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Dear Friends,

This is an addendum to a blog I wrote a a couple of months ago now on Bobbie Ann Mason's The Girl Sleuth and children's literature.  First I want to restore to the Net a poem I had on my old blog which I neglected to retrieve and now have found in my files:

To Nancy Drew on her 50th Birthday

by Kathleen Aguero

What secret does the old clock hold now?
Where does the hidden staircase lead?
It's time to mount the 99 steps,
accept the secret in the old attic.
The clues have been there all along
in your diary, in the old album,
in the velvet mask you struggle
to remove. You need to answer the invitation
to the golden pavilion, read the mysterious letter
of your own blood, lean against
the crumbling wall and listen
to the mystery of the tolling bell.
Although you wish you'd never started on this quest
for the missing map, now you have
it in your hand, you must follow it
to the message in the hollow oak, cross
the haunted bridge to face the wooden lady
and the statue whispering what you do not
want to hear.

The Psyche quest and sanguine victory as analyzed by Anne Williams in her book on female gothic and seen in Austen's Northanger Abbey is before us.

Yesterday for what is beginning to feel like an umpteenth time, I spent part of the last off three sessions on Bobbie Ann Mason's Girl Sleuth and once again it went over wonderfully well. Once again the students asked to talk about the book (they are semi-volunteers and all were girls) did very well.  They are all but one strong feminists (and she's no anti-feminist either) even if they wouldn't use the term.  One girl waxed witty over Nancy Drew and compared the 2000 incarnations to Barbie dolls.  And once again afterwards the class afterwards had good talk.  This time better than usual in the second class, for quite a number of people in the second class and a few in my first had even passionate talk about the stereotypes we come across in such books, and in movies and on TV today -- and did not exclude themselves when it came to talking about the influence of such self-alienating norms.  I should say I contribute myself to such talk  -- talk about how I was influenced frankly -- this is important in getting them to talk to one another.

Well thoroughly stirred, I went looking for some more articles on the Prom Queen of them all, and great Sleuth, Nancy Drew and found three good articles from an issues of Lion and Wardrobe, Journal of Popular Culture and one with the narrower name (but not purview), Nancy Drew and Company: culture, gender and girls' series

Deirdre Johnson pointed out the parallels between the supposedly liberated Nancy Drew and Elsie Dinsmore, Nancy Tillman Romalov showed how sexuality is presented, expressed, and explored through the gypsy images; J. Randolph Cox reviewed a study of, Stratemeyer's syndicate maker,and a fourth (my favorite), Sally E. Parry dwelt just on Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton: Nancy upholds the ideology of the present establishment (class, exclusionary arrangements, race privilege) and she behaves in an independent, de-emotionalized way where what is valued is public recognition; Judy cares far more about moral relationships she gets into with others; hers is a much more problematic world where she herself has obstacles to helping others; she has many more personal relationships that are developed and her inner world and home life are presented more richly; she doesn't care about recognition in the way of Nancy. 

Revealing, it's Nancy Drew who has been the more wide-selling heroine in the US. These series books are alive and well it should be mentioned: in all sorts of kinds of books that do not seem to be series but are (from science fiction to cartoon characters), books are made as a product by a firm or publisher to suit what they think will sell and what they want to promote themselves and of course young adult fiction made to fit formulas -- though it should be said there are authors who within this kind of formula present meaningful stories.

What was troubling though was one article which showed how since the 1920s-30s, the appearance of these heroines has shown a deterioration in dignity, independence, self-respect and sheer adultness.  As will be seen in the cover illustration above, Nancy was originally pictured alone, climbing the archetypal stairwell, flashlight rather than candle in hand.  The Psyche story and imagery of the female gothic is there as she dares to break taboos and search out adventure.  But then in the 1940s to 60s, she undergoes a change to where she is a docile-looking teenager, much dowdier and fearful, looking perplexed often,

Judy Bolton comes from this era, and even the original pictures give us a more dependent teenager -- on her way in looks to the suburbs of Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique

That's Peter, her young husband, with her.  Note the 1950s fashions in the second: the older cover has Judy in an older woman's outfit.  In the third, she pets a cat and wears a headscarf (as I still do sometimes).  As Judy was my favorite of all the series' heroines, here are yet more covers:  Judy Bolton Reprints.

Things have gotten much more dismal lately:  a cover from the 80s show Nancy as a girl who is no longer in control

and recently she has become a sex-object, a sort of Barbie doll with muscles:

A far cry from this early cover of the thoughtful introspective heroine:

As you will see from the comments, the covers of French Nancy Drew (Alice Foy) show the same sexualization:

The second is a more recent cover than the first.

Should I conclude that in these series (as with other books), publishers deliberately dumb-down and present caricatured pictures to attract a wider coarser readership, and the more thoughtful or discriminating girl bypasses what's on the front, lives with it, and as she grows older sees through it?  Perhaps.  Especially as in books like Maureen Corrigan's Leave Me Alone I'm Reading and various modern feminist mysteries (with active female detectives at the center) show reading girls who go on to be reading women turn back tot the older images, as in this recent cover (the introduction is by one of these new feminist mystery writers):

I imagine Harriet Walters' face just out of sight.

On these, see Feminist Contributions to the Literary Canon: Setting Standards of Taste, ed. Susanne Fendler, and the article on "The Transformation of a Literary Genre—the Feminist Mystery Novel" by Marion Frank. Frank’s optimistic or positive attitude is partly the result of her central focus: Dorothy Sayers’ and particularly Gaudy Night (from which my pseudonym comes); the other author she goes into at length (whom I’d never heard of before) is Joan Smith.

This still from a Nancy Drew movie shows us the intrepid sleuth.

On the other hand, a perceptive mystery reader from my WWTTA list wrote recently that:

"I’ve always thought mystery stories in particular a rather good barometer or sometimes even harbinger of the changes in the perception of gender roles over the last hundred years or so and I’d class some of my own favourites in the genre as ‘feminist women’s novels of action’. What I have noticed, too, though lately is that quite a few of these formerly empowered and empowering serial female detective figures have suddenly become vulnerable victims of violence, rape and murder themselves, which doesn’t seem to augur well and may well reflect a conscious or unconscious sense of impotence in the face of so much present violence and conservative backlash…..."

And I do know from having gone to an MLA session on these books, that in the last decade they have been picked up by gay and lesbian readers and turned into satiric and sexy camp.

So I do mourn the passing of the earlier pictures, e.g.,

and think these later covers are participating in the reactionary overtly inflexible sexual stereotypes of modern popular culture which are perhaps increasingly influencing girls' mystery and women's detective fiction.



( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 5th, 2009 01:14 pm (UTC)
I should say lest I be misunderstood, I know that mysteries can also expose the world for what it is and we can read round the usual ending: finally I've profited from Alison Light's analysis of Agatha Christie in her _Forever England_, been thinking about Susan Hill's powerful mystery books, and have been reading about Winston Graham who created a powerful series of historical novels set in 18th century Cornwall whihc were made into a 3 years TV costume drama series (Robin Ellis in the lead underdog-, romantic-hero role, something like Stewart Granger, not the macho male originally but deep feeling &c) and in his mystery fiction it's said he creates the deeply uneasy uncomfortable world, but that is not the way with these popular syndicate produced fictions (nor TV). We have ever to discriminate the trash from the good stuff.

We were discussing the mediocre in my classes and bringing our our ambiguous responses, how we are drawn in, how this stuff affects us for good (self-esteem is helped by these girls' books) and ill (classism racism materialism exclusionary practices are not).

Nov. 5th, 2009 06:06 pm (UTC)
Joan Smith recommended
From Nick:

The girl sleuths blog was excellent. Joan Smith is a British feminist and leftist - she has written both fiction and non-fiction; her Misogynies which falls under the latter category I read years ago and thought absolutely brilliant - in fact I will take the very rare step of recommending it to you Ellen as I think you would really enjoy (that is possibly the wrong word as it is not intended to amuse) it ; I do not know if it is available in the US. I can send it to you if it is unobtainable (though I would like it back :)). She also wrote a series of mystery novels featuring a feminist protagonist - Loretta Lawson - from 1987-95; these were excellent and in UK terms ground-breaking. Unfortunately her latest novel - What Will Survive (2007) - I found very disappointing (review at ). I note from her Wikipedia entry that the latest update notes that in 2009 she supported the arrest of Polanski - to come back to that subject.
Nov. 5th, 2009 06:07 pm (UTC)
More on Joan Smith
In the your blog you mention not being familiar with Joan Smith's books. I have read at least one that comes to mind, 'A Masculine Ending', a play on words and a funny, feminist story of murder at a linguists' conference in France debating the masculine orientation of French grammar and such.

She's also a journalist who wrote this comment on the Polanski case in the Guardian, for example:\

Nov. 6th, 2009 04:59 pm (UTC)
Alice Foy (Nancy 's French name)
From Catherine on WWTTA:

"Dear Ellen and all,

Great post! It brought back fond childhood memories, though I was shocked by the bimboization of Nancy in recent covers. Sad.

Here's a link to older and newer French covers for Nancy Drew, or Alice Roy, as she is known in French translation:

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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