Having spotted a copy of "Little Lord Fauntleroy" (Mrs. Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1886, though I would guess my copy might be from the forties) on Bouquiniste's Saturday stall in Market Street I thought I'd better give it a bash.
I would guess that despite its great popularity at one time, most people nowadays will not have read "Little Lord Fauntleroy" even if they've heard of it. You may have an image in your mind of some ghastly Victorian paragon of the virtues, like Lord Snooty without any of that comical gent's redeeming qualities. I certainly did.
I don't want to disappoint you. The central character is impossibly virtuous, and it is established on the very first page that he habitually calls his mother "Dearest", as his poor departed father used to do. Bleurgh.
However, as I read on, I found it wasn't really as bad as all that. A lot of fiction has a central conceit which you are expected to accept before enjoying the story that is set up as a result. I believe there's some silly story going around which requires you to believe in a ring of power as a central tenet for example; I mean, how realistic is that?
If we take the virtue of young Cedric Errol as being the necessary foundation for telling the story, then it starts to emerge in a more favourable light.
I was a bit surprised to find, within a few pages, that Ceddie Errol is a seven-year-old Republican in New York, given to hanging out with the local shopkeepers and boot-blacks, when a lawyer arrives from England with the news that all the intervening ne'er-do-wells have died off as well as Ceddie's father and that Ceddie is to be taken back to the old country to meet his grandfather, the Earl of Dorincourt. He himself has acquired the title of Lord Fauntleroy.
A searing work of social awareness it is not, but it's not quite what I was expecting either.
Ceddie's mother is persona non grata with the Earl, on the very reasonable grounds that she is American and therefore enticed the Earl's youngest son to marry beneath himself. Shocking, I'm sure you'll agree. She is to be given a house on the grounds and can see Ceddie, but Ceddie will live with his grandfather, who will not meet Ceddie's mother.
To abbreviate the storyline somewhat, Ceddie is generous and considerate of nature and refuses to believe ill of his crusty old grandfather. The crusty old grandfather establishes his bona fides with the young Lord Fauntleroy early on by instructing the lawyer to give Ceddie whatever he wants - naturally Ceddie wants to help out his poor friends in New York, and ascribes the generosity of the act to the supplier of the cash. Ceddie repeatedly puts his grandfather into awkward situations by praising his generosity to the poor whenever they turn up looking for a bit of a break from their wicked old feudal lord, and the Earl cannot bring himself to disappoint his young charge. Eventually, he becomes a reformed character and even agrees to be civil to Ceddie's mum, giving her some credit for his upbringing.
There is a late twist with the emergence of another claimant to the title of Lord Fauntleroy.
It still sounds dreadful, doesn't it? But honestly I quite enjoyed it and it even displays a sense of humour at times:
It had always been his habit to say, "I will be jiggered," but this time he said, "I am jiggered." Perhaps he really was jiggered. There is no knowing.
The serving staff also have to contain a belly-laugh or two at the old Earl's predicament by staring fixedly at portraits of ugly ancestors.
It will not be to everyone's taste, but it has conflict, resolution and characters, especially the Earl, develop in the course of the book. There's even a plot twist which threatens all that has been gained. Believe it or not, I sympathised with both the juvenile paragon and the cantankerous old codger.
Modern classic? Of course not. Unfairly condemned to obscurity? Could be...
This week, on Donald Duck's 70th birthday, we were reminded that his middle name is Fauntleroy. It was revealed in a 1942 cartoon, "Donald Duck Drafted".