10 March 2011

Read an E-Book Week: Those Sturdy, Principled Girl Heroines

Perhaps the most famous girls in series books are Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, followed by Judy Bolton, Cherry Ames, and the other girl sleuths from the 30s and 40s, but they were preceded by an entire flock of earnest, principled girl heroines from early series books.

Not all of the stories these girls were involved in were mysteries. Some involved character studies, like the story of The Three Margarets (Margaret, Rita, and Peggy), all manipulated by their tyrannical relative to emerge friends, or slice-of-life stories in which girls like Patty Fairfield, Billie Bradley, and Nan Sherwood faced problems in growing up, or stories in which the girls embarked on newfangled adventures: they traveled in motorcars like "The Automobile Girls," appeared in the "flickers" like "The Moving Picture Girls" who faced rival actresses, or even flew "aeroplanes" like the Girl Aviators. Jean Webster's fun-loving Patty got in college scrapes but always came out fine at the end.

You can see the early face of girls' mysteries, however, in most of the series of the times. In between attending school, vacationing, and making their way through rivalries with other girls, our heroines usually managed to find missing papers and inheritances, make discoveries about lost children or adoptions, rescue abused kids, etc. Unlike the series of today, most of the girls were allowed to age, go from high school to college to a brief career, even to marriage. Ruth Fielding even finds a successful career as a movie screen writer, Ruth and Alice DeVere (the Moving Picture Girls) become actresses by accident (it's their father who actually wishes to become a film actor)

Typical of these girls were the Outdoor Girls. Dependable Betty Nelson, age fifteen, was the head of the little group—indeed, she is known to her friends as "the little Captain" due to her practical nature—who formed a "Camping and Tramping Club." The other members of the group are Grace Ford, who manages to keep a "Gibson girl" figure despite the fact that she always seems to have a box of chocolates on her; Molly Bilette, known as "Billy," the emotional member of the group (she's of French descent, you see, so she's excitable); and quiet Amy Stonington, who finds out to her great astonishment in the first book that she is adopted. Later in the series she finds out more about her real family. In addition, Grace's brother Will Ford and his friends appear, as well as Billy's insipid small twin siblings Paul and Dodo, who usually manage to blackmail the girls into giving them candy.

The one thing you will notice about all these girls' series is that the girls in them are chiefly in their late teens, but, despite the fact there are boys about, the girls do not spend their time mooning over them, or even obsessing about sex at all. It is a given that Betty likes Allan Washburn, and that Grace Harlowe, in her own series, is fond of Tom Gray (later her husband), but these girls have no time for boys until they reach their 20s. The same goes for the Camp Fire Girls, who are in their 20s by the time the series ends. It is refreshing to see supposedly old-fashioned girls acting so sensibly as opposed to their modern counterparts, who are obsessed with bodies rather than brains, looking good for boys, and being "princesses" when younger instead of independent women.

The other things emphasized are the girls' sense of virtue and fair play. They would never think of cheating or being deliberately "mean" to others, although they occasionally uttered a too-impulsive words or actions which they apologized for later. Grace Harlowe, Betty Nelson, the "Winnebago" Camp Fire Girls, Nan Sherwood, and their sisters would be horrified by the Gossip Girls.

Grace Harlowe was one of the straightest arrows in the series world. She was so "straight," in fact, that numerous girls in each year of high school and college attempted to "get even" with her by blackening her name. Grace spends several books being mistrusted by teachers, professors, or other authority figures because of resentful classmates. Yet she always managed to persevere with dignity and clear her name, and still have fun with her friends: Anne Pierson, a poor girl despised by her classmates who Grace takes under her wing; Nora O'Malley and Jessica Bright. Some of her enemies, like Eleanor Savell and Miriam Nesbit, later become her friends.

One of the more interesting series is that of Ethel Morton. In each of the Morton books, an educational theme accompanies the story line; for instance, in one of the books Ethel learns to cook healthful meals and grow fresh vegetables, in another book she and her friends learn decorating and designing a healthful and happy home.

One of the common topics of all the books written between 1914 and 1918 is the girls' participation in some type of aid during what was known then as the Great War. They knit, raised money, put together packages for European waifs, appeared in parades, bought Liberty Bonds, and otherwise encouraged their readers to help in the war effort. Of course, they occasionally caught spies as well! Hildegarde Frey's Winnebagoes even capture a German spy in The Camp Fire Girls Do Their Bit while defending their friend, Veronica Lehar, a Hungarian refuge.

An unexpected and interesting series is "Aunt Jane's Nieces." Louise, Beth, and Patsy are all summoned to their Aunt Jane's deathbed. She will leave only one of them her fortune, and tries to set the girls against one another, but instead they become friends. They also befriend Aunt Jane's ward Kenneth, who should be the recipient of her fortune, but she dislikes him. However, Kenneth eventually does inherit Aunt Jane's fortune, leaving the girls without support. Unexpectedly their Uncle John turns up. They believe him as poor "as a churchmouse" but it turns out he's rolling in dough and adopts all three girls, as well as appointing Patsy's father as his majordomo. The girls and Kenneth go through various adventures, including making a go of a farm, buying a newspaper, traveling to Europe, etc. The books touch upon some subjects that were surprising for girls' novels of their day: in one Kenneth runs for office and the girls help him politically.

The biggest surprise, however, of the series is that the Edith Van Dyne writing their adventures is in actuality L. Frank Baum of "Oz" fame. In fact, he wrote several other girls' series under a pen name, including the Mary Louise books.

These girls' novels are a window to the world of young women from 1900 through the 1920s. It is an eye-opener to see them emerge from the Victorian world where girls sewed samplers and painted china to vigorous young ladies who compete in basketball and tennis, drive automobiles, even start to lead independent lives even though there are expectations of marriage and children in their futures.

As in all the novels of this era, bigotry and racism sometimes appear. While it is sometimes painful to read, it also reminds us of how far we have come in racial and ethnic equality. It also explains to us how children of the era fell victim to racism and negative ethnic stereotypes, being presented as common and normal in these much-read volumes.

The next time you're looking for an e-book, try one of these old series. I have a particular fondness for the Hildegard Frey Camp Fire Girls (a series of ten books, eight which can be found online), but Betty Gordon, Grace Harlowe, Ruth Fielding, the Outdoor Girls, and others are all fun choices. If nothing else, you can smile at the quaint dialog, the funny medical beliefs, and even occasionally those annoying cutsey younger brothers and sisters!

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