- What Life Might Be
Frances Hodgson Burnett's literary reputation rests primarily upon her well known trio of juvenile books: Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), A Little Princess (1905), and, especially, The Secret Garden (1911), which has received considerable scholarly attention and is generally regarded as Burnett's greatest achievement. But Burnett also produced a number of other works for and about children, in addition to a sizable body of fiction and drama for an adult audience. In her excellent critical biography, Bixler discusses Burnett's realistic fiction and romances as well as her contributions to children's literature, and examines her treatment of social themes and female roles. Although she reaffirms Burnett's primary accomplishment as an author of children's literature, Bixler places this achievement in a broader context of Burnett's life and work, and demonstrates a continuity between her juvenile literature and her popular adult fiction. Both reflect the tradition of the romance rather than that of the realistic novel, and include formulaic elements derived from the folk tale—"they aim to satisfy not so much our sense of how life is but rather our desires about what it might be".
As Bixler observes, Burnett's comment upon her own career—"With the best that was in me I have tried to write more happiness into the world"—reflects her predilection for happy endings as she encountered numerous challenges and disappointments in her roles as writer, wife, and mother. As a child, Burnett was an adept storyteller who quickly learned to apply the conventions of ladies' magazine fiction; this talent proved useful when, as a young adult, she wrote "potboilers" and romantic fiction to help support her family, whose move from England to Tennessee had not solved their financial difficulties. The Cinderella theme played a prominent role in many of Burnett's early romantic stories and remained a favorite formula, re-appearing later in Little Lord Fauntleroy, for example. Burnett also wrote more substantial fiction, however, which earned her a considerable literary reputation; in 1877, the Atantic Monthly's review of That Lass o' Lowrie's, a novel of Lancashire mining life, compared Burnett to Charlotte Brontë and Elizabedi Gaskell. Bixler points out that such recognition was welcome but created anxiety and conflict for Burnett, who told her editor that she was "trying desperately to overcome" a self-conscious attempt to please the critics instead of "simply writing a story." Bixler provides a thorough and perceptive analysis of Through One Administration (1883), Burnett's realistic [End Page 211] novel of political and social life in Washington, D.C., which she considers a "complex and ambitious" work, written not only to garner critical praise "but, more important, to satisfy Burnett's own need to develop herself as a 'serious' writer". The novel, which portrays an unhappy marriage against a background of political corruption, was well received; similarities to Henry Adams' Democracy and Henry James' Portrait of a Lady were noted, and the Altantic's review considered Burnett's work "a brilliant book" which "might have been a great one." Bixler considers Through One Administration Burnett's strongest and most sophisticated work of adult fiction and suggests that it deserves more attention within the tradition of American realism, but concludes that the novel falls short of greatness because Burnett's inability to resolve "her own deepest conflicts as a woman and a writer" created "a book divided against itself". The novel reflects tensions in Burnett's marriage, which eventually ended in divorce, as well as her ambivalence over frequently conflicting roles as wife, successful author of popular fiction, and aspiring author of what Burnett termed "actual literature."
Burnett's next major work, Little Lord Fauntleroy, proved a turning point in her career; following the extraordinary success of this children's story cum romance, Burnett concentrated upon popular romances and juvenile literature. Most of Burnett's other pre-1900 children's fiction consisted of stories and essays which have not stood the test of time, with the notable exception of "Sara Crewe" (1887), forerunner of A Little Princess. Burnett's autobiographical memoir, The One I Knew the Best...