When wealthy young American Octavia Bassett appears at her aunt's door, she not only surprises that timid lady but the entire English town of Slowbridge as well. It's as if Daisy Miller had been dropped into Cranford... without the dire result.
Slowbridge's customs have been set in stone by Lady Theobald, who has decreed that young ladies should always wear white muslin to social events and that their only decoration should be fresh flowers - which invariably wilt by the end of the evening. Enter Octavia, bedecked in yards of lace and ribbons and with a profusion of diamond jewelry. She is soon informed that only married ladies wear diamonds in England. She makes other mistakes: Young ladies do not ask men to join them on terraces; they do not invite men to play croquet on their lawns. Even the mention of her Nevada home town (Bloody Gulch) sends shock waves through the population.
Happily, Octavia is a generous, kind-hearted girl who takes none of this too seriously. It's not her fault if a snobbish gentleman is smitten with her, and she is happy to make friends with a shy girl (the dreaded Lady Theobald's granddaughter), who admires her forthright ways.
At times as light and frothy as one of Octavia's gowns, A Fair Barbarian joyfully satirizes the gulf between late Victorian manners and customs in England and America. Frances Hodgson Burnett (best known for The Secret Garden and A Little Princess) spent most of her life split between the two countries and had a unique and amusing perspective.