Frances Hodgson Burnett: Biography & Facts

Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

Frances Hodgson Burnett was a popular author during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and today several of her books are still popular. In this lesson we will learn about her personal life.

Frances Hodgson Burnett Overview

Who is the woman who writes such great details about Sara Crewe's dresses or the beautiful secret garden? What life experiences allowed this woman to write about lords and ladies with the same familiarity as the working class? This woman is Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of dozens of books, including The Secret Garden.

Frances Hodgson Burnett
Frances Burnett

Burnett was born in 1849 in Manchester, England and died in 1924 in New York. She began writing as a teenager to help support her family. Although you may not recognize her name now, during her life time she was as well-known as authors today, such as J. K. Rowling. She loved Victorian style clothing, but was not conventional in her life style, and suffered from depression.

Burnett's Early Life

Burnett's parents were Eliza and Edwin Hodgson and she was the middle of five children. They were well-to-do, but when Frances was three years old (with her mother pregnant with her youngest sister) Edwin died and the family was left without money. Eliza tried keeping the family afloat, running her husband's business and living with family, but they continued to struggle. Eventually, they moved to the state of Tennessee, in the United States, with Eliza's brother who promised to help them. He didn't live up to his promises and the family continued to struggle.

At this point, Frances determined that she could help support her family. She had been writing stories for years, although she had to leave them all behind in England when they moved. But she began writing new stories and they were quickly published in a local magazine.

First Marriage

Her stories did well and she was able to make a decent living and support her family. But soon after becoming somewhat successful, (successful enough to move to a nicer house), her mother died, in 1870. Three years later, still in Tennessee, she married Swan Burnet.

Swan was a doctor but was never able to succeed as a doctor, so they lived off of the income from Frances' stories. They had two children, sons Lionel and Vivian. They traveled extensively, enjoying places such as Paris. But the income from Frances' stories wasn't enough to keep up this life style and they ended up in debt, living with Swan's parents in Washington D.C.

Frances frequently suffered from depression throughout her life, and the financial stresses exacerbated her condition, causing her to fall into a deep depression. In 1885 she first published Little Lord Fauntleroy, which earned her great popularity.

Burnett based the character Colin in Little Lord Fauntleroy off of her sons
Little Lord Fauntleroy

After the success of Little Lord Fauntleroy, she began traveling again, but this time Swan stayed in D.C. But her success and travels couldn't keep away her depression and she would spend days on end alone in her bedroom.

Divorce and Second Marriage

In 1890, her oldest son Lionel died from consumption while she had been traveling through Europe. This sent her spiraling into deeper depression and it greatly changed her stories. She changed her religion from the traditional Church of England to Spiritualism and Christian Science. These changes are reflected in her writing and she said ''I believe that all, everything, is possible, and I am sure that I shall live a million years if for no other reason than that I am so interested in seeing all of these possible things come true.''

While she did return to Washington D.C. when her other son, Vivian, fell severely ill, she never really lived with Swan again, and she left as soon as Vivian's health returned. In 1898, she and Swan officially divorced. To the great scandal of everyone around her, she then had Stephen Townsend, whom she met on one of her visits to London, move in with her in her house in London. In 1900 they officially married.

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