A Little Princess is about a girl, Sara Crewe, who possesses a precocious intellect, a global worldview (having been raised in India), a vivid imagination and a very doting father (who lavishes luxuries upon her). Her father, the wealthy Captain Crewe, takes her from her happy home in India to a strict and cold boarding school in London under the tutelage of the aptly-named Miss Minchin. She spends several years there, befriending unlikely students and scullery maids, and garnering the growing resentment and jealousy of some other students as well as Miss Minchin herself. On her 11th birthday they receive word that her father has died and all of his money gone in a bad investment leaving her penniless. Miss Minchin now takes the opportunity to avenge her long-standing animosity to the child by making her one of the lowest and most poorly-treated servants in the house: depriving her of food, humiliating her in public and having her room in an attic with the rats. However, despite this ill-treatment, Sara maintains her pride and spirit and (as you likely know) ultimately triumphs.
In my head, I had remembered Sara as a sweet and cheerful protagonist, almost bubbly. Upon rereading the book, though, I saw that Sara is completely different- very thoughtful and quiet- even described as solemn. What keeps her spirit up isn't effervescence but equanimity. Her insistence on behaving as though she is a princess is very striking (not the princess/diva manner I would normally associate with the word) but rather a combination noblesse oblige and tranquil pride. Her few slips into discouragement and anger only highlight her general way of being rather than contradict it. I was quite inspired by this book and struck by Frances Hodgson Burnett's non-condescending manner of writing. If not for the slight classism in the book, it could easily have been written today. If you haven't read this book in a while, you should definitely revisit it- I guarantee the story will both pleasantly surprise you and might even move you.