Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, notable author and Dean of Commonwealth Honors College, has recently been published for her contributions in the compilation of three Frances Hodgson Burnett novels: The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and Little Lord Fauntleroy. In addition to editing the compilation, Dean Gerzina wrote the chronology at the end of the novel, based on her work from Burnett’s biography that she published in 2004.
“I’m mostly a biographer and I like to write about people who cross some kind of line,” Dean Gerzina said. “People who interest me that might’ve went from slavery to freedom, or who went from England to America, or who went from being Victorian to living in the roaring ’20s.”
Gerzina’s prior works include Black London on life in London before emancipation, Mr. and Mrs. Prince about family life after slavery in the United States, and Carrington: A Life, a biography on the pre- and post-World War I life of English painter Dora Carrington.
Burnett wrote fifty-three books, most of them for adults. The three children’s stories featured in Dean Gerzina’s work are the most well-known and long-lasting of Burnett’s works to date. Multiple film renditions of A Little Princess and The Secret Garden have been made, the latter of which has a feature film release coming in 2020. Musicals based on the novels still run in various theaters throughout the country.
Dean Gerzina compared Little Lord Fauntleroy to some of the greatest literary works of the modern era.
“Little Lord Fauntleroy started a huge craze,” Gerzina said. “It was almost as big as Harry Potter is in our time. Girls always played [Lord Fauntleroy] on stage. They had these laced collars and long curls and velvet knee-breeches. It became a huge craze among parents.”
Burnett was born in England and grew up reading the novels of Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, and Sir Walter Scott. At the age of 15, she moved to Tennessee, drastically changing her perception of life. She later married twice, often traveling around Europe, becoming somewhat of an entrepreneur, said Gerzina.
“She was a real business woman, the highest paid author of her era,” Gerzina said. “She was also one of the first people to put in her contract that she had film rights. She changed the copyright laws in England.”
Gerzina explained that Little Lord Fauntleroy was in danger of being adapted as a play without Burnett’s consent. However, Burnett received wind of the news, wrote her own adaption of the play while traveling to England, staged and produced it, and sued the infringer to win rights for her work.
To learn the extent of Burnett’s story, Gerzina spent six years researching, even tracking down Burnett’s great-granddaughter who arranged for a collection of letters, photographs, and paintings to be donated to a special collection at the Princeton University library.
Explaining the time and intensity she dedicated to writing Burnett’s biography, Gerzina described an interaction between her husband and Burnett’s great-granddaughter’s husband.
“I heard my husband and her husband in the kitchen talking, and her husband said ‘So what’s it like living with Frances?’” Gerzina’s husband responded, “I’ve been living with her for six years now and I’d like my wife back.”
“You live and breathe that other person,” Gerzina said. “And I think he was ready for me to be me again.”
In one way, Gerzina’s own life reflects the journeys and shifting nature of the lives she writes about. Gerzina grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, but has lived in three countries (including Italy, where she has dual-citizenship) and five different states. She has been a tenured professor at Vassar College, Barnard College, and Dartmouth College before becoming Dean of the Commonwealth Honors College.
“Maybe that’s why I like change,” Gerzina said.