Frances Hodgson Burnett, a rock-star writer of the 19th and early 20th century

September 8, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

Frances Hodgson Burnett, another of The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy, wrote prolifically and made a ton of money doing it. She traveled extensively, lived peripatetically, spent extravagantly, and maintained a lavish lifestyle that most of us could only imagine.

During her 30 years atop the world’s literary stage, she was one of the world’s most famous women.

When the serialization of Little Lord Fauntleroy was published in 1885, it was so wildly popular that readers waited breathlessly for the next installment and stood in line to buy copies of St. Nicholas magazine in which the episodes appeared. The story set off a fashion trend that eventually became the basis for the Buster Brown clothing line. The episodes were gathered together into book form in 1886 and became an international best-seller; the book was translated into 12 languages.

Burnett was, indeed, the J.K. Rowling of her day.

We remember Burnett for her children’s books today, but during her time, she also wrote best-selling adult fiction and highly popular stage plays. Little Lord Fauntleroy was turned into the stage play title The Real Little Lord Fauntleroy. Burnett had discovered that an unauthorized version of the book was being produced in a London theater; she then pursued and won a ground-breaking lawsuit for copyright infringement. The play she wrote went on to make as much money as the book did.

Burnett was born in Manchester, England, in 1849, but the family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, during her teenage year, to be close to an uncle. After the Civil War, however, Knoxville could offer them little in the way of economic opportunity, so Frances took up writing to try to earn an income. She sold her first story to Godey’s Lady Book in 1868 and thereafter worked manically at her writing, often sacrificing her health to keep up a steady income. 

Frances married Swan Burnett, a Knoxville neighbor, and they eventually left Knoxville to live in Washington, D.C. There she became famous for the literary salons she hosted on Tuesday evenings, which the rich, famous, and politically powerful attended. She also had two sons on whom she lavished attention. Vivian, the younger son, was the model for Little Lord Fauntleroy. The marriage ended in divorce, as did her second marriage.

There is much more to her life’s story that what I have been able to relate here. She has been the subject of at least two major biographies:

Thwaite, Ann (1991), Waiting for the Party: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1849–1924, David R. Godine, ISBN 978-0-87923-790-5

Gerzina, Gretchen (2004), Frances Hodgson Burnett: the unexpected life of the author of The Secret Garden, Rutgers University Press, ISBN 0-8135-3382-1

I have been living with Burnett and her work for the last few weeks since we at the Blount County Public Library have decided to issue a new edition of The One I Knew Best of All, Burnett’s autobiographical novel of her childhood. It will be the first of a series of books we will publish about the area or by authors associated with Southern Appalachia. Stay tuned. I’ll have more to say about that in the coming weeks.

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