From Poverty to Penmanship

By Susan Macaulay

Frances Hodgson Burnett, an English-American playwright and author was an amazing woman – some might say the J.K. Rowling of the late 19th century.

Born into an impoverished family in Manchester, England, in 1849, from the age of 18 she would use her vivid imagination and writing skills to pen popular children’s books, novels and plays to support her brothers and sisters.

frances_burnett.jpgBurnett’s father died when she was five, leaving her mother with Frances, four other children and few prospects. The family moved to the United States where they eked out a living farming in Tennessee.

When her mother died in 1867, Frances took over as head of the family and began writing to support herself and her younger siblings. Her first novel, That Lass o’ Lowrie’s, was published in 1877; she is best known for children’s stories, of which Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Little Princess, and The Secret Garden, are the most widely recognized, even to this day.

Burnett is also remembered for the fact that she wrote under her own name, when many other female authors of the time chose to use pseudonyms.

Significantly, in 1888, Burnett won a court battle for the dramatic rights to Little Lord Fauntleroy, thus establishing a precedent that would later be incorporated into British copyright law. Grateful English authors presented her with a diamond bracelet in gratitude for the court victory that gave them dramatic rights over their stories.

Burnett married twice, divorced twice, lost one of her two beloved sons to consumption, and lived in Plandome, New York for 17 years. She died in 1924 at the age of 75.