On Princesses and Princess Culture

So we’re counting down the days to Christmas and all over the country parents are poised to bestow upon their young female offspring (and, horror of horrors, some, on their young male offspring) princess dresses, princess tiaras, princess-themed toys, dolls, sheets, books, movies, and anything else opportunistic retailers can stick a princess motif on.

But sadly, modern culture, mainly through the Disney princess movies, has completely lost sight of what it means to be a princess.  A real princess.

It was not as great as it sounds.  It’s true that if you were a daughter of one of the kings of days of yore you probably lived a life of relative luxury, had more to eat than others, and got to hob-nob with royalty.  But not always; for the four Romanov princesses being a princess meant getting executed along with their parents, but that was an extreme circumstance.

The Romanov princesses, whose tragic story fascinated my daughters when they were young. Do a google search on the name of their family’s personal physician and you’ll see why.

Throughout history,  kings and queens  lived out their reigns in varying circumstances of peace or upheaval, but royal princesses were  far too valuable a bargaining commodity to waste. Being murdered was much more likely to happen to young princes in line for the throne than to their sisters.

Mary Tudor, Queen of France

Mainly being a princess meant having to marry someone you didn’t know, someone you didn’t want to marry, as it did for Henry VIII’s younger sister, Mary, (the grandmother of Lady Jane Grey) who was forced to marry the king of France, more than 30 years her senior.  Even in recent times it has meant not being allowed to marry the man you loved, as was the case with the current Queen of England’s own late sister, Margaret.

Because if you were a princess you did not get to decide what you would do or not do.  You did not belong to yourself, you belonged to your country.  To the people who held the reins, anyway. You were merely a bargaining chip to be played however and whenever and wherever it suited those in power to use you.

Right now I’m reading a book to my grand-daughter Katharine which explains pretty well what it means to be, maybe not a historically-accurate princess, but a real princess.  A person who displays the character of a true princess.

It’s called The Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and you’re probably familiar with the Shirley Temple movie version or another movie version.  Admittedly, Shirley Temple is adorable, but she’s not an accurate depiction of the Sara Crewe of the book, nor is the movie script faithful to the book.  The book, as is almost always the case, is much better than the movie.

It’s a valuable book to read to the right child at the right time, as there are many moral tests and lessons in it. And somehow without the preachy Sunday-school quality of some of the Victorian children’s fiction, The Little Princess quite clearly contrasts right conduct with wrong conduct.

The main character is Sara, who pretends she is a princess.  And unlike most little girls today who pretend to be princesses, she knows what that means.  It means it’s her duty to consistently think of others before herself, and to do what is right and good, even when that’s hard to do.

Through the course of the story Sara endures flattery without becoming proud, and later, endures ill-treatment patiently and without returning evil for evil or insult for insult.

The villain of the story, Miss Minchin, who is the proprietress of the boarding school Sara attends, is selfish, petty, hateful and bad.

There is no moral confusion here.  Neither the heroine nor the villain is struggling to find herself, or lying awake nights to figure out what’s right for her, or deciding what is right according to how she feels.  What’s good is good and what’s bad is bad.  Just like that.

It’s not a perfect book; it has its flaws.  First, the author was not a Christian, and there is no Christian language in the book.  But the world Burnett grew up in over a hundred years ago was a world still influenced by Christian morality and worldview.  Telling the truth was important, as was being kind to those around you, and suffering bravely.  Back then one always knew what was the right thing to do, and the protagonist, Sara, tried consistently to do it.

The book mentions magic several times, sometimes when she really means “make believe” but especially near the end when several unexplained wonderful things start happening to Sara. But in this so-called magic, there’s no behavior that the Bible forbids like trying to contact departed souls, or foretelling of the future or anything like that.  In one place Sara pretends something might have done by a “good witch”.  (I changed that to “angel” when I read that part.)  And there’s mention of fairies.  Sara also makes wishes a lot. I change Sara’s wish-making into praying just as I change her talk of “magic” into “pretending”.  That’s the great thing about reading aloud- you can adapt the text however you want.

In addition to the other ways I tweaked it, I substituted words Katharine would understand for those she wouldn’t.  The book was written for children older than five, really.

So all that said, with all these flaws, is The Little Princess really worth reading?

Yes, I think so. And I know Katharine, who loved every minute of it, would say so.  It’s a good story, well-told, with an thoroughly admirable protagonist, and a wonderfully evil villain who gets what’s coming to her in the very satisfying ending.  More importantly, it’s a story which teaches many lessons on self-restraint and conduct important for little girls. From our reading of it together, I think Katharine, who likes to play princess as much as any five-year-old girl, is beginning to get a vision for the kind of selfless and noble conduct that befits a true princess.

And really, a true Christian.