Frances Hodgson Burnett

6.7 Frances Hodgson Burnett Fights for Copyright

Frances Hodgson Burnett

Back in the day, authors lost control of their work the instant it was published (and sometimes before). Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy, was an enormously successful author, and she insisted her stories belonged to her.

This episode belongs to Series 6: Ground-Breaking Novelists.

Full Transcript

If you look up a list of greatest children’s books of all time, the lists will almost certainly include The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It’s a beautiful book, but I think it would be a stretch to call it ground-breaking.

When I was planning this series on ground-breaking novelists, I asked Twitter who I should include. I asked my family, including my literature professor brother. I asked Google. No one suggested I include Frances Hodgson Burnett.

I think that’s because novels, as much as I love them, are fundamentally impractical. When you’re feeling practical you read things like How to Win Friends and Influence People or The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. That’s where you’re going to find the tips that can be converted into cold, hard cash.

So when novelists list the great authors of the past to whom they feel indebted, they are unlikely to mention Frances because the debt they owe is maybe not a literary one. It’s a financial one.

Nowadays we assume that if you write a story, you own that story. But this is actually a very recent assumption is world history. Prior to the printing press, copying long texts was such a hassle that stealing it was never going to happen on a large scale. You might even be flattered if someone thought it was good enough to be worth stealing. And anyway most authors were either independently rich or they had a patron who was independently rich. Either way they weren’t counting on massive sales to put food on the table.

Commercial printing changed that, but slowly. Competing publishers regularly brought out competing versions of the same work, not to mention derivatives of a popular work. So it was perfectly okay for a certain William Shakespeare to read a popular book called Rosalynde and turn it into a play called As You Like It. No permission needed.

But as sales of books began to generate profits, people naturally disagreed about who should receive those profits. The details vary based on the locale, but in England, the right to make copies (which is to say copyright) was granted to publisher’s guilds who made their own rules and enforced them too. Authors had no rights at all.

By 1710, the government was tired of the guilds. The Statute of Anne said anyone could hold copyright, but only for 14 years with right of renewal. The inevitable legal battles produced a ruling that said authors own their unpublished work, but publication nixed that right.[1]

Over the next century the terms were modified many times, sometimes to the benefit of authors. But enforcement was spotty. Piracy was common. And everything was confused when you were talking about a foreign author, such as a Brit publishing in the US or vice versa.

And that was all just about the rights to the literal actual text. Then, as now, drama was more popular than long, wordy books, and a stage version was not the actual text in its original state, therefore no protection granted.

We’ve heard on this podcast already that Frankenstein was a theater success without Mary Shelley‘s involvement. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an enormous theater success without Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s involvement. Stowe was also forced to travel to England to be physically present when her books were published there. Otherwise, she’d have held no copyright there even for the novels themselves. This was enough of a burden that Stowe proposed a joint authorship scheme with Elizabeth Gaskell, the British author of Wives and Daughters and North and South. That way they’d be able to split profits on their books without leaving their home countries.[2]

Authors were not pleased with this situation. Charles Dickens was irritated that three separate stage productions of The Pickwick Papers were available to audiences before he had even finished publishing the serial book.[3] Playwrights made up their own endings.

And this is how things were in 1849, when a prosperous middle class family in Manchester, England, had a baby girl named Frances. Her father owned a company that made and sold metal fittings for houses, like chandeliers and door knockers. But he died in 1854. Her mother tried to keep the company going for a few years, but disaster struck. The US entered a Civil War and suddenly cotton from the South was not an option. The Hodgson family business was not directly tied to cotton, but the general wealth of Manchester and its textile industry was. Suddenly nobody could afford chandeliers or door knockers.

Frances had an uncle who had emigrated to the US, and he wrote saying he had a dry goods store near Knoxville, TN, and business was good, and he’d provide for them all if they would come. Frances’s mother was either hopelessly naive or perhaps hopelessly desperate, because 1865 was not a great year to move to the American south.

But they went. And sure enough, the dry goods store was not actually doing well. They lived in an overcrowded log cabin, the place was crawling with ex-soldiers, and there wasn’t enough to eat.

In this world where mail was pricey and unreliable, magazines sometimes did their correspondence right in the magazine itself. So Frances could read notes like:

“Elaine the Fair.—Your story has merit, but is not quite suited to our columns. Never write on both sides of your paper.”

Or

“Blair of Athol.—We accept your poem ‘The Knights Token’s. Shall be glad to hear from you again.”[4]

Frances wanted money, and here was a possible way to get it. She is, by far, the poorest of any of the authors I’ve covered so far because she couldn’t even afford the stamps and paper for this idea. She harvested wild grapes and sold them to save up for that. She was also concerned the editors might think she just wanted to see her name in print, so she was very upfront with her goal:

“Sir: I enclose stamps for the return of the accompanying MS, ‘Miss Desborough’s Difficulties,’ if you do not find it suitable for publication in your magazine. My object is remuneration. Yours respectfully, F. Hodgson”

The editor wrote back saying he didn’t believe she’d actually written it. It sounded too English. And anyway the name she had signed didn’t match the name on her return address. That last was because she was using a friend’s address to avoid her brothers making fun of her if she was rejected. So she wrote back explaining herself and as requested included a second story to prove she could actually produce one, and the editor bought both, for a total of $35.

This was success indeed! No worries about being made fun of when she had $35 in hand!

Frances was always very upfront about her purpose. She wrote a certain friend named Swan Burnett the following: “something must be done to raise us all a little from the dust, . . . [and] I am sure, sure, sure that I must do it. . . Nobody else will do it, because nobody else cares a cent whether we drag through our wretched lives as shabby, genteel beggars or not. . . We are not respectable people in our own eyes, whatever we may be in anyone else’s. I would as soon be a thief as feel like one, and I do feel like one . . . Respectability doesn’t only mean food and a house—it means pretty, graceful things; a front street not close to the gas works; an occasional new book to provide against mental starvation; a chance to see the world; a piano and fifteen cents spending money (not to be squandered recklessly of course). . . What is there to feed my poor, little, busy brain in this useless, weary, threadbare life? I can’t eat my own heart forever.”[5]

With $35 in hand, it was onwards and upwards from there, writing for more, better quality magazines until there was virtually no publication in the US that she had not written for. She saved enough to visit England and stay for over a year, supporting herself by mailing back stories.

When she returned, she married Swan Burnett, the son of a neighbor in Tennessee. He was a doctor, and he had not been happy that Frances had gone to England or that she had stayed so long. Frances knew that, but she hadn’t hurried. And the wedding was a dissatisfaction to her because the dress she had ordered didn’t arrive in time.

The first son Lionel was born in 1874. They went on a family tour of Europe. In Paris, a second child was born. Frances had decided she was having a girl. So another boy was a surprise. She decided to call him Vivian anyway.

In 1877, they moved to DC, so Swan could open a medical practice. Some women might have given up writing, but not Frances. Her income outstripped Swan’s and she wasn’t going to give up anything, not even when she was sick or when the children were sick. “Write—write—write” she wrote. “Be sick; be tired, be weak and out of ideas, if you choose, but write! There are people who are saying that to me always, even when they don’t utter a word. I am ashamed to look them in the face, if I have not done my usual task. If they beat me with whips they could not drive me more than they do by their thoughts and eagerness for my work, which communicate themselves to me without need for speech.”[6]

Now, I am saving the history of working motherhood for another series, but you can’t help suspecting here that some of this is Frances driving herself. This is the period where women who worked were looked down on. And Frances was married to a doctor who was working. Even without her income, they would have had more money than what she had grown up with. While I am sure the editors who made money off of her were always eager for her next story, there must have been many closer to home who thought she ought to be focusing on her duties in the home. But on she wrote.

Besides stories for magazines, Frances was moving into theater, adapting her stories for the stage. And so far she had never written anything that was intended for children. Vivian had something to say about that. The truth was that Frances was not as present as a mother as her boys would have liked. By her own account, Vivian said “You write so many books for grownups, that we don’t have any time at all with you now. Why don’t you write some books that little boys would like to read? Then your staying upstairs wouldn’t be so bad.”[7]

Little Lord Fauntleroy Suit

Again, a future series for the pressures of working motherhood, but for now let’s just say that Frances agreed and that is how her most successful character was born. Cedric, more commonly known as Little Lord Fauntleroy, was modeled on Vivian. He was seven years old, dressed in a velvet suit with a lace collar, called his mother “Dearest,” wore his hair long and beautifully curled, and behaved as an absolutely sweet little angel at every single moment.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Surely, even Victorian children must have been rolling their eyes. Victorian mothers loved it. When it was published in 1886, it was the Harry Potter of its day. It was an absolute phenomenon it was so unexpectedly successful. An entire generation of little boys were stuffed into velvet suits with lace collars. Over their protests, I might add.

Flush with cash, Frances headed back to Europe. In Italy, she put the boys in school and enjoyed playing the grand, wealthy, and irritatingly well-traveled and world-wise lady. You’ll see what I mean.

She was in Florence when she wrote to a very tall friend in London, saying:

“Do something for me—I am a distracted little person. —A thief has quietly dramatized Fauntleroy and I am engaged in a fierce battle with him. A large young woman—possibly your size—is to play Cedric. Figuerez vous! Figurativi! (French and Italian ensemble. It is so difficult to speak English.)

“Accidente! Brutta bestia! Some of that is swearing. I am very proud of it. Madonna Mia! O, Signore! —What I wish you to do is to be present at the first night of that play—if it has not yet been done—and take with you some other intelligent mind and feeling heart and telegraph to me, “Good,” or “Bad,” and then write to me in your most powerful language.

“The brigand, whose name is Seebohm, knew he was doing a miserable, dishonest thing, and knew I thought myself protected by the ‘All rights reserved’ on the title page. He kept his plans most discreetly secret until he was ready and it was too late for me to hurry my play and secure myself—and then he calmly informed me that he had ‘dramatized my charming book.’ Then, letters and telegrams and general excitement.”[8]

Seebohm attempted to share profits with her if she accepted reality, but having his offers refused, he rushed back to London to hurry production. Frances was on practically the very next train, frantically writing her own version.

Seebohm’s successful play opened in 1888. Frances sued. One has to wonder whether lawyers told her that she had not much of a case. According to the law, Frances had no rights over the dramatization of her story. Seebohm was doing nothing that hadn’t been done many times before. He didn’t even have to share the profits, as he had offered.

Seebohm’s play was very faithful to the book. He had lifted whole passages of dialog, divvied it up into script form, and made four typewritten copies. One copy was sent to the Lord Chamberlain, who licensed plays, and the other three were used by the actors.

The judge in the case was sympathetic to Frances but had to inform her that no law forbade anyone from producing a play of her story. However, the making of the four copies, so much the same as the novel, was held to be a violation of her copyright on the book.

Lest anyone ask how Seebohm could possibly have produced a play without distributing a script, the judge merely said, “there is a possible mode” and left it at that. He never clarified, but a later analyst speculated that he meant Seebohm could have distributed four purchased copies of the book, with sections highlighted or crossed out.[9]

The gavel came down and boom! Just like that Seebohm’s production was closed. Francis’ play called The Real Little Lord Fauntleroy debuted in May 1888, only a few months after Seebohm’s. Ironically, her play was less faithful to the book than his.

The play was a smashing success on both sides of the Atlantic. In Boston, Frances was getting $800 a week while it was onstage. And editors were clamoring so loudly for her next book that they were offering $15,000 just for the serial rights. She had certainly raised herself a little from the dust.

Authors were very impressed, maybe by the play, but definitely by the court case. The London World said “the plot-grabbers have fled confounded before the little champion. Novelists need no longer fear to see their brain children kidnapped, distorted, and sent forth to pick up pence for the kidnapper in the theatrical highways and byways.”[10]

The Society of British Authors gave Frances a banquet and a diamond bracelet.

All of this was a bit premature, of course. The law itself had not changed. But sympathy had. Even before Frances’s case, no less a person than the great Victor Hugo had organized an international society to protect the rights of creators across borders. Their proposals were accepted by only a few countries and enforced by still fewer, but it grew.

The British changed their laws in 1911 to specifically give the author sole rights to dramatization. The Americans had already done so in 1909.[11] This was particularly important because film rights were about to be a big, big money generator.

Frances was still alive at that point, and she did live to see Little Lord Fauntleroy on the silver screen, but the intervening years had not been kind. Lionel died of tuberculosis. Frances crossed the Atlantic no fewer than 33 times, sometimes for her health, sometimes for fun, but usually to oversee some new production, often for months at a time. You may wonder how a practicing doctor could manage that much travel. Swan didn’t wonder. He just didn’t go, and the marriage collapsed under the weight of all that time apart. Possibly there were other stresses too. Frances then married an English actor (10 years her junior), which was a disastrous decision. The marriage didn’t last long, and she would later claim he blackmailed her into it.[12] You have to wonder what the leverage was. She spent some time in a sanitorium.

Great Maytham Hall

Amidst all the constant moving, there was a period where she leased a large English manor house and got very interested in working her garden.

Image: The garden at Great Maytham Hall (which Frances rented for a time) from Wikimedia Commons

I was at first puzzled by this because my own attempts at gardening suggest that going on vacation for even a couple of weeks can be problematic. But then the confusion was cleared up: my problem is that I don’t hire a full-time gardener. When Frances says she was passionate about working the earth, she doesn’t necessarily mean that she herself was getting grubby.

In 1900, her book The Secret Garden began its serial run. It was well received, as all her books were. But it was considered nothing out of the ordinary in her overall output of over 50 books. Frances would be very surprised that it is the only one of her books that is still considered worth reading. And it is worth reading. It’s a lovely story, in part because the children in it are not sweetly angelic.

When Frances died in 1924, her son Vivian rushed to put out a highly romanticized biography which is still on the shelves of my local library. He informs me most seriously that Frances’s forehead was the same size and shape as Shakespeare’s, but discreetly glosses over the divorces and any point on which she could have been blackmailed. He also claims that Frances loved her role as mother best, even as he documents how her relentless pursuit of a career took her away from them for months at a time, even while they were young and upset about it. Basically, she’s a complicated character.

Vivian never managed to escape his association with her or her painfully sweet Little Lord Fauntleroy. Even when he died in an accident, the headline read “Original Fauntleroy dies in boat after helping rescue 4 in sound.”[13]

Authors, though, still have reason to praise Frances for her fight for copyright. Stage rights were always lucrative. In the 20th century, film rights became even more so. So when Michael Crichton got $1.5 million for the rights to Jurassic Park or JK Rowling got $2 million for the rights to the first four Harry Potter books, or Dan Brown got an enormous $6 million for rights to The Da Vinci Code,[14] it is, in part, a legacy of Frances Hodgson Burnett and her insistence that her stories belonged to her.

My sources for this week are a hodgepodge, but they are all listed on the website at herhalfofhistory.com. Follow me on Twitter @her_half or on Facebook. Reviews are a beautiful thing. And come back next week for the first woman to win the Nobel in literature. Thanks!


[1] Khan, B. Zorina. “An Economic History of Copyright in Europe and the United States.” Eh.net, 2019, eh.net/encyclopedia/an-economic-history-of-copyright-in-europe-and-the-united-states/. Accessed 16 Feb. 2022.

[2] Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. “Harriet Beecher Stowe Papers in the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center’s Collections Finding Aid.” 2009. https://www.harrietbeecherstowecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Harriet-Beecher-Stowe-papers-in-HBSC-Collection-complete-2017.pdf. Accessed 17 Feb. 2022.

[3] Allingham, Paul V. “Dramatic Adaptations of Dickens’s Novels (1836- 1870).” Victorianweb.org, victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/pva/pva228.html. Accessed 17 Feb. 2022.

[4] Burnett, Vivian. The Romantick Lady, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Etc. [with Plates, Including Portraits.]. New York & London, 1927, page 41.

[5] Burnett, 47

[6] Burnett, 75

[7] Burnett, 142

[8] Burnett, 162

[9] Rogers, Edward S. “The Law of Dramatic Copyright.” Michigan Law Review 1, no. 2 (1902): 102–20. https://doi.org/10.2307/1272297.

[10] Burnett, 168

[11] Bowker, 171

[12] Gerzina, Gretchen. Frances Hodgson Burnett : The Unexpected Life of the Author of the Secret Garden. New Brunswick, N.J., Rutgers University Press, 2004.

[13] U. C. Knoepflmacher. “Little Lord Fauntleroy: The Afterlife of a Best-Seller.” The Princeton University Library Chronicle 73, no. 2 (2012): 185–213. https://doi.org/10.25290/prinunivlibrchro.73.2.0185. Page 206.

[14] “Top 8 Most Expensive Book-To-Film Adaptations.” Best for Film, 25 Oct. 2013, bestforfilm.com/film-blog/top-8-most-expensive-book-to-film-adaptations/. Accessed 17 Feb. 2022.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s