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Sara is almost too good to be true: smart, brave, and kind, she's saved from being completely unbelievable by the fact that she's just not that pretty. (At least, according to her.) But it's what's inside that counts, and Sara has nothing but character.
When we first meet Sara, she's arriving at Miss Minchin's school with her father. She's obviously scared and sad, but she's putting up a good face. Her inspiration? British soldiers. "I don't like it, papa," she says about having to stay at the school: "But then I dare say soldiers—even brave ones—don't really LIKE going into battle" (1.20).
So, already we know that this is one odd little girl. Sure, she loves dolls and probably ponies, like every other girl. If she lived in the 90s, she'd probably be decorating her Trapper Keeper with Lisa Frank stickers.
But at the same time, Sara has a special gift, one that no one else at her school has: the power of storytelling.
Of course the greatest power Sara possessed... was her power of telling stories and of making everything she talked about seem like a story, whether it was one or not. (5.1)
One of Sara's defining traits is that she's always telling stories, both to others and to herself. She likes to pretend that her dolls can move and think on their own, and she tells Lottie comforting stories about how their dead mothers are in heaven. Weird? Well, maybe.
But the other girls love it (except Lavinia, obvs), and when Sara is orphaned and sent to the attic, she uses the stories to make herself feel better. In particularly, she tells stories about the Bastille, a notorious French prison, and pretends she's a prisoner in a romantic French Revolution kind of way. (Rats and all.)
(Did you ever pretend you were a captive princess in order to make yourself feel better about having to clean the bathroom? Just us? Anyway, that's what's going on here. Sara narrates her life as though it's happening to someone else, which makes it romantic rather than depressing. When she and Becky can't take it anymore, she tells stories about the food and warmth that isn't there, hoping that their imaginations will warm them a little.
But it's not just physical comfort. The stories also help Sara be a better person, because when she pretends she's a princess, she also acts like a princess. And we don't mean in a Super Sweet 16, Daddy's Little Princess way. We mean a Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge way: classy, kind, and really well-dressed.
Part of her whole princess shtick is that Sara also tries very hard to be good to others. She takes the misfits Ermengarde and Lottie under her wing, and talks to Becky like a human being instead of a good-for-nothing scullery maid.
Sure, it may be easier for her to be generous with her money, things, and time when she's rich, but Sara tries to maintain that same level of generosity even when she's as poor as Becky. When she finds the fourpence and buys the hot buns from the bakery, she gives herself a good talking too:
"She is hungrier than I am," she said to herself. "She's starving." But her hand trembled when she put down the fourth bun. "I'm not starving," she said—and she put down the fifth. (13.58)
We know that Sara is starving—or, at least, she will be soon. That "trembling" hand gives her away: this isn't easy for her. But she's willing to give away the buns even when she herself has had nothing to eat. And that's the true test of her compassion and goodness.
Okay, so we know that Sara is kind, generous, and self-sacrificing. How much better can this girl get?
Well, how about the fact that she just won't give up? She just keeps going, and going, and going… just like the Energizer bunny. Even when Miss Minchin breaks up her nighttime party with Ermengarde and Becky and it seems as if nothing will ever be okay ever again, Sara believes that things will look up. And when they do, she's hardly surprised.
"…The Magic has come and done it, Becky, while we were asleep—the Magic that won't let those worst things EVER quite happen." (15.260)
Sara's also a trooper when it comes to sticking it to the man, or in this case, to Miss Minchin. Sara won't let her reduced status get in the way of letting Miss Minchin know how she really feels. She's constantly bringing to light the fact that Miss Minchin treats her horribly, and making Miss Minchin feel rather uncomfortable and angry. She even manages to tell her off one last time when Miss Minchin comes begging for her to return to the school at the end:
"You know why I will not go home with you, Miss Minchin," she said; "you know quite well." (18.69)
This kind of attitude—being true to herself and to her convictions about what's right—helps her get through the roughest and darkest days.
And, of course, it ends up delivering her to her very own happy ending.