The Exotic Little Princesses: Constructions of Foreignness in Lidija Čarskaja and Frances Hodgson Burnett

Shannon F. White, University of Michigan

Lidija Čarskaja’s novels for young women enjoyed an immense popularity amongst readers in late Imperial Russia. Her most famous series of works, told in a series of interlinking novels and novellas that begin with Zapiski Institutki (1902), depicts the lives and adventures of a set of upper-class girls attending a St. Petersburg boarding school. Several of the young women that attend Čarskaja’s boarding school come from areas coded as outside of Russia proper (Georgia, Siberia, Germany, etc.). These young women, often royalty in their own lands, and often also possessing Russian roots, come to St. Petersburg as exotic others who, though first excluded from the social life of the other girls, ultimately gain acceptance and become normalized into the school and into the society of the Russian school—and the Russian capital.

Writing in America during the same time period, the British-born Frances Hodgson Burnett presented her young readers with similarly plotted works, most notably her novel The Little Princess (full version 1905). Here also a young woman comes to an upper class school, this time one in London. The girl herself, though English, was raised in India and enters the school stamped with the mark of foreignness. If she cannot be a real princess like her counterparts in Čarskaja, she at least conducts herself as one, and soon her classmates all call her “Princess” both behind her back and to her face. She, too, is an exotic foreigner who undergoes a journey from otherness to assimilation.

Both Čarskaja and Burnett were enormously popular authors, and had an influence over a vast readership during a turbulent time in the definition of national identity. It is, therefore, interesting to examine how their works present the nature of the other (foreign girls from outside the boundaries of Empire) versus the nature of the self. By what process are these girls assimilated, and how fully assimilated are they? How do these initially extrinsic girls act, look and feel once accepted into the society? In what manner are they privileged by their foreignness, and in what manner are they handicapped by it? Which aspects of their foreignness do they lose, and which do they retain? What effect, if any, does their age and gender have on their assimilation? This paper will answer these questions in a comparative framework, examining how the constructions of foreignness both differ and align in the Russian and British-American texts, and thereby also examining some of the overall messages about foreignness an entire generation of young readers were receiving from their popular literature.

Four works—Zapiski institutki (1902), Kniažna Džavaka (1903), Ljuda Vlassovskaja (1904), and Sibiročka (1910), will provide the main textual basis for analysis of Lidija Čarskaja’s works, and The Little Princess (1905), supplemented by The Secret Garden (1910) and Fair Barbarian (1880), will provide the textual basis for analysis of Burnett’s.