Thursday, February 11, 2010

Review: Wishing for Tomorrow, by Hilary McKay

105 years on, Hilary McKay has produced a sequel to Francis Hodgson Burnett’s 1904 classic A Little Princess. Rising above its vague, sentimental title, Wishing For Tomorrow fleshes out the female characters that provide the backdrop to Sara Crewe’s story and gently raises serious questions about the class- and gender-based assumptions that are complicit in Sara’s restoration to privilege in the original. The inside cover of Wishing for Tomorrow calls the dire Miss Minchins’ school for girls a place where ‘fairytale endings do happen’, referring certainly to Sara’s rescue from the life of a scullery maid in A Little Princess but also, subversively, to the various ‘rescues’ of women by other women in this new sequel.

Sara’s friend Ermengarde serves as the protagonist of the sequel, and it is through her experiences that the reader discovers the tragedies behind the lives of many of the girls and women in A Little Princess. The icy headmistress Maria Minchin and the bully Lavinia emerge as particularly sympathetic characters, as McKay explores how poverty, neglect, and limited options might have strangled and embittered intelligent women in Edwardian England. Over the course of this generally lighthearted novel McKay re-imagines the plot that Burnett uses for Sara’s release from the Minchins’ and applies it to Lavinia: where the Indian Gentleman recognizes Sara’s inherent nobility and seeks to restore it to her by secretly furnishing her attic room with luxuries in A Little Princess, in Wishing for Tomorrow the new next-door neighbor swiftly grasps Lavinia’s intelligence and hunger for knowledge, and secretly gives her lessons to prepare her for university entrance exams to an Oxford college. McKay implicitly critiques the elitist, patriarchal, and even colonialist terms of Sara’s ‘fairy tale’ through this rewriting, but she does so—as she does with all of her critiques in this sequel—without overtly denouncing or overturning Burnett’s much-beloved novel.

Various female characters from the original receive critical attention in McKay’s sequel, and perhaps the most interesting is Ermengarde’s appraisal of Sara Crewe after seeing a production of Peter Pan. Ermengarde asks herself, “[w]ho was Sara? If she, Ermengarde, was Wendy, forever staring from the window, surely Sara was the heartless person who had left her stranded there?” This likening of Sara to Peter Pan problematizes the idealization of Sara’s character in A Little Princess and raises questions about who it ultimately serves. Meanwhile, it encourages us children’s literature critic types to turn Jacqueline Rose’s famous question about the “impossibility of children’s literature,” the “case of Peter Pan,” onto Burnett’s novel and then in turn onto McKay’s. How and, crucially, why do these texts, written over 100 years apart, model childhood and adulthood in the way that they do? To what ends? McKay’s conclusion is a little bit too neat and convenient for a work that raises so many complex issues, but it agrees with the bright tone that the novel attempts to maintain from the original, while offering a very different view on what magical happy endings for girls and women might look like.

Wishing for Tomorrow: The Sequel to A Little Princess
By Hilary McKay
Illustrated by Nick Maland
Hodder Children’s Books, 2009
ISBN 978-0340956533
Now also out from Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, 2010
ISBN 978-1442401693


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