Frances Hodgson Burnett, an English-American author, was best known for her three children’s novels, Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess, and perhaps her most famous of the three, The Secret Garden. She first began writing stories for magazines at the age of nineteen to help her family earn more money. However, she did not begin to write novels until she moved to Washington D.C. after living in Paris with her husband and two sons.
On November 24, 1849, Frances Eliza Hodgson was born in Cheetham Hill, Manchester, England, the third of ironmonger Edwin Hodgson and Eliza Boond’s five children. Frances was the oldest girl, with two older brothers and two younger sisters. Edwin Hodgson owned a business in Deansgate, Manchester where he sold ironmongery and brass goods. With both a maid and nurse-maid, the Hodgson family lived a comfortable life.
When Frances was about three, the family moved to a larger home with more outdoor space in 1852. However, not quite a year later, Edwin Hodgson died of a stroke and the family was left without an income while Eliza was pregnant with their fifth child. Frances and the other children were cared for by their grandmother as their mother tried to run the family business. Her love for reading was fostered by her grandmother, who bought her books. The first book she read was full of illustrations and poems called The Flower Book. Now that their father was dead and they had a reduced income, they moved to Seedley Grove, Pendleton, Lancashire to live with relatives. Frances enjoyed playing in the house’s large enclosed garden.
She saw a book about fairies when she attended a small school run by two women for only a year. Frances began to miss flowers and gardens when Eliza moved the family once again, this time to Salford, Greater Manchester. Their home was located on a street beside one that was overcrowded with poverty.
With an active imagination, Frances wrote made up stories in old notebooks throughout her childhood. She loved the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and it was one of her favorite books. Frances would spend hours upon hours reenacting scenes from the book. Along with her brothers and sisters, she was sent to The Select Seminary for Young Ladies and Gentleman to receive an education. She enjoyed telling her friends and cousins her many stories and had an active social life. Though her mother loved the stories, she was often teased by her brothers. Until she was fifteen, Frances attended The Select Seminary.
Eliza Hodgson was forced to sell the family business in 1863 and move her family to a smaller home. This meant that Frances’ education had to come to an end. In Knoxville, Tennessee, her uncle, William Boond, invited them to join him in America where he ran a dry goods store. So, Eliza sold the family’s belongings,telling Frances to burn her early stories. The family moved to the united States in 1865 and settled in a home near Knoxville.
While his business had once thrived, William Boond lost much of his business when the war ended. He was unable to provide for his sister’s family. They moved to a log cabin located in New Market, a town outside of Knoxville, for their first winter. Later on, they ended up moving to a new home in Knoxville. Frances called it “Noah’s Ark, Mt. Ararat” because it was located on an isolated hill. Across from her lived the Burnett family. She and Swan Burnett—her future husband—became friends. Frances introduced books and authors to him she knew from her time in England, including Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, and William Makepeace Thackeray. Not long after the two of them met and became friends, Swan moved to Ohio for college.
To earn money, Hodgson took up writing again. Her first story was published in 1868 in the Philadelphian women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book. After her first story, she became more and more frequently published in not only Godey’s Lady’s Book, but also, Scribner’s Monthly, Peterson’s Magazine, and Harper’s Bazaar. Hodgson had a tendency to overwork herself because she so badly wanted to escape from the poverty-stricken life their family lived. She continued to write for five years to come, worrying more about the quantity than quality of her work. Only a year after she began writing for the magazines, Hodgson had earned enough money to move the family into a nicer home in Knoxville in 1869. The following year, Eliza Boond Hodgson died and Frances’ two sisters were quickly married within the next two years. She was in no hurry to marry though and kept up her friendship with Swan Burnett.
Hodgson had enough money in 1872 from her writing job to return to England for a long, extended visit. She then moved to paris and agreed to marry Swan, ordering a haute couture wedding dress to be shipped to Tennessee. When Hodgson returned home, Swan refused to postpone the wedding until her dress arrived. In September of 1873, the couple married. Their son Lionel was born a year later in September of 1874. Frances Hodgson Burnett began working on her first full length-novel that same year called That Lass o’ Lowrie’s, which was set in Lancashire, where she had spent some time as a child.
The two of them longed to leave Knoxville. Having earned enough money writing, they decided to move to Paris. Swan continued his medical training to become an eye and ear specialist. When their second son, Vivian, was born in 1876 in Paris, they moved back to the United States. Burnett had been wanting a daughter so badly and even picked out the name Vivien. She ended up changing the name to the more masculine version, Vivian. Though her writing career brought enough success and money, she made frilly dresses for herself and velvet suits with lace collars for her sons, letting their hair grow out so she could shape them into long curls.
Due to debt, they were unable to move to Washington, D.C. for Swan to set up a medical practice like they had hoped. Instead, Frances Burnett moved in with his parents back in New Market as he was establishing his medical practice in D.C. While That Lass o’ Lowrie’s was doing well as a serialization, Burnett was offered a contract to publish it, and she made Swan her business manager. The rights of the novel were soon sold for a British edition and it was met with good review. Not long after the novel was published, Burnett was able to join her husband in D.C., establishing a household and making many new friends.
Burnett continued her writing career while in D.C. and was rising as a new, young novelist. Even though settling into a new city and raising a family proved difficult for Burnett, she began working on her next novel Haworth’s. This novel was published in 1879 along with a dramatic interpretation of her first novel, That Lass o’ Lowrie’s. That same year, Burnett made a trip to Boston and met other well-known authors, Louisa May Alcott and Mary Mapes Dodge. Burnett first began working on children’s stories after the trip and for the next five years, she published short stories in Dodge’s children’s magazine, St. Nicholas. This did not mark the end of her work on adult fiction, as she published three more novels: Louisiana (1881), A Fair Barbarian (1883), and Through One Administration (1883). In 1881, Burnett also wrote the play Esmeralda while she was staying near Lake Lure, North Carolina. Esmeralda was the longest running Broadway play in the 19h century. Burnett continued to feel the pressure of maintaining a household and caring for her husband and children while sticking to a writing schedule. This caused her to become exhausted and enter a state of depression.
On Tuesday evenings, Burnett hosted a literary salon at her home in D.C. as she became well known in the city’s society. Many politicians and local literati joined her for the meetings. Meanwhile, Swan’s medical practice and reputation were growing. Burnett believed that she had to keep writing though because her husband’s income was much lower than hers. But she was often ill and suffered from D.C.’s heat. Whenever possible, she escaped the city. In the early 1880s, Burnett had found herself interested in Christian Science and Spiritualism and Theosophy. These beliefs would later on affect her life while being incorporated into her fictional works. Burnett took great pride and joy in her two sons Lionel and Vivian as a devoted mother. She doted on their appearances and would curl their long hair every day. This later served as an inspiration for her children’s novel Little Lord Fauntleroy.
Beginning in 1885, Little Lord Fauntleroy was published as a serialization in St. Nicholas after she had started working on it the previous year. The children’s novel became extremely well known. It received positive reviews, became a bestseller in England and the United States, and was translated into 12 languages. With the publication of Little Lord Fauntleroy, Burnett’s reputation as an author was secured. In the novel, a little boy named Cedric dresses in elaborate velvet suits while wearing his long hair in fancy curls, modeled after Burnett’s youngest son Vivian. In 1888, Frances Burnett won a lawsuit in England for the novel’s dramatic rights. Yet another dramatic piece was a piracy of the novel, leading her to write The Real Little Lord Fauntleroy, which went on to be produced on stage on Broadway and in London. Burnett made as much money with the play as she did with the book.
For Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, Burnett traveled to England, the first of years trips from the U.S. to England. Both her sons accompanied her as she visited tourists attractions like Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. In the rooms she rented, Burnett continued her Tuesday evening salon, attracting many visitors such as her future husband Stephen Townshend. However, the heat and crowds caused her to feel constantly ill and she spent much of her time in bed.
Still with her sons, Burnett traveled to Florence for the winter. In Florence, she wrote The Fortunes of Philippa Fairfax, which were her only novels that were published solely in England and not the U.S. Sara Crewe or What Happened at Miss Minchin’s was also published in the U.S. that winter. Later on, Burnett would turn Sara Crewe into an adaptation for stage and rewrite the novel to the famous A Little Princess. Leasing a large home, she returned to Manchester in 1888. She decorated the house and turned it over to her cousins so they could run it as a boarding house when she moved to London. Once again, Burnett took rooms in London, enjoying the season and preparing a stage adaptation of The Fortunes of Philippa Fairfax called Phyllis. The play received many bad reviews, disappointing Burnett greatly. She turned to socializing and began meeting with Stephen Townsend more.
Lionel, Burnett’s oldest son, died from consumption in Paris in December of 1890. This greatly affected both her life and writing, as her sons were very close to her. Prior to his death, Burnett had done as much possible to keep him alive, searching for a cure from physicals and taking him to visit spas in Germany. Afterwards, she sank into a deep state of depression. In a letter to a friend, Burnett wrote that being a writer was insignificant compared to being a mother, especially after one of her sons died. She also turned away from her faith in the Church of England, embracing the practices of Spiritualism and Christian Science. Once again, Burnett traveled to London, forming the Drury Lane Boy’s Club, which opened in February of 1892. She began writing a plat for Stephen Townshend to play the starring role as an attempt to assist hm in starting his acting career. After two years away from Vivian, her husband, and D.C., Burnett returned to Washington in March of 1892, continuing with charity work and her writing career. The following year, she published an autobiography that she devoted to Lionel, calling it The One I Knew Best of All.
Two years after her return to D.C., Burnett traveled to London in 1894 when she heard that Vivian had become ill. She quickly traveled home to be with him as he recovered, not returning to London until she was sure he was well enough. Burnett began worrying about money and finances though, as she was paying for Vivian’s education at Harvard University while keeping a home in D.C. while Swan was living in his own apartment, and keeping a home in London. As a source of income, Burnett turned to writing once again. In 1896, A Lady of Quality was published, the first in a series of successful historical novels for adults. In 1899, In Connection with the De Willoughby Claim followed and both The Making of a Marchioness and The Methods of Lady Walderhurst in 1901.
Upon Vivian’s graduation from Harvard, Frances Burnett divorced Swan Burnett. While the official cause for divorce was desertion, they had decided to end the marriage years before. Swan lived in his own apartment so she could plead desertion as a cause for their divorce two years later. The press criticized her and called her a New Woman.
After the divorce, Burnett moved back to England and lived at Great Maytham Hall. The building had a large garden where Burnett was able to indulge in her love for flowers. In fact, the gardens there were the inspiration for her later novel and most famous of all, The Secret Garden. Burnett continued traveling back to the U.S. annually. She socialized in nearby villages and moved in with Stephen Townsend, viewed as a scandal by the local vicar. The two of them got married in February of 1900 in Genoa, Italy.
The newlyweds traveled to Pegli, a neighborhood in Genoa, for their honeymoon. For two weeks, they stayed in Pegli as it constantly remained. According to Gretchen Gerzina, Burnett’s biographer, the marriage “was the biggest mistake of her life.” The press continuously stressed the age difference as Townsend was ten years her junior, calling him her secretary. And another biographer, Ann Thwaite, stated that she doubted Townsend really loved her and that he married her for help with his acting career and financial stability. Only a few months after the wedding, Burnett wrote to her sister and admitted that their marriage was already proving to be troublesome. In the letter, she described her new husband as being hysterical and barely sane.
Because she could no longer bear to live at Maytham with Townsend, Burnett began renting a house in London where she spent the winter of 1900-01. She socialized with friends and kept writing, working on two books at once, The Shuttle and The Making of a Marchioness. Townsend attempted to replace the publishing house she had stayed with for a long time, Scribner’s, to a larger one when she returned to the country that spring. The following summer of 1902, Burnett suffered a physical collapse after spending the summer socializing and filling Maytham with guests. So, she returned to America and entered a sanatorium that winter. While in America, Burnett told Townsend that the marriage was over and she refused to live with him any longer.
Two years later, Burnett was back at Maytham in June of 1904. She wrote many books in Maytham Hall’s walled and rose gardens. This led to her becoming inspired to write The Secret Garden, which she mostly wrote while she was in Manchester at Buile Hill Park. A Little Princess was published in 1905 after rewriting the play into a novel. To increase her income even more, Burnett began writing even more. She lived an extravagant life in England, purchasing expensive clothing with her money.
Permanently, Burnett returned to the U.S. in 1907. She had earlier become a citizen in 1905. There, she built a home, which was then completed in 1908, in Plandome Park on Long Island. Vivian got a job in the publishing industry and was the editor for Children’s Magazine, where she published a number of shorter works. The Secret Garden was published in 1911. Burnett spent her later years on Long Island in the summers and Bermuda in the winters. She published The Lost Prince in 1915 and The Head of the House of Coombe and its sequel, Robin, in 1922. The final seventeen years of her life were spent in Plandome Manor.
On October 29, 1925, Frances Eliza Hodgson Burnett died at seventy-four and was buried in Roslyn Cemetery. Her youngest son, Vivian, died in 1937 and was buried nearby.