The real, reluctant Fauntleroy

SUN JOURNAL

Book: Author Frances Hodgson Burnett's son Vivian, the model for Little Lord Fauntleroy, had a hard time escaping from the fictional character, despite becoming `a normal boy.'

February 01, 2000|By Linda White | Linda White,SUN STAFF

Think of a young boy dressed in velvet and lace, his hair falling to his shoulders in long, golden curls, the personification of the pampered, effeminate mama's boy: Little Lord Fauntleroy.

For one small boy, Fauntleroy was all too real. Vivian Burnett was the real-life model for the popular book written by his mother. In the public eye he was Fauntleroy, and Fauntleroy's fame haunted him to the end of his life.

His mother was Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of such children's classics as "A Little Princess" and "The Secret Garden." It was "Fauntleroy," however, that brought her fame and a considerable fortune.

Her early life reads like one of her rags-to-riches stories. Born in Manchester, England, in 1849, she was 4 when her father died. Her mother tried for a while to run the family home-furnishings business but eventually had to take refuge with a brother in Tennessee. Their arrival in 1865, just after the Civil War, coincided with the ruin of the brother's fortunes, and the family took shelter in an abandoned log cabin.

Frances had always been a teller of stories and poems. Now, at age 18, she began to put her talent to use. To earn the money for paper and postage stamps, she picked and sold wild grapes. When she sent one of her tales to the dominant women's magazine, Godey's Lady's Book, she said in her cover letter: "My object is remuneration."

And she got it. Her story was accepted, and she was paid $35. She became the family's chief breadwinner, writing five or six stories a month.

Her marriage in 1873 to Dr. Swan Burnett and the birth of her son Lionel in 1874 did nothing to slow her output. By the time she bore a second son in 1876, her stories were supporting the family as her husband advanced his medical education.

But she was disappointed. For a second child she had wanted a daughter, to be named Vivien. Frances masculinized the name and called the new baby Vivian.

Dr. Burnett established his medical practice in Washington, and Frances moved from stories to novels. Writing took ever more of her time, leaving little for her sons. One evening at dinner, little Vivian made a proposal.

"Dearest," he said, using his mother's pet name, "you write so many books for grown-ups that we don't have any time at all with you now. Why don't you write some books that little boys would like to read? Then your staying up-stairs wouldn't be so bad." Vivian thus learned the hard lesson that one must be careful what one wishes for, lest one get it.

"The one perfect thing in my life," Frances Burnett often said, "was the childhood of my boys." She was fond of romantic, picturesque clothing and often dressed her sons in velvet suits with lace collars. Both boys wore their hair long and in curls.

There was speculation that her inspiration was the flamboyant Oscar Wilde, who had once visited the Burnett home. A local newspaper writer observed that the mother was "decorating her parlor with her sons."

It was a short step to Little Lord Fauntleroy, a story featuring a young American boy sent to live with his English nobleman grandfather. For the American boy, Frances had the perfect model.

"Vivian shall be he -- just Vivian with his curls and his eyes, and his friendly, kind, little soul," she wrote. A photograph of Vivian dressed in his finery was sent to the book's illustrator to show him how Fauntleroy was to look.

After the book was completed, Frances said, "It is not a portrait, but certainly, if there had not been Vivian, there would not have been Fauntleroy."

Vivian was less pleased. "I could write a book about what Fauntleroy has been to me," he once said. "I try to get away from it, but I can't."

The book sold more than a million copies in English and was translated into more than a dozen languages. In 1893, only "Ben Hur" was in more American libraries than "Little Lord Fauntleroy." It also brought Frances more than $100,000, a fortune for the time. Enthusiasts snapped up Fauntleroy playing cards, Fauntleroy models and a Fauntleroy perfume.

The craze condemned many small boys of that generation to the outlandish "Fauntleroy suit," an outfit so hated by the boys forced to wear them that one 8-year-old in Iowa burned down the family barn in protest.

For Vivian, the identification with "Little Lord Fauntleroy" was not so easily shed. He cut his curls by his 10th birthday. He played football and tennis. "I was a perfectly normal boy," Vivian said. "I got myself just as damn dirty as the other boys."

Shortly before he enrolled at Harvard, Frances published an article in The Ladies' Home Journal titled "How Fauntleroy Occurred," reinforcing Vivian's stigma.

His hazing at Harvard included being made to wander the campus dressed in velvet knickerbockers, a ruffed collar and a golden wig. He became a track star, only to hear taunts from the grandstands of "Fauntleroy, Mama's boy." One student's mockery so enraged Vivian that he brought a chair down on his tormentor's head.

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