Saturday, September 21, 2019

My Robin

Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849–1924)
From The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Little Lord Fauntleroy

“In the most thrilling tone and with an affected manner.” Frontispiece illustration by American artist Alfred Brennan (1853–1921) for Burnett’s My Robin (1912).
Frances Hodgson Burnett “spent her life as neither British nor American but reveled in straddling both countries’ opportunities and attitudes,” writes biographer Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina. Born in Manchester, England, she spent seven formative years with her family in Tennessee, and then for the following four decades she was constantly on the move. She lived in London and Paris, in Washington and New York, in Boston and Florence, as well as at various summer and winter resorts from North Carolina and Cape Cod to Suffolk and Surrey. She made at least thirty-three trips across the Atlantic. Her last fifteen years were split between the estate she built on Long Island and a winter home in Bermuda. National boundaries and characteristics seemed fluid to her, notes Gerzina: “The characters in her books and plays delighted in breaking down class and continental divisions, bringing American independence of thought and speech into the English drawing room, or Yorkshire dialect into the books read by American southerners.”

Burnett’s childhood in England was marred by two events: the death of her father while she was still a toddler, which left her mother a widow with five children, and the American Civil War’s decimation of the local economy, which depended on Southern cotton for its textile industry. When she was fifteen, the family left for Knoxville, the home of her uncle, who had promised to find jobs for Frances’s two brothers.

When her family arrived in the United States in 1865, they found that Frances’s uncle had wildly exaggerated his financial situation and that the region had been ravaged by the war. Although he was able to find employment for the two boys, his own residence was not large enough for all six of them, so the Hodgsons moved first into a log cabin twenty-five miles outside of the city and the following year to Clinton Pike, which was much closer.

Seeking some way to help with the family’s finances, Frances—with the help of her two younger sisters—secretly sent a story, “Miss Caruthers’ Engagement,” to the down-market Ballou’s Monthly (which advertised itself as “The Cheapest Magazine in the World”). Her cover letter bluntly stated, “My object is remuneration.” The editors praised the story and offered editorial suggestions for improving it, but their response was unclear about whether Ballou’s would pay her. She requested the return of the manuscript and forwarded it to the more respectable Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, whose editors were puzzled; the story’s setting and tone were distinctly English, yet the manuscript had been mailed from an east Tennessee address. They asked for another sample before making a decision, so she promptly wrote “Hearts and Diamonds,” a story with an American theme and location, and sent it with a cover note explaining that she had emigrated from England but now lived in Tennessee. She almost immediately received a check for $35 and both stories appeared in 1868. She submitted additional stories and received another $40. At the age of eighteen, Frances was a published author bringing in more income for the family than both of her brothers.

From that time on, no publisher on either side of the Atlantic rejected anything Burnett submitted, and her earnings were to rise as high as $60,000 a year—an astronomical sum for an author at the time. During the next fifty-six years of her career, she published fifty-two books and produced thirteen plays.

In 1898 Burnett again returned to England and leased Great Maytham Hall, in Kent (a few miles away from her friend, the novelist Henry James), which served as the headquarters for her travels for ten years. When the owners sold the residence, she returned to the United States. Missing the Maytham’s picturesque grounds and the walled rose beds she herself had restored, she began work on her next book at her new house in Plandome, Long Island, under the title “Mistress Mary Quite Contrary.” It was finished by October 1910 and serialized as The Secret Garden in The American Magazine starting the next month—the first children’s story this adult magazine had ever published. Burnett revised the novel after its serial appearance, and it was published in book form in August 1911.

Prompted by readers’ favorable responses, Burnett wrote My Robin, a memoir of the bird that became her pet at Maytham Hall and inspired the “robin” episodes of The Secret Garden. Appearing as a separate book in September 1912, the short tale ably details a relationship many readers with pets will recognize, including Burnett’s tendency to anthropomorphize the bird’s every behavior. A few months later The New York Times carried this brief item in its “Among the Authors” column:
Mrs. Frances Hodgson Burnett, whose delight in gardens has been portrayed in two of her recent books, is now in Bermuda rejoicing in the wonderful garden which she has been working on for several Winters. She has no English robin there to beguile her hours, as did the little robin she tells about in The Secret Garden, but in the very plants about her she is reminded of the former robin friend and of the book My Robin, which she wrote about him; for the royalties of that very book, it is said, have been devoted to the beautifying of her wonderful garden in Bermuda.
My Robin has been reprinted in the new Library of America edition of Burnett’s trio of famous children books, and we present it here, in its entirety, as our Story of the Week selection.

Note: Much of this introduction was adapted from the chronology of Burnett’s life included in Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Little Lord Fauntleroy, edited by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina.

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There came to me among the letters I received last spring one which touched me very closely. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.