The Real Little Lord Fauntleroy: Vivian Burnett

St. Nicholas magazine (November 1885) published the first installment of a romantic novel about a little American boy who inherits an aristocratic British title. His mother takes him to England to live with his rich, grumpy grandfather in a prototype English manor. At their first meeting:

What the Earl saw was a graceful, childish figure in a black velvet suit, with a lace collar, and with love locks waving about the handsome, manly little face, whose eyes met his with a look of innocent good-fellow- ship.

The story was an enormous success. Published as a book in 1886, it was an instant best seller. As a result of the book, innumerable American boys were subjected by their mothers probably the most despised costume in the history of American boyhood: velvet knee length page-boy suits, delicate lace collars, and--the crowning ignominy-long, flowing sausage curls. Little Lord Fauntleroy had arrived upon the American literary and fashion landscape.

Little Lord Fauntleroy's Christian name was Cedric Errol. Less known to the boys subjected to these velvet suits was that there was a real life prototype to Ceddie. He was Vivian Burnett, the son of the book's author, Frances Hodgson Burnett and her physician husband, Dr. Swan Moses Burnett. They were themselves an Anglo-American family. In 1865, when Frances was 16, her widowed mother had emigrated to America (Tennessee) when her small shop in the textile manufacturing center of Manchester, England, was forced to close by a local depression which had resulted from the American Civil War. Frances met and married young Dr. Burnett in Tennessee. She began her writing career with popular stories looking back nostalgically at her English girlhood.

The Burnetts resided in a three-story brick house in Washington, D.C., where they enjoyed a comfortable middle-class income as the result of Dr. Burnett's increasingly successful medical practice and Mrs. Burnett's earnings as a writer. Her growing reputation was sufficient to attract Oscar Wilde to her salon during his American visit. A neighbor, James Garfield, soon to be President, was a family friends. Once the Garfields and their five children moved into the White House, Vivian and Lionel, his older brother, were free to romp through its stately halls in their velvet suits and lace collars.

Even before the publication of Little Lord Fauntleroy, Mrs. Burnett's choice of clothing for her sons had criticized in the Washington press, which charged that she used her charming boys as stage props, carefully posing them in childish outfits about her salon to impress visitors. Mrs. Burnett's responded with an was an indignant letter to the editor:

That the little fellows have worn velvet and lace, and being kindly endowed by Nature, have so adorned it as to fill a weak parent with unbridled vanity, before which peacocks might retire, is true, but I object to their being handicapped in their childhood by stupid, vulgar, unfounded stories, and I advance with due modesty the proposition that my taste for the picturesque has not led me to transform two strong, manly, robust boys into affected, abnormally self-conscious, little mountebanks.

Mrs. Burnett's attempted by writing a book about a lovely little boy very much like her sons was her effort to make up for the hours she spent in her third- floor study away from her boys. He writing took place in her study, isolated from her treasured boys. She recounted to them each day the latest exploits of young Ceddie which she added to her manuscript. The sessions actually helped develop the dialog as well as the plot. The childish comments of 8-year-old Vivian gave her many ideas.

Little Lord Fauntleroy's story had really begun with Vivian's birth in Paris on April 9, 1876. The family in 1875, with Lionel scarcely more than 6-months old, the family had left Knoxville for grand adventure in Europe, to be partly paid for by remittances for stories Mrs. Burnett' writing. After visits to Manchester, London, Rotterdam, Dusseldorf, and Rome, the Burnetts settled in Paris, where the young physician could continue his medical studies.

Vivian's arrival not only upset plans for extended residence abroad but kept Mrs. Burnett from the writing counted on to support the family. When Vivian made his debut, his parents called him Little Calamity and christened him with the masculine form of the name intended for the daughter they had expected. Money running out, they packed their trunks and returned to America, where Dr. Burnett set up a practice as an eye and ear specialist in Washington.

While her husband struggled to start his practice, Mrs. Burnett balanced her days between the task of caring for her two little boys and the renewal of literary career. To save money she made Vivian's and Lionel's clothing, but it soon became a labor of love enhanced by the young author's romantic imagination. The result was the flamboyant velvet pageboy costume to be made famous by Fauntleroy. The one perfect thing in my life was the childhood of my boys," Mrs. Burnett would often remark, even after she had become one of the most highly paid writers in America. She had decided at the outset that Vivian must be an exceptional child; and although intimates called her Fluffy and Fluffina, she was possessed of a formidable will. Your brother walked alone beautifully when he was 9 months old," she would tell the baby, and if you wait until you are 10 months old I shall feel that you have dishonored your family and brought my reddish hair with sorrow to the grave. Obediently, Vivian walked at 9 months, an achievement later to be credited to Fauntleroy.

As he grew older, Vivian also developed the charming personality that his fond mother attributed to her fictional creation. Encouraged to meet the adults whom she entertained, Vivian displayed a particular ability to delight his elders with a mixture of boyish sincerity and courtly manners that often proved touching. A visitor who had recently lost his wife found himself suddenly confronted by a 6-year-old's outstretched hand and earnest address: Mr. Wenham-I'm very sorry for you. . . about your wife being dead. I'm very sorry for you. I know how you must miss her." The startled guest accepted the proffered handshake and with a voice not quite steady succeeded in mumbling, Thank you, Vivvie, thank you.

Mr. Silas Hobbs, the stout groceryman friend of Cedric Errol, Lord Fauntleroy, was in real life a gaunt, crusty Vermonter named Page who operated a store at the corner of 12th Street and New York Avenue in Washington, where a seat on a cracker barrel could always be found for a well-behaved youngster who liked to discuss politics.

Both Vivian and Lionel were actually ardent Republicans just like Ceddie. as a result of their friendship with the Garfield children, and in the election that followed the assassination of the President, Vivian's party loyalty remained intact. Dearest was away in Boston suffering a sensitive author's recurrent nervous prostration when she received a reassuring letter from her 8- year-old son:

My Dearest Mamma:
I am sorry that I have not had time to write to you before. I have been so occupied with the presidential election. The boys in my school knock me down and jump on me because they want me to go Democrat. But I am still a strong Republican. I send you a great many hugs and kisses.
Your obedient and humble son and servant,

When Vivian first learned about the American Revolution, his mother was touched by his intensity and later recalled: He sat in a large chair, one short leg tucked under him, a big book on his knee - . . He looked up glowing. . . . "Dearest," he said, "Dearest, listen. Here's a brave man, here's a brave man! This is what he says: 'Give me liberty or give me death!

The idea of placing a boy like her son in an aristocratic English setting that would test his assured democratic American principles against the still-hardened class system of her homeland began as idle speculation and ended in a tale "easily written . . . lived before my eyes." Sweet little Vivian, oblivious of her intent, accepted each new chapter with unbridled enthusiasm. Do you know, I like that boy," he said. "There's one thing about him, he never forgets about Dearest. A few months later, after his 9th birthday, Vivian's picture was furnished to artist Reginal Birch as a guide for the illustrations that in time became almost as famous as Mrs. Benett's book itself. Within a year of its magazine publication, when 10-year-old Vivian had finally shed his curls, the book was at the top of the list at Charles Scribner's Sons, with 10,000 copies sold in a week and another 10,000 ordered from the printer. An English edition was also a best seller. Even William Ewart Gladstone, recently British Prime-minister, fell victim to the charm of Fauntleroy, stating that the book [will] have great effect in bringing about added good feeling between the two nations.

The substantial royalties carried the Burnett family to a new plane of affluence that included a move to a more fashionable Washington address at 1734 K Street N.W. For the first time it was possible for Mrs. Burnett not only to indulge in extravagantly romantic plans for the boys but to make them come true, even at the cost of a diminished role for her husband, who was now caught up in hospital duties and a professorship at Georgetown University Medical School.

It was not the first disappointment of his marriage. A few years earlier the physician, afflicted by a limp resulting from a boyhood knee injury, had found his physical characteristics borrowed by his wife to clothe the wretched soul of one of her more repulsive creations--Richard Amory in "Through One Administration." Dr. Burnett was further saddened when she swept off to England with the boys in May, 1887, so they could join in celebrating Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, which had already filled London with a gaggle of continental royalties and exotically garbed potentates from India.

From seats opposite the mounted band of the Royal Horse Guards, Vivian and Lionel watched wide-eyed the unmatched pageantry of the jubilee procession in which the Queen moved in a carriage of state, drawn by cream-colored horses. Then came a stay at a farm in Wangford, near Southwold, before they were hastened off to an apartment in Florence, where Mrs. Burnett was soon spinning in the city's social whirl. The boys were popped into a French-Italian school where they could absorb two additional languages, while Mrs. Burnett was entertained by flirtations at masked balls and by the charming silhouettes cut for her by a talented First Lieutenant in the crack Bersaglieri Army Corps.

Her heady idyll was suddenly interrupted by word from England that someone had plagiarized Little Lord Fauntleroy. A court case followed and Mrs. Benett soon had her own production underway. The boys had by now rejoined Dearest to share her London triumph.

Next came successful productions of the play in Boston, New York, the English provinces, and even France, and the wolf was permanently banished from the Burnetts' door. By December of 1888 Mrs. Burnett was engaged in buying a splendid residence of twenty-two rooms at

Note: Space limitations do not permit me to provide any photographs of Vivian Benett. I will, however, include some historical photographs on the BHC expanded page in one of his mother's Little Lord Fautleroy suits. I'd like to include more information about Visian in the text. Do let me know if you have any additional information. For details on the photographs and additional information, plese click here >>>>>> Expanded Site.

Christopher Wagner

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