Little Lord Fauntleroy: A Hero for Our Times


The degradation of social discourse is a very real long-term trend, and is born from being disenfranchised from society, and disconnected from one another.  We are atomised.

Little Lord Fauntleroy gets a bad rap.  He has become a negative trope, an object of ridicule, and it is all based on ignorance and lies.  Yes, I care that much.

Most of us did not grow up with Little Lord Fauntleroy, a children’s book first published in 1885.  It was written by Ms. Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924), a British-American whose own life paralleled that of Fauntleroy’s mother.  In its day, the book was as popular as Harry Potter is today.  It even outsold the leading literary masterpiece of its day, War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy.

But somehow, through the intervening years, what the book is really about has been traduced, appropriated, and turned into something negative.  It reminds me a little of how patriarchal society uses the concept of “Female Virtue” as a way to police women’s bodies and sexuality.  And no, I promise I am not stretching things too far.

Modern Perceptions

Today, we regard Little Lord Fauntleroy as a spoiled child of privilege.  A spoiled little rich kid.  We might refer to someone as a Little Lord Fauntleroy in this sense and mean only spiteful things, for being spoiled and rich are neither aspirational for most folks.  

But the reality is different.  A bit like “Charlie” in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, “Cedric”, the boy who becomes Little Lord Fauntleroy is born and raised into a hard-scrabble existence, is born poor, is often hungry, dirty, and loses his father to disease when he is a but a wee lad, and nearly loses his mother in the same way.  He is an only child, in a family so poor that he often went to bed hungry.

What the book is about, is how this boy, Cedric, approaches life with simplicity, honesty, and with a big heart, regardless of who they are, how they treat him, or what his circumstances are.  The book is about Innocent Love and its Transformational Power.  [Innocent Love is something I care about].  Over the course of his life, Cedric shows that Innocent Love is able to overcome barriers of difference, wealth, class, and power.

The Plot, in a Nutshell

Cedric Errol was a poor little boy who lived alone with his mother in New York.  He never knew the history of his father, who died suddenly when he is a little boy.  His father was British, but married Cedric’s beautiful American mother against his family’s wishes, was disowned for love, and so emigrated to New York to start a new life.  Sadly, the young father died of a sudden illness when Cedric was still a little boy.  Cedric’s mother was nearly claimed by the same illness, and it left her weakened for the rest of her life.

He became a streetwise Lower East Side boy, playing rough and tumble on the streets of New York.  One day Cedric comes home to find a strange man from England speaking to his mother.  It turns out that he is the only surviving heir to an Earldom, but to take it up, he would have to leave his friends and travel to England.  He travels to England with his mother for a new life.

When he arrives, he meets a grumpy old man, his Grandfather, who wants to make a proper English gentleman out of him, and forbids his mother to live with him.  Through his love and kindness, Cedric eventually changes his Grandfather.  Indeed, through all manner of trials and happenings, Cedric displays an open-hearted, innocent love, that gradually changes all who come in contact with him.

The Grandfather who sets out to teach the boy to become an aristocrat learns instead from the boy that to be a true aristocrat, you must be compassionate to those around you, especially those who depend on you.  This belief turns the Grandfather into the compassionate man that the young boy innocently believed him to be.

Relevance

Eastern and Western thought is laced with the lessons of the book.  “You shall reap what you sow,” a favourite, “what goes around comes around,” and of course the Christian admonition, “do unto others as you should have done to you.” This boy, however, shows something deeper than these various benign forms of quid pro quo, aka ulterior motive.  Cedric gives and loves and shows an open heart without expectation of return.  He shows Faith in the humanity of people, and kindness at every turn. 

How did the core message of Innocent Love go off the rails?

The story is a sentimental one.  It speaks of feminine virtue and softer things.  The book was also illustrated, showing Cedric after he had become Lord in many fashionable outfits, suits made of rich velvet and lace collars and cuffs.  It was effeminate.  It celebrated his innocence.  It associated childlike qualities with “effeminate” mannerisms and dress through their elegance.  At the time, however, the impact on children’s fashion was enormous.  Dressing young boys in this manner was all the rage from the moment of the book’s publication all the way into the early 1900’s, finally being buried for good by the Great Depression—when such style was most certainly not in keeping with the zeitgeist.

The tide was turning already 20 years after publication, as this passage from The Enchanted Castle (1907) shows:

“Gerald could always make himself look interesting at a moment’s notice (…) by opening his grey eyes rather wide, allowing the corners of his mouth to droop, and assuming a gentle, pleading expression, resembling that of the late little Lord Fauntleroy who must, by the way, be quite old now, and an awful prig.”

Edith Nesbit, The Enchanted Castle

The Fauntleroy Fashion

The impact of the beautifully illustrated book cannot be understated, and its influence spread throughout Europe but especially in the United States.  The combination of velvet suit, matching trousers or breeches, and soft, billowy blouses with lace collars or floppy bows and cuffs was aspirational, and nearly ubiquitous for any family of means with a young boy to show off.  A boy might wear such clothes from the ages of 3-8, but some boys wore them until the onset of puberty.  In parallel, the fashion for long ringlet curl hairstyles was also popular.

From the Middle Ages forward, boys wore dresses and gowns as children.  This practice continued up until the late 1900’s and early 20th century.  It is thought that the popularity of the Fauntleroy suit, the first pantsuit for boys, contributed to ending this practice.  The transition was called “breeching,” for the time that a boy was no longer to wear dresses but instead to wear breeches.  [I guess my own mother was just a little old fashioned].

The Fauntleroy look was modelled on how the author dressed her own boys.  And it was in keeping with the times.  The 1890’s were an escape from the prudishness and conservatism of the Victorian era, and indeed were known as the “Gay Nineties”.  Women were enjoying new levels of independence.  The number of women working outside of the home doubled during the 1890’s.  The “ideal” woman of the day was one who worked, cycled, and played sports.

“The old, rigid society-mould was visibly breaking up…For the young, there was a new breath of freedom in the air, symbolized both by their sports costumes and by the extravagance of their ordinary dress.  It was perfectly plain that the Victorian Age was drawing to its close.”

Dress Historian James Laver

The First Wave of Feminism

The late 1800’s and early 1900’s also saw what has become known as the first wave of feminism.  Focussed on the right to vote, this movement lasted until 1920 in the US until the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which established universal suffrage.

“Demanding women’s enfranchisement, the abolition of coverture, and access to employment and education were quite radical demands at the time. These demands confronted the ideology of the cult of true womanhood, summarized in four key tenets—piety, purity, submission and domesticity—which held that white women were rightfully and naturally located in the private sphere of the household and not fit for public, political participation or labour in the waged economy.”

Introduction to Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
The New Fashion of the Day

The word coverture in that quote is perhaps unfamiliar to many but should be seared into the minds of all…Well, what is it?

Coverture held that no female person had a legal identity.  At birth, a female baby was covered by her father’s identity, and then, when she married, by her husband’s. The husband and wife became one–and that one was the husband.  [This is still the case in most of the Muslim world, parts of Africa, and parts of Asia].  As a symbol of this subsuming of identity, women took the last names of their husbands. They were “femmes couverts,” covered women.  Because they did not legally exist, married women could not make contracts or be sued, so they could not own or work in businesses.  Married women owned nothing, not even the clothes on their backs. They had no rights to their children, so that if a wife divorced or left a husband, she would not see her children again.

Married women had no rights to their bodies. That meant that not only would a husband have a claim to any wages generated by his wife’s labour or to the fruits of her body (her children), but he also had an absolute right to sexual access.  Within marriage, a wife’s consent was implied, so under the law, all sex-related activity, including rape, was legitimate.  His total mastery of this fellow human being stopped short, but just short, of death.  Of course, a man wasn’t allowed to beat his wife to death, but he could beat her.

Paraphrased Excerpt from Women’s History

The parallels between slavery and woman’s plight were many.  The abolitionist movement was running at the same time.

“Both movements were largely about having self-ownership and control over one’s body.  For slaves, that meant the freedom from lifelong, unpaid, forced labor, as well as freedom from the sexual assault that many enslaved Black women suffered from their masters. For married white women, it meant recognition as people in the face of the law and the ability to refuse their husbands’ sexual advances.”

Historian Nancy Cott (2000)

“The wife owes service and labour to her husband as much and as absolutely as the slave does to his master.”

Abolitionist Antoinette Brown (1853)

The Male Reaction

According to a scholarly article published in Gender & Society by Michael S. Kimmel, a Professor at SUNY Stonybrook in 1987, the male response was one of crisis.  Paraphrasing:

“Traditional gender definitions were being challenged, provoking a crisis of masculinity.  Responses included a frightened retreat to conservative positions, the demarcation of new male spaces, and men’s support for feminist causes.”

Not surprisingly, childbearing and rearing was one of the primary battlegrounds, which was seen as a way to keep women from explicitly challenging men in the public realm.  But this was combined with an assault on women’s control over the private sphere.  This masculinist response sought to create and define masculinity and purified “pockets of virility” designed to socialise boys and young men into the hardiness “appropriate to their gender”.

Below: A young President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Poor Little Fauntleroy Became a Political Football

In other words, men became freaked by woman’s increasing independence.

“…if male readers are over 50 the chances are remarkably good that they were once forced to appear in public in the outlandish lace and velvet costume the little boy is wearing.  The little boy himself never did recover from the stigma.  He is the darling of mothers and the abomination of a whole generation of fathers and sons of 50-odd years ago.”

Doroth Kunhardt (1946)

This visceral reaction to the clothes of Little Lord Fauntleroy were a microcosm of the early 20th century opposition between the feminine domestic sphere and the masculine life of the outdoors.  The American obsession with making real men, amplified by the myth of the rugged frontiersman [but living on in pickup trucks for the urban man].  Little Lord Fauntleroy, the effeminate boy, the one with the “love-locks” hair, even looks like a girl.  Gasp!  In the crucible of male fear, Fauntleroy became a sissy.  And there you have it.  We’ve been fed a lie.

“Lord Fauntleroy was, in fact, no sissy.  His true character was overlaid by trappings, by long curly hair.  He is brave, enterprising, adaptable, and unaffected.  He is in fact, a likable boy.”

Thwaite (1991)

Ironically, the original novel refers to the ‘manly’ characteristics of the young boy.  And frequently uses that adjective to describe his actions.  The 20th century male reaction to the superficial trappings of Lord Fauntleroy’s underlying strengths are as to a disease that needs to be wiped out.  And yet, it was the essential femininity of Lord Fauntleroy that was the source of the success of the novel and the character in the first place.  How did sissy boyhood spread across the world like a plague?  

At heart, Fauntleroy speaks of the assertion of sentimental power.  While the unenlightened may react against this manifestation of feminine values in the public sphere, it is high time to bring it back.  And for those men who continue to feel a crisis of masculinity, ask yourself this, would you not be proud to be associated with the traits that have been ascribed to Fauntleroy: brave, enterprising, adaptable, without snobbery or airs, likable, generous, loving, kind, charitable.  

What kind of man wouldn’t want to be those things?  What kind of man is threatened by those things?  And any of us wonder why the pretty boys shall inherit the earth?

If you would like to read the book, you can, it is now public domain.  You can find it here.

3 thoughts

  1. Personally, I LOVE this book. My dad bought me a copy of it in an antique store when I was a girl and I still have it (though, as it is an original publication, and I haven’t taken proper care in storing it, the binding is falling apart). In any case….fun post! I enjoyed recalling this story and considering some of the topics you have raised here. XOXO

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a lovely gift. I know you can tell how sweet I am about being a pretty boy, so no surprises that I liked the story…and no surprises that being loving and open and hoping that will help people to change is no surprise either. Voila!

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s