The Real Little Lord Fauntleroy: Vivian Burnett

Cedric Erol was of course a litterary character. But in many ways her youngest son Vivian was the inspiration for Little Lord Fauntleroy. The boys was dressed in velvet suits and he did have long shoulder-length hair. In fact he was the model for Reginald Birch who illusrated the first edition of Mrs. Burnett's book. Lionel for his part spent the rest of his life trying to disassociate from his mother's creation.

The Book

St. Nicholas Magazine in its November 1885 issue 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.


Figure 1.--Vivian Burnett in a publicity photo made to adverize his mother's stage production of "Little Lord Fauntleroy". A earlier picture of Vivian in a black velver suit was used by Reginald Birch as a model for his illustrations.

The Burnetts

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.

Vivian Arrives

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.

Mother

His mother was born in England to a wealthy family. After her father died, Frances' mother immigrated to America. The transplanted familyexperienced real poverty, a theme echoed again and again in her writing--much like Dickens. It was her talent for writing that brought the family out of poverty. Women writers were still not well received at the time, often they wrote under pseudonames. Had it not been for the family's dire financial straits, Frances might never have pursued a literary career.

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.

The Boys' Clothes

Dr. Burnett's status and his wifes rising stature as a writer (even before the publication of Little Lord Fauntleroy meantha the Burnetts were part of the Washington fahion swirl. As was appropriate, at the time--parents an adults dresses up when being seen in society. This meant when receiving friends and aquaintences for afternoon tea or when steping out, such as taking the boys to the park. Apparently the boys did not mind society as such, but were not to keen on having to dress up.

The one thing the boys disliked about society was having to dress up, andFrances did have a weakness for picturesque clothing. The boys had blue jersey suits with red sashes and they also had best suits of black velvet with lace collars. These last may well have been partly inspired by Oscar Wilde’s clothes on his visit to them but they were by no means unusual wear for small boys at this period, a year or two before the Fauntleroy cult spread their appeal. [Ann Thwait biography of Frances Burnett, pp. 81-82.]

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.

Ringlets

Mrs. Burnett devoted hours to the boys in the evening scrubbing them and curling their hair. Vivian destincly remembered the evening sessions with his mother and metioned it with mixed emotions in his autobiography. While the endless hair curling session could be a bit fatiguing for a small boy, it was during these sesssions that Mrs. Burnett would entertain the boys with stories she created for them.

Vivian, Lionel, and the Republicans

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,
VIVIAN

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 Story

One day Mrs. Burnett has a special idea. A biograpger quotes the author

[O]ne day I had an idea. ‘I will write a story about him [Vivian],’ I said. ‘I will put him in a world quite new to him and see what he will do.... How it would amaze him and bewilder him! Yes, there it is, and Vivian shall be he--just Vivian with his curls and his eyes, and his friendly, kind, little soul. Little Lord Something-or-other…. A story like that is easily written. In part it was being lived before my eyes." (Ann Thwait biography of Frances Burnett, p. 90)

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. The 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.

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.

Separation and London

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.

Theartical Productions

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 >>>

Vivian's Problem

The reputation Little Lord Fauntleroy was to acquire, that of a prig and sissy, was nothing like the character Mrs. Burnett described in her book. Cedric was a charming, manly little felow. In many ways as the actual description of his velvet suit was so limited, it was the Reginald Birch drawings that established the image of Little Lord Fauntleroy. Mrs. Burnett have Birch a photograph taken in 1884 of Vivian in his best velvet suit and long curls. This served as the basis for the Birch drawings.

Vivian of course was identified with Little Lord Fauntleroy. In fact, there was some reason for this. He was in fact a charming little boy and undoubtedly help enspire his mother's writing. Vivian did not see himself in this way. The identification with "Little Lord Fauntleroy," however, was not easily shed. His mother cut his curls by his 10th birthday. [HBC is looking for details on this, but has not yet found them. Presumably Vivian had been asking for them to be cut.] Vivian played football and tennis. "I was a perfectly normal boy," Vivian said. "I got myself just as damn dirty as the other boys." Even so, Vivian was to spend the rest of his life disassociating himself from his mother's famous creation. When he met his mother at the docks when she arrived from an ocean voyage, the newpapers ran headlines, "Lord Fauuntleroy Greets Mother." It was to last his whole life.

Harvard

Some of Vivian's most difficult times were encountered at Harvard. Shortly before he enrolled at Harvard, Frances published an article in The Ladies' Home Journal titled "How Fauntleroy Occurred," reinforcing Vivian's stigma. His hazing at Harvard included being made to wander the campus dressed in velvet knickerbockers, a ruffed collar and a golden wig. He became a track star, only to hear taunts from the grandstands of "Fauntleroy, Mama's boy." One student's mockery so enraged Vivian that he brought a chair down on his tormentor's head. He feared that his renown as "the real Fauntleroy" was keeping him out of college social groups. "I'm being persecuted again," he wrote to his mother. "On Sunday there appeared in the Journal a whole column on me." Vivian graduated from Harvard with honorable mention in four of his five studies.

Career

Vivian became a reporter for, of course, the Denver Republican, covering courts and police, and writing art and music criticism. He wrote a column for the Washington Times, and in New York he wrote for a new publication called Children's Magazine. At age 38, Vivian was a bachelor living with his mother on the grand estate she had built on Long Island.

Vivian In 1914, surprised everyone by becoming engaged to 21-year-old Constance Buel. They shared many interests, including a love of sailing. The couple settled on Long Island Sound, a two-minute walk from Frances' estate, and had two daughters, Verity and Dorinda.

Later Life

As Frances aged, Vivian assumed responsibility for her business affairs. The ruddy-faced, balding Vivian at 60 bore little resemblance to the golden-haired Fauntleroy. But the ghost continued to haunt him. One of Vivian's clubs held a luncheon to honor actress Mary Pickford, who had played Little Lord Fauntleroy in the first film adaptation of the book. (The part of Fauntleroy was often played by girls on stage.) Seeing Vivian in the audience, the master of ceremonies called on "the original Little Lord Fauntleroy" to say a few words. According to his wife, Vivian was "caught between dismay and wry amusement."

Sailing on Long Island Sound in July 1937, the 61-year-old Vivian was at the helm when he saw a 10-foot sailboat capsize a mile ahead, spilling its occupants into the water. Under power, Vivian maneuvered his boat close enough to pick up the four victims, holding his yawl into the wind. With the rescue completed and the boat turned homeward, Vivian's fingers released their grip on the helm. Minutes later, he collapsed on deck. By the time the boat reached the pier, he was dead of a heart attack. Even in death, Fauntleroy would not release his grip on Vivian. Even upon his dearh, The New York Times headline read, "Original Fauntleroy Dies in Boat After Helping Rescue Four in Sound, Vivian Burnett, Author's Son, Who Devoted Life to Escaping 'Sissified' Role is Stricken at Helm."

A HBC contributor informs HBC that, "My aging uncle (who turns 83 today, September 23, 2000) was an "adopted" son of sorts by neighbor Vivian Burnett, who lived at Plandome Manor, Long Island. My Uncle Harry Johns, Jr. learned how to sail from his older friend, and for a time played tennis with the daughters, Constance and ____? for a spell. Vivian Burnett collapsed and died in 1937 after rescuing several people whose boat sank offshore." His Uncle Harry told him that one day while tooling around with Vivian Burnett, the elder man took Harry aside and reflected, "You know, I have a feeling that my Mother wrote that book (Little Lord Fauntleroy) about me." That is the only conversation relating to his Mother that he recalls his Uncle Harry mentioning. Interestingly, Uncle Harry as a boy was teased by the Irish kids in his Pennsylvania school who made fun of him wearing a Fauntleroyesque suit and ended up dragging him in the mud along the Darnestown Lane!






Christopher Wagner





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