This 1895 children’s book by the author of The Secret Garden, A Little Princess and Little Lord Fauntleroy is quite obscure and should remain so.
The story follows 12-year-old orphans Meg and Robin, who live on their Aunt Matilda’s farm. Their obsession with The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan helps to keep their spirits up. When they hear of the Chicago World Fair, they decide to make their own pilgrimage there, sneaking away from the farm with some money they saved from doing extra work. They take an inexhaustible supply of boiled eggs. In Chicago, they find beauty and kindness everywhere, resulting in a fairytale ending which seems to say that if you are kind and hard-working then good things will happen to you in this life, not just the next.
There are several reasons why the book won’t appeal to today’s audience (and for all I know, it wasn’t successful at the time of publication either). It’s a strongly Christian story and that alone will put some readers off. Meg and Robin are not like real children at all and in fact the narrator often tells us how unusual they are. They’re not unusual in an endearing way, however, talking like wise adults one moment and babbling about fairies the next. Moreover, their appearance – little square jaws and black brows – is over-emphasised, as if it means something. The dodgiest element in this book is that a gloomy-looking man keeps following the children around, then he gains their trust, buys them candy and takes them to a hotel. It is all innocent, of course. I think the largest flaw is the story itself. There is something very unsatisfying about it. The best I can say of this book is that the section where the children travel by train to Chicago is interesting.
Having found out that Frances Hodgson Burnett lost a son before this book was published does put the story’s preoccupation with grief and heaven into perspective. Her books were actually displayed at the Chicago World Fair in 1893 and this must have inspired her. Unfortunately I got little sense of what the fair was about from this book, because the children gave the architecture and exhibits names based on The Pilgrim’s Progress or fairyland ideas. Afterwards, I read about the fair on Wikipedia and it sounded amazing, despite ending in tragedy with the mayor’s assassination. The architecture inspired the City Beautiful movement in 1890s North America. The book’s subtitle, A Story of the City Beautiful, therefore has two possible origins; the one I just mentioned, or from Bunyan’s work in which there is the Palace Beautiful.
There are a few lovely illustrations by Reginald B Birch, but I do think Meg and Robin’s costumes look too grand for supposedly poor farm children.