The Lost Prince
by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Review by
Jennifer Monroe Franson

illustrated by Maurice L. Bower

Hodder & Stoughton: London, 1915

The Century Co.: New York, 1915
415 pages

February 2012

Like Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess and The Secret Garden, The Lost Prince is a children's book. Its hero is 12-year-old Marco Loristan, a boy with a mysterious past and an unsettled present. He and his father, Stefan Loristan, are refugees from Samavia, a tiny, Ruritaniesque kingdom presumably located somewhere in the Balkans. For reasons not completely clear to Marco, the Loristans and their devoted servant, Lazarus, lead a nomadic and secretive life, moving frequently from one European capital to another. At the opening of the book, they have settled temporarily in a poor section of London.

Burnett quickly makes it clear that Marco is no ordinary 12-year-old. He is "a young citizen of the world", who speaks fluent English, French, German, Italian and Russian. As a result, perhaps, of his peripatetic and secretive lifestyle, Marco never seems to attend school, even though compulsory education had long been the norm in Britain by the time the novel takes place. Despite his lack of formal schooling, however, Marco has pursued a rigorous course of self-education by visiting museums and libraries, and he has trained himself to observe and memorize faces and locations. Most importantly, Marco's father has instructed him intensively in the customs, geography and history of his native country — and, in particular, in the legend of the Lost Prince, whose descendants are the rightful heirs to Samavia's contested throne.

Wandering through the streets near his family's shabby lodging house, Marco encounters Jem "The Rat" Ratcliffe, the street-wise son of a drunken ex-schoolmaster. Despite his inability to walk, The Rat is the leader of a group of street urchins, whom he has formed into a quasi-militia and drilled in military maneuvers. When the boys discover that they share (though for different reasons) an intense interest in the history and fate of Samavia, Marco and The Rat form a firm friendship — a friendship that is cemented by Stefan Loristan's kindness to the English boy.

The Rat's fascination with Samavia and Marco's familiarity with its history and geography become the basis for an absorbing game of let's-pretend focused on the Lost Prince and the Samavian "Secret Party" — a game which unexpectedly metamorphoses into reality when Marco and The Rat are entrusted with a real-life "secret mission" that will lead them across Europe and into Samavia itself.

One point of interest about The Lost Prince is that it shares with The Secret Garden an interest in what today would be described as "new-age spirituality" — although that would certainly not have been Burnett's term for it. Like Colin in The Secret Garden, Marco relies on "the power of the thoughts which human beings allow to pass through their minds — the strange strength of them"; he explains to The Rat that, when in danger, he appeals for help "To the Power — to the Strength-place — to the Thought that does things. The Buddhist hermit, who told my father about it, called it 'The Thought that thought the World'."

The Lost Prince has a few structural weaknesses not found in Burnet's earlier children's books. Although she has set the book up for a "surprise ending", Burnett tips her hand early and often; by the time we reach the close of the book, the only surprise is that one of the main characters has not yet figured out what was obvious to the reader almost from the beginning.

Having developed an interesting character in the person of The Rat, Burnett fails to exploit his potential contributions to the novel's plot. She establishes early on that The Rat is a prodigy with a natural genius for strategy and tactics, and this build-up leads us to expect that these talents will play a role in the "secret mission" that dominates the second half of the book. Disappointingly, she provides no opportunities for him to demonstrate these abilities, giving The Rat little to do in terms of moving the plot forward.

Similarly, Burnett fails to exploit fully the presence of a pair of spies who turn out to be shadowing Marco and his father. After Marco tangles with them in London and thwarts them again in Munich, we fully expect them to pose an ongoing threat to the boys and their mission; instead, they drop out of the picture completely.

Perhaps this disinclination to ratchet up the tension is intentional on Burnett's part, given the age of her audience; while Marco and The Rat do have to surmount some obstacles in their quest, none of the situations Burnett sets up are so suspenseful as to be too harrowing for younger readers. (Indeed, the final and presumably climatic stage of the boys' mission goes fairly smoothly, despite being set in a kingdom torn by a bloody civil war.)

On the other hand, it's possible that Burnett's failure to make more of the spies or to show us The Rat's military instincts in action resulted from hurried writing. The Lost Prince was published in 1915, which means that Burnett must have been writing it during the previous year or two. With the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June of 1914, Burnett may well have decided to finish and publish the novel before the fictional events of the book could be overtaken and swamped by the real upheavals of the inevitable war.

Whether or not Burnett's writing and publication schedule were influenced by the events leading up to World War I, our own historical position lends a poignancy to the happy ending of The Lost Prince. At the novel's close, we see what the author and characters cannot — that regardless of the happy outcome of events in Samavia, it and the entire continent of Europe stand on the brink of a disastrous half-century of war and tumult. It's a realization that provides a sobering twist to the otherwise fairy-tale ending of this high-hearted adventure story.


© 2012 Jennifer Monroe Franson

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