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The Real Little Lord Fauntleroy

May 2024
17min read

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

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.


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.”


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:


Dear Mamma:

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.

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.

In the preface to this biography Vivian stated: To those who knew Mrs. Burnett with any intimacy it was plain that in all her thinking and doing was something not quite to be measured or weighed according to the usual mortal methods. Approached in the right spirit, the whole matter was easy of explanation. One had merely to admit that she was partly a fairy. (This was almost an echo of a passage in the famous book: ”… it must be owned that Lord Fauntleroy was himself rather like a small copy of the fairy prince. …”) Vivian was equally certain that her “sweetest and most complete romance was her children.”

A quarter of a century after leaving Harvard, Vivian felt sufficient rapport with his former classmates to furnish them detailed information on his activities for the “Records of the Class of 1898”: The fall of 1898 found me rustling a newspaper job in Denver, Colo. … I “cubbed” on the Denver Republican for about three and a half years, and had a full, exciting and joyous life of it. I did everything in reporting … from the Court house run to “police” the hotels and railways, even a bit of art and music criticism … I steadily climbed until I was proudly doing occasional service at the Assistant City Editor’s desk, on slow Sunday nights, for example. Denver at the time was one of the nation’s rowdiest schools of journalism, where greenhorns were sometimes hazed with six-guns. The graduates included such immortals as Gene Fowler, Damon Runyon, and Eugene Field.

Returning to Washington because of the illness of his father, Vivian was employed as a casual columnist for the Washington Times . Following the death of his father in 1906 he roved the nation for S. S. McClure, writing a “state of the Union” column. The year after, “I was known about New York, and Brooklyn, as ‘the young bachelor crazy about other men’s children,’ ” he told his Harvard classmates. “You can easily guess therefore that my pet publishing proposition was a magazine for youngsters.”

With his mother’s name on the masthead, Vivian took over the proprietorship of the Children’s Magazine and guided it through the panic year of 1907, later shifting to the more stable trade magazine field.

He was still a bachelor, thirty-eight years old and living with his mother on her Plandome, Long Island, estate, when in 1914 he fell in love with twenty-oneyear-old Constance Clough Buel, the daughter of a recently retired associate editor of The Century . Dearest minimized the difference in their ages, noting that Vivian “always was twenty-one, and now he is more so than ever.” With his attractive wife, Vivian embarked for a honeymoon in Japan on one of the first ships to pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Panama Canal. His late father’s interest in Japanese art provided the inspiration, and Dearest supplied the money.

Recurring neuritis in one arm kept him out of service in World War I, but as associate editor of the pioneering Talking Machine Journal he organized the collection of more than a million records for the entertainment of the men in uniform. “This, such as it is, will have to be considered my ‘war service,’ ” Vivian confided to the class records.

With the candor of a boyish Fauntleroy, Vivian reported on his other activities as follows: Sports! Oh, boy! On the hottest days of summer you will probably find me bouncing about on a tennis court. “Delight” is the name of my little auxiliary yawl which is anchored within a stone’s throw of the little ten room home —with vegetable and flower plots—in which we live the year ‘round and enthusiastically garden. Swimming and skating are also sports close to the heart. But, most of all our sport is music. I sing, play piano, and to horrify Mrs. B—the flute, and compose (see lists of G. Shirmer, Inc.) Mrs. B—— sings beautifully according to my notion, and to that of expert and unprejudiced observers. I am the conductor of the local community chorus, yclept Plandome Singers about twenty five strong (except in the tenors.)

The letter to his classmates also noted his role in helping to organize the Christian Science Society of Great Neck, Long Island, where he served as First Reader. His mother had flirted with the religion as well as with other types of faith healing, but was never enrolled as a member. Vivian’s wife and their two daughters, Verity Constance, born August 11, 1916, and Dorinda Clough, born January 15, 1918, were all Christian Scientists.

Glorying in her role as grandmother, Dearest lived only a twominute walk from Vivian’s house on the Sound. When in 1920 failing health made it necessary for the seventy-one-year-old author to place her business affairs in her son’s hands, she continued to counsel him: “When I slip away you must give all your mind to thinking, ‘How delighted Mammy would be to see us doing the things we want to do, without worrying the least! … You must help me in my little fortune, tucking away and tucking away.” Or again, “Here is a little prayer: ‘Let me be one of those who help !’ ”

Dearest died on October 29, 1924, but her influence never ended for Vivian. As she had wished, he thoroughly enjoyed himself, even in the depths of the Depression, with his Dutch-built yawl, Delight III , and his off-shore cruising sloop, Lief , prototype of the Viking Class, which he had helped to design. But he also remembered her rebuke to a spendthrift tendency at Harvard, when she had sharply reminded him, in a reference to the lean months of her early years in Tennessee, ”… we never owed any one a farthing. We went without —food, clothes, fire. It is not what a gentleman or a lady can do—to trust to luck to pay bills.” When the larger craft, the yawl, was laid down, Vivian gave careful instructions that its over-all length must measure exactly thirty-nine feet, eleven inches, because boats forty feet long and over were subject to a tax.


Even the hard-drinking “Corinthians,” ex-yacht owners beached by the Depression, were willing to crew on his boats, although his religious convictions prohibited alcohol on board. A ruddy-faced, balding, friendly man with a bouncy stride, he wore a yachting costume that invited comment as he draped his wellproportioned five-foot, seven-inch frame in the loosecut duck trousers and matching overblouse of a Breton fisherman. It was understood, of course, that some unorthodoxy had to be allowed to a fellow who composed music and belonged to the Beethoven Association, particularly since he was “regular” enough to serve on the Manhasset Board of Trade and lively enough for inclusion in the Players and the Dutch Treat Club in New York.

The latter organization was responsible for Vivian’s final public confrontation with the Fauntleroy legend, when he was over sixty years of age. Mary Pickford was the club’s guest of honor, and as part of the reception to which such guests were subjected the toastmaster twitted her for her not too successful handling of the role of Little Lord Fauntleroy. Then, with the “anything-for-a-laugh technique” that is the hallmark of American luncheonclub humor, he suddenly called for a few words from a fellow member, “the original Little Lord Fauntleroy.” It was an old, tired story for Vivian, “caught between dismay and wry amusement,” as his wife later recalled the incident. He arose dutifully to face the grinning clubmen, mustered a smile, and ceremoniously saluted his own bald head. “Mary,” he said with a nod to the guest of honor, “this time the curls are on you.” As he sat down he was rewarded with a roar of male laughter, but the scars of such episodes remained with the young woman who had been his wife for more than two decades. With anger and pride she would speak of “ridicule, that arch destroyer of even the best things,” which has “not yet put Fauntleroy out of circulation.”

The last act of the Fauntleroy story began on July 25, 1937, when Vivian brought Delight III out of its club mooring at midafternoon for a Sunday sail. A few old friends were aboard to serve as crew, along with his wife, herself a skilled sailor, and their daughter Dorinda. Although he had not been feeling well in recent weeks, the freshening wind and bright sunlight on the choppy waters of the Sound cheered Vivian with the promise of a good day.

Three sails, the usual complement, had been set, and Vivian was at the helm when the staysail was broken out. Moments later he saw, a mile ahead, a ten-foot knockabout capsize, dumping its occupants into the Sound. Instantly he veered off course for the rescue.

While a friend took the helm, Vivian laboriously hand-cranked the boat’s balky engine to life for the close maneuvering needed to avoid disaster for the two couples floundering in the water. Delight III was first at the scene, and while Vivian held the craft into the wind, a dinghy was dispatched to complete the rescue.

Only after the bedraggled couples had been hauled aboard and he had brought his boat around on the home course did Vivian’s fingers relax their grip on the helm. His craft was sweeping toward the harbor when suddenly he pitched forward, dead of a heart attack.

“Dearest says that is the best kind of goodness; not to think about yourself, but to think about other people,” Vivian’s mother had made Fauntleroy say many years before. And indeed, in many ways he had been Fauntleroy to his final breath, the obedient and trusting son of Dearest, who wanted him to be “one of those who help.”

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