Anglo American Novelist and Playwright
Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849–1924) was an British American playwright and author. She is best known for her children’s stories, in particular Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), A Little Princess (1905) and The Secret Garden (1911). Her status as a divorced woman writer supporting her family with her earnings pushed the boundaries of what was considered ‘a woman’s place’ in 19th century society.
Frances Eliza Hodgson was born on November 24, 1849 in Cheetham, near Manchester, England, the third of five children of Eliza Boond Hodgson and Edwin Hodgson, who owned a business selling quality ironmongery and brass goods. Frances was the middle of the five Hodgson children, with two older brothers and two younger sisters.
In 1852 the family moved to a more spacious home with greater access to outdoor space. Barely a year later, with his wife pregnant for a fifth time, Edwin Hodgson died of a stroke, leaving the family without income. Frances was cared for by her grandmother while her mother took over running the family business.
From her grandmother, who bought her books, Frances learned to love reading, particularly The Flower Book which had colored illustrations and poems. Frances had an active imagination, writing stories she made up in old notebooks. Another of her favorite books was the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and she spent many hours acting out scenes from that book.
Because of their reduced income, Eliza had to give up their house and moved with her children to Seedley Grove, where they lived with relatives in a home that included a large enclosed garden where Frances enjoyed playing. When her mother moved the family to Salford, Frances mourned the lack of the flowers and gardens. Their home was located in Islington Square, adjacent to an area with severe overcrowding and poverty.
Frances and her siblings were sent to be educated at The Select Seminary for Young Ladies and Gentleman, where she was described as “precocious and romantic.” She had an active social life and enjoyed telling stories to her friends and cousins; in her mother she found a good audience, although her brothers had a tendency to tease her about her stories.
Manchester was a manufacturing town that was almost entirely dependent on a cotton economy which was ruined by the American Civil War. In 1863 Eliza Hodgson was forced to sell their business and move the family once again to an even smaller home; at that time Frances’ education came to an end.
Eliza Hodgson’s brother asked the family to join him in America in Knoxville to where he had immigrated and had a thriving dry goods store. In 1865 Eliza decided to accept his offer. After the polluted industrial city of Manchester, Tennessee seemed like paradise to Frances, but she remained strongly attached to England.
After the war ended, along with much of the trade it brought to the area, Eliza’s brother lost a large portion of his business and was unable to provide for the newly arrived family. During their first winter the family lived in a log cabin in New Market, outside of Knoxville, later moving to a home Frances called ‘Noah’s Ark, Mt. Ararat.’
Living across from them was the Burnett family, and Frances became friendly with Swan Burnett whom she introduced to books and English authors such as Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott. She may have befriended him because of a childhood injury that left him lame and unable to participate in physical activities. Not long after they met, Burnett left for Ohio to go to college.
Frances began writing to help earn money for the family, and her first short story was published in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1868. Soon after, she was also being published regularly in Scribner’s Monthly, Peterson’s Ladies’ Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar. Determined to escape the family’s poverty, for five years Frances wrote constantly, calling herself “a pen driving machine.”
Once her first story was published, she spent the rest of her life as a working writer. By 1869 she had earned enough to move the family into a better home in Knoxville. Her mother died in 1870, and the burden to financially support her five siblings increased, but she was soon earning a regular income from her writing. Within two years two of her sisters and a brother were married.
With the income from her writing Frances returned to England for an extended visit in 1872, and then went to Paris where she had a couture dress made to be shipped to Tennessee, having agreed to marry Swan Burnett. She returned home before the dress arrived and attempted to postpone the wedding, but Swan insisted they marry as soon as possible.
Frances Hodgson married Swan Burnett in September 1873. She gave birth to her first child, Lionel, in September 1874. That year she also began work on her first full length novel, That Lass o’ Lowries, set in Lancashire, England. The couple wanted to leave Knoxville, and her writing income was enough for them to travel to Paris, where they lived for two years. Swan completed his medical training as an eye and ear specialist there.
After the birth of their second child, son Vivian, they returned to the United States. The Burnetts intended to move to Washington, DC, where Swan would start his medical practice. However they were in debt, and Frances was forced to live with Swan’s parents in New Market while Swan established himself in Washington.
To economize Frances made clothing for her boys, often including many frills. She designed velvet suits with lace collars for her boys, and frilly dresses for herself. She allowed her sons’ hair to grow long, which she then shaped into long curls.
Early in 1877 Frances Hodgson Burnett was offered a contract to have That Lass o’ Lowries published, which was doing well in its serialization, as a book. At that point she made her husband her business manager. That Lass o’ Lowries (1877) was published to good reviews, and the rights were sold for a British edition.
Shortly after the publication of the book in 1877, she joined her husband in Washington, DC, where she established a household and friends. She continued to write, becoming known as a rising young novelist. Despite the difficulties of raising a family and settling in a new city, Burnett began writing a dramatic interpretation of That Lass o’ Lowrie in response to a pirated stage version presented in London.
After a visit to Boston in 1879 where she met Louisa May Alcott and Mary Mapes Dodge, editor of the children’s magazine St. Nicholas, Burnett began to write children’s fiction. During the next five years she wrote several short works for St. Nicholas. Most of her work is set in the English countryside.
Burnett continued to write adult fiction as well: Louisiana (1880), A Fair Barbarian (1881) and Through One Administration (1883). However, as had happened in Knoxville, she felt the pressure of maintaining a household, caring for children and a husband and keeping to her writing schedule, which often left her feeling exhausted and depressed.
Within a few years Burnett became well known in Washington society and hosted a literary salon on Tuesday evenings, often attended by politicians, as well as local literary figures. Swan’s practice grew and he had a good reputation, but his income lagged behind hers, forcing her to continue her writing schedule. Unfortunately she was often ill and at times suffered from the heat in Washington, which she escaped whenever possible.
Burnett was a devoted mother and took great joy in her two sons. She doted on their appearance, continuing the practice of curling their long hair each day, which became the inspiration for her children’s novel Little Lord Fauntleroy; the serialization began in 1885 in St. Nicholas magazine. This story features a boy who dresses in elaborate velvet suits and wears his long hair in curls, and who was modeled on Burnett’s younger son Vivian.
Little Lord Fauntleroy was published in book form in 1886. It became a best seller in the United States and England, was translated into 12 languages, and established Burnett’s reputation as a writer. She also wrote a stage version of Little Lord Fauntleroy, which was produced on stage in London and on Broadway, making her as much money as the book.
To the Country of Her Birth
In 1887 Burnett traveled to England for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, which became the first of yearly transatlantic trips from the United States to England, accompanied by her sons. In her rented rooms she continued her Tuesday evening salon and soon attracted visitors, meeting Stephen Townsend for the first time. Despite her busy schedule, she felt ill from the heat and the crowds of tourists, spending protracted periods in bed.
With her sons, she moved on to spend the winter in Florence where she wrote The Fortunes of Philippa Fairfax (1888), the only book to be published in England but not in the United States. That winter Sara Crewe or What Happened at Miss Minchin’s was published in the United States. She would go on to make Sara Crewe into a stage play.
In 1888, Burnett returned to Manchester where she leased a large home, had it decorated, and then turned it over to cousins to run as a boarding house, after which she moved to London where she again took rooms, enjoyed the London season, and prepared Phyllis for production, a stage adaptation of The Fortunes of Philippa Fairfax. She was disappointed by the bad reviews, and turned to socializing. During this period she began to see more of Stephen Townsend.
In 1890 Burnett’s oldest son Lionel died from consumption (tuberculosis) in Paris, which greatly affected her life and her writing. Before his death, she sought a cure from physicians and took him to Germany to visit spas. After his death, she wrote in a letter to a friend that her writing was insignificant in comparison to having been the mother of two boys.
Lionel’s death caused a relapse of the depression she struggled with for much of her life. She turned to Spiritualism, Theosophy and Christian Science to assuage her grief, topics that would occur in her novels. Her marriage was not a happy one; they often spent much time apart and finally divorced in 1898.
Burnett soon ensconced herself at her country home in England where she would get the inspiration for The Secret Garden, often writing outside in the garden. She returned to London where she sought the distraction of charity work and formed the Drury Lane Boys’ Club in February 1892. Also during this period she wrote a play with a starring role for Stephen Townsend in an attempt to begin his acting career.
After a two year absence from her Washington home, her husband and her younger son Vivian, Burnett returned to DC in March 1892, where she continued charity work and began writing again. In 1893, Burnett published an autobiography, dedicated to her eldest son, titled The One I Knew Best of All. Also in that year, she had a set of her books displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair.
Burnett returned to London in 1894; there she heard news that her younger son Vivian was ill, so she quickly rushed back to the US. Vivian recovered from his illness, but missed his first term at Harvard University. Burnett stayed with him until he was well, then returned to London. At this time she began to worry about her finances.
As she had in the past, she turned to writing as a source of income and began to write A Lady of Quality (1896), which was to become the first of a series of successful adult historical novels, which was followed by In Connection with the De Willoughby Claim (1899) and The Methods of Lady Walderhurst (1901).
In 1898, when Vivian graduated from Harvard, Frances divorced Swan Burnett. Burnett and Swan had orchestrated the dissolution of their marriage some years earlier. Swan took his own apartment and ceased to live with Burnett, so that after a period of two years she could plead desertion as a reason for the divorce. The press was critical, with the Washington Post writing that the divorce was caused by Burnett’s “advanced ideas regarding the duties of a wife and the rights of women.”
From the mid-1890s Burnett lived in England at Great Maytham Hall, where she made her home for the next decade, although she continued annual transatlantic trips to the United States. She socialized in the local villages, filled the house with guests, and had Stephen Townsend move in with her, causing the local vicar to become scandalized with her lifestyle.
In February 1900 Frances Hodgson Burnett married Stephen Townsend in Genoa, Italy. Burnett’s biographer, Gretchen Gerzina writes of the marriage: “It was the biggest mistake of her life”. The press stressed the age difference – Townsend was ten years younger than she. Within months, in a letter to her sister, Burnett admitted the marriage was in trouble, describing Townsend as scarcely sane and hysterical.
In the spring of 1901, when she returned to the country, Townsend tried to replace her long-time publisher Scribner’s with a publishing house offering a larger advance. In 1902, after a summer of socializing at Maytham, Burnett suffered a physical collapse. She returned to American and entered a sanatorium. There she told Townsend she would no longer live with him, and the marriage ended.
In June 1904 Burnett returned to Maytham, which had a series of walled gardens, and she wrote several books in the rose garden there. At Maytham Burnett originally had the idea for The Secret Garden (1911), the story of how Mary Lennox and her friends find courage, friendship and independence while tending their garden. It has been described as one of the most satisfying children’s books ever written.
In 1907, she returned permanently to the United States, having become a citizen in 1905, and built a home in Plandome Manor, Long Island, New York where she lived for the last 17 years of her life. Her son Vivian was employed in the publishing business and at his request she agreed to be the editor for Children’s Magazine. Over the next several years a number of her shorter works were published in that magazine.
In 1911 The Secret Garden was published, when Burnett was in her 60s. While it was initially written for children it was soon being read by an audience of all ages in North America and Europe. Burnett lived an extravagant lifestyle, spent money on expensive clothing and continued to write. Titles to follow were The Dawn of Tomorrow (1909), T. Tembarom (1913), The Lost Prince (1915), Robin (1922) and The Head of the House of Coombe (1922).
Frances Hodgson Burnett died of heart failure at Plandome Manor on Long Island on October 29, 1924 at age 74. She is buried in Roslyn Cemetery nearby, next to her son Vivian.
Eventually publishing fifty-two books and thirteen plays, Frances Hodgson Burnett might be surprised to discover that she is remembered today for a handful of children’s books, but most of all for The Secret Garden. She made and spent a fortune in her lifetime, was generous and extravagant, yet anxious about money and obsessively hardworking, reinventing for herself and for generations to come the magic and the mystery of the childhood she never had.