English physician, Dr. Owen Lankester, whom she addressed as “Benevolent Giant.” Her dear friend Gertrude Hall, of Boston, who accompanied her on some of her European trips, received a note which began: “Mine Kitty-Mine-Mine! Fluffy has got out of her little bed early in the morning and is sitting in her little night gown writing you.”
Israel Zangwill, who “rescued” Mrs. Burnett from a fright in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks and then came to her apartment to talk until 3 A.M., was rewarded with an account of her purchase of his latest book: I saw an elderly gentleman trying to repress rather nice smiles. I think he was wishing that he had written a book, [that] ladies—in such frocks and hats—hurled themselves into shops to demand, and bore away pressed to their tender sides. American novelist Henry James was to address her as “Noblest of Neighbours, and Most Heavenly of Women!"—but this was simply to thank her for a basket of fruit.
Victorian epistles could be misleading, and perhaps too much could be read into Mrs. Burnett’s own version of her work sessions on the sands of a Long Island beach with her young editor, Richard Watson Gilder, whose wife assented to the arrangement since the author was “a married woman.” The account of the interlude was written to a woman friend back in Washington, where her own husband and the boys remained at the time: We … sat in the sand again and bayed at the moon and talked and talked and talked … and we sat there until midnight and then went and had lemonade on the porch … and finally we retired, and as all our baggage consisted of one small pocket-comb, we had to perform our toilets with it by turns—he throwing it over my transom, and I returning it under his door. Later on the sands she encountered a “Greek God in bronze … I never noticed a man’s body before. I was always so actively employed searching for their brains —but his—Mon dieu! Gott in Himmeil! Santa Maria —and things! … I grow wild, and have to erase!” This deity, as Vivian explained in his biographical tribute to his mother, The Romantick Lady (1927), was the local swimming instructor.