A Little Princess

Frances Hodgson Burnett・1905


Seven-year-old Sara Crewe is an intelligent, creative, independent child who, at the beginning of the novel, is sent to Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies, a London boarding school, by her father.  Sara’s widowed father, Captain Crewe, is a wealthy English officer stationed in India who lovingly dotes on Sara; the strength of Sara and Captain Crewe’s relationship is immediately apparent.

While at school, Sara excels academically and socially, proving herself to be the very epitome of a young lady: intelligent, independent, and conscientious.  Miss Minchin, however, is secretly resentful of Sara’s success and wealth.  Sara’s world is suddenly rocked when her father’s lawyer delivers tragic news: Captain Crewe perished of “jungle fever” and his wealth was lost in a diamond-mine investment.  This news leaves Sara penniless, orphaned, and at the mercy of Miss Minchin, who, upon the news, makes her long-standing hatred of Sara known; Sara thus becomes Miss Minchin’s maid.

Despite the tragedy of her situation, Sara remains hopeful and continues to act like a little princess in spite of her circumstances.  After a long time of suffering under the thumb of Miss Minchin, Sara is discovered by one of her father’s old colleagues who, it turns out, has been searching for Captain Crewe’s daughter, for there had been a misunderstanding in the reality of Captain Crewe’s diamond-mine investment.  Sara is eventually identified as Captain Crewe’s daughter, adopted by the kind man, and given her rightful inheritance.


“He’s dead, ma’am,” Mr. Barrow answered with jerky brusqueness.  “Died of jungle fever and business troubles combined.  The jungle fever might not have killed him if he had not been driven mad by the business troubles, and the business troubles might not have put an end to him if the jungle fever had not assisted.  Captain Crewe is dead!”  (Burnett, 59)

The Epidemic: “Jungle Fever”

There is notably little information available on “Jungle Fever”, which suggests that jungle fever was a contemporary colloquialism.  Jungle fever is evidently similar to the likes of a severe malaria or yellow fever, though there is also historical reference to a “Jungle Yellow Fever”.  Jungle Fever is transmitted by mosquito bite (“Mosquito”), which, as Captain Crewe was stationed in India, renders his contraction of Jungle Fever likely, considering India’s climate.

It is in the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for “jungle-fever” in which there is a more specificity and clarity as to what, exactly, constituted a case of jungle fever.  Indeed, according to the entry, jungle fever is categorized as “a form of remittent fever caused by the miasma of the jungle”, with another source reiterating that it is “a low and malignant fever, known to Europeans by the name of the jungle-fever”.  It appears that the first written reference to it was in 1803, with another cited written reference included in 1894 (“jungle, n.”).

According to the OED, Jungle Fever was also referred to as the “Hill-Fever of India” during the time period, which is a name that is similarly antiquated.  According to the entry for Hill Fever, the entry states that it is “a kind of remittent fever prevalent in the hill country of India,” and included in the entry is a source from 1804 that quotes “In Bengal… there are woody eminences, infested… with what is there called the hill fever,” which thus enforces the relevancy of Burnett’s inclusion of Captain Crewe’s death via jungle fever in India (“hill, n.”).

Thus, with Captain Crewe stationed in India, he had an evidently high likelihood of contracting jungle fever; furthermore, the English characters’ reference to this illness as “jungle fever” also checks out historically.  While details about the disease, itself, are minimal, Burnett made it clear that Captain Crewe had been sick for several days before he died and that he ultimately died delirious.  In accordance with such specificities, it is thus apparent that Captain Crewe’s symptoms appear to align more closely with a diagnosis of a severe form of malaria (instead of one that more closely resembled yellow fever, for instance).

The dear friend was mad on the subject of the diamond-mine.  He put all his own money into it, and all Captain Crewe’s.  Then the dear friend ran away – Captain Crewe was already stricken with fever when the news came.  The shock was too much for him.  He died delirious, raving about his little girl- and didn’t leave a penny.  (Burnett, 59)

Jungle Fever is, indeed, another name for the variety of Malaria that has the highest mortality rate, a strain caused by P. falciparum.  “The organisms in this form of the disease often block the blood vessels of the brain, producing coma, delirium, and finally death” (“Malaria”), symptoms which align with Burnett’s vague account of the specificities of Captain Crewe’s death.

There is great historical relevancy in Burnett’s decision to have Captain Crewe die of a jungle fever that was, presumably, similar to malaria.  For, indeed, malaria ran rampant in India during the 19th and 20th centuries, and was thus an enormously relevant illness about which to write when Burnett wrote A Little Princess at the beginning of the twentieth century.  According to Sheldon Watts’ article entitled “British Development Policies and Malaria in India: 1897-c.1929,” he writes that “Depending upon how a commentator chose to interpret the disease category ‘fevers’, used in annual mortality listings, malaria killed between one million and 5.5 million people each year, out of a population in British India that grew slowly from 225 million in 1881 to 201 million in 1911” (Watts, 142).  There was also a fair deal of “official interest in malaria in India, [for] it must be remembered that the British saw themselves as agents of a scientifically sophisticated culture appointed by the protestant God to bring in Enlightenment and Progress” (Watts, 144), which reflects historically relevant perspectives of Orientalism but also reflects Burnett’s knowledge of this illness’ frequency and relevancy.


When I told [Sara] what had happened, she just stood quite still and looked at me without making a sound.  Her eyes seemed to get bigger and bigger, and she went quite pale.  When I had finished, she still stood staring for a few seconds, and then her chin began to shake, and she turned round and ran out of the room and up-stairs…

Nobody but Sara herself ever knew what had happened in her room after she had run up-stairs and locked her door.  In fact, she herself scarcely remembered anything but that she walked up and down, saying over and over again to herself in a voice which did not seem her own:

“My papa is dead!  My papa is dead!”  (Burnett, 65)


Maleria also hits characters in Little House on the Prairie.

For a further brief analysis, refer to Introduction and Abstract.


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