November 24th – Frances Hodgson Burnett

“Never did she find anything so difficult as to keep herself from losing her temper when she was suddenly disturbed while absorbed in a book. “

A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett

Frances Hodgson Burnett was born on November 24, 1849, in Cheetham, Manchester, England. Her father died suddenly of a stroke when she was just three years old, and her mother, who was pregnant with her fifth child at the time, took over the family business. 

In 1865 the family moved to America to live with her mother’s brother, who ran a successful dry goods store in Tennessee. That part of the country was struggling at the end of the Civil War, and shortly after they arrived, a teenage Frances began to write stories for money, publishing her first piece in 1868 in Godey’s Lady’s Book. After that, she wrote constantly and sold enough stories to move the family into a better house by the following year. Her mother died in 1870, and in 1872 Frances used the money she had made writing to take an extended trip to England, then Paris. 

Frances had befriended a neighbor in Knoxville, Swan Burnett, who was studying to become a doctor. Eventually, they married after she returned from her trip in September 1873. They had a son, Lionel, in 1974 and another Vivian while they were living in Paris. After two years of living in France, the family returned to the States and settled in Washington, D.C., where Swan began his medical practice. She wrote her first book, That Lass O’Lowrie, which was serialized to good reception, and then published in 1877.

She followed with the publication of Louisiana in 1880, A Fair Barbarian in 1881, and Through One Administration in 1883. She wrote the play Esmerelda, in 1881, which became the longest-running play on Broadway in the 19th century. Although her husband’s medical practice was successful, she was still the more significant income maker and felt pressured to sustain her output, which led to exhaustion and depression. 

In 1884 she began one of the novels she would be best known for, Little Lord FauntleroyIt was serialized first in St Nicholas magazine before being published in 1886. Modeled on the sons she doted over, who wore frills and velvet suits and had their hair curled by their mother, Little Lord Fauntleroy was a bestseller in England and the U.S. She eventually followed the first of her very successful children’s books with A Little Princess (1905) and The Secret Garden (1911).

In 1890 her eldest son Lionel died of consumption in Paris at the age of 16. Overcome with grief, she remained away from her husband and youngest son for two years, returning to Washington in 1892. 

In 1898 she divorced Swan and married Stephen Townsend, an aspiring actor she had gotten to know through her stage adaptions, in 1900. Burnett was fifty and Townsend ten years younger, and many people speculated that he was using her to further his career. They divorced in 1902 after an unhappy marriage. 

Burnett also wrote many books for adults that were popular in their day, including the bestseller A Lady of Quality (1896). She wrote and produced many successful stage adaptions of her works as well.  

In 1905 Burnett became a U.S. citizen and moved permanently to the United States in 1907. 

She died at her home in Plandome Manor, New York, on October  29th, 1924, at the age of 74.

Lesson from Burnett:

Burnett once described herself as a “pen-driving machine,” writing furiously to secure a life for herself and her family. Out of this ambition, we have heartwarming and hopeful gems like The Secret Garden and A Little Princess.

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