misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Bobbie Ann Mason's The Girl Sleuth, with a potted history of children's literature

A photograph by Dorothy Lange, Girls at Lincoln Bench School, Malheur County Oregon, October 12, 1939

       . . . .Could you shrink from so simple an adventure? No, no, you will proceed into this small vaulted room, and through this into several others, without perceiving anything very remarkable in either.  In one perhaps there may be a dagger, in another a few drops of blood, and in a third the remains of some instrument of torture; but there being nothing in all this out of the common way, and your lamp being nearly exhausted, you will return towards your own apartment.  In repassing through the small vaulted room, however, your eyes will be attracted towards a large, old-fashioned cabinet of ebony and gold . . .  Impelled by an irresistible presentiment, you will eagerly advance to it, unlock its folding doors, and search into every drawer--but for some time without discovering anything of importance--perhaps nothing but a considerable hoard of diamonds (Northanger Abbey, Chapter 20)

She found 100 ivory elephants in the cabinet (from David Godine illustrations)

Dear friends,

A few weeks ago I discovered that two of my old blogs on girls' books did not make it to my new one. I liked those and grieved to think they are lost forever. So I thought to myself I would at least rewrite about a couple of books on girls' books. One I'm teaching this term is Bobbie Ann Mason's Girl Sleuth: In Search of Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton and Cherry Ames:  one could say I teach courses nowadays by assigning a few of my favorite books. This class is Advanced Composition in the Humanities class.  I hope to add blogs about women's books particularly connected to Austen or her era as I go along.

Sitting on Cherry Ames, among others

My love of such books remains under the sign of Austen's parody in Northanger Abbey where Henry Tilney imagines Catherine Morland getting up at midnight with a fragile light like all true gothic heroines and goes in search of adventure.

Bobbie Ann Mason goes in search of lost time and tires to remember her experience of reading poplar books at the same time as she analyzes them from an adult and feminist perspective.  The basic  thesis of the book is that the impulse to be a detective, to solve a mystery which is often equated with liberation and adventure turns out to be way to tidy up the world, to mark it safe for the present powerful establishment and retain the status quo -- so her book is not only about children's literature, since it's about the very popular genre of mystery stories, she also reveals the norms and suppositions behind these.  And not just in US but versions for different countries (Sue Barton, nurse replaces Cherry Ames), plus these books travel. I've had young women from Nigeria tell me their favorite book was Nancy Drew one and bring in an old copy printed in Europe. Presumably shipped to Africa.

What appears to "tweak" the present world in a more liberal or enlightened or humane direction actually reinforced the present establishment and its ideas.   While this is so obvious in the earliest series and the original versions of the later series, it is still true of today's syndicated series books. The girl--or boy, from the The Hardy Boys or present syndicated popular adventure books for boys-who seems free and powerful if anything but; or he is policeman or policewoman holding up the present order. Like detectives of popular formulaic detective fiction whose great wisdom provides the happy ending so shows universe to be a good place.

Further, the morality of these books which in each generation seems somewhat forward looking is really of reflection of what the average person is thinking according to the public discourse (what gets into the papers, what the average teacher says, syllabuses constructed by education department and boards of education).  They are controlled by what publishers are willing to publish and parents willing to buy.

Where once a vein of unashamed snobbery and a view of women which held their lives were to be fulfilled in the home caring for children and being supported by husband prevailed we now have a new ideal ("political correctness").   Boys in these books were to be manly:  the sort of values one sees afflicts the men in Swift's Last Orders.  It would appear we are for all people being equal; enlightened or more varying and wider-ranging ideas are asserted. But the reality of the story lines shows us that a mere veneer is being used under which we are encouraged to despise the poor, those with crude manners, the old distrust of "sex" is kept up.  Any indulgence from an older strict morality is punished.  We are encouraged to admire glamor and glittering prizes and upper class manners just as strongly as ever.

Anything which might disturb the order--such as even a belief in the supernatural--is explained away.  Mason sees supernatural as main way in which these books embody the "unknown."  The girl goes around the world with a broom sweeping "evil" away.

She gives context and purpose of her book in her autobiographical preface. This is a time when critics are studying popular culture; children have often preferred pop books to force-fed classics.  To return to these gives relevance to early periods of our lives where we spent time in popular culture without thinking about it. Our hidden lives.

With the very earliest of these popular books (Honey Bunch), we are in the period before a lot of money can be made, and in a period where only a minority of children went to school beyond age 12.  Some terrible racist books come from this era:  Little Black Sambo for example.  The Bobbsey Twins offer fictional nests, escapes from bullying, unkindness poverty and trouble. Today people are more conscious but we have groups strong to repress books that are outside their values from getting into the schools.

It's interesting that from the very beginning there was an attempt to show girls doing things, individual girl's brave struggles.  I think the idea we have the Victorians all despised women and wanted to keep them wilting flowers is overdrawn.  First of all many women worked since only a small percentage were middle class and could stay home.  They did not work in professional occupations, and it was thought to be for the family.  Stayed home when they could.   Staying home was a middle class ideal and influential. You were ashamed of yourself in part, and working class women did heavy work, for little pay often. Written to a formula but children did love them Girls did things, but they were upper crust. Money from daddy, girls upper crust   Stereotyped roles for sexes:  Boys on a single-minded mission to become manly; girls had three episodes in their lives: menustuation, marriage, motherhood. They off escapism with security.   Nancy Drew did stand out.  Strong accomplished and seemed independent  No mother about.

Nancy Drew. 

The key to the Nancy Drew image and the popularity of the figure as Bobbie Ann Mason sees it is not only does she satisfy two contradictory or opposed stereotypes, but the sheer snob appeal of the figure.  The figure appeals to the longings for the power, trappings, lifestyle, and aura of the upper middle class.  Not aristocracy.  Nancy is not Lady Nancy.  Again and again throughout the chapter everything Mason talks about relates back to Nancy's class status. The sex is strong but it's insidious and not recognized. All those who are evil are somehow sexy.  Nancy is endlessly repressing Ned.  He is an emasculated figure.

I'd like to admit these books were part of what made me idolize England. My favorite books were ones I found in the library, and not the more recent paperback vintage. My father was a reader and told me about books he knew:  Mary Poppins in the Park, Secret Garden, Dickens, Jane Austen.  So I thought maybe an English gentleman was the very best kind of husband a girl could have. I married a version:  poor boy who went to one of these schools as a day boy, hated it, but was himself incultured that way.

A haunted maze-garden, from a 1984 Shades of Darkness series (a Christman story, "The Maze")

Judy Bolton was not written by a syndicate and then rewritten every 10 years like Nancy Drew and Bobbsey Twins and others. The strongest section in the book is that on Judy Bolton and Trixie Beldon because here Mason is more ambivalent and finds more genuinely  positive elements in these series.  In the case of the Bolton books there was an author; she hasn't let them be rewritten into pap.  They do show Judy marrying and after a while the male, Peter, is the central agent:

He appears on most of the covers of the new series (alas it's being rewritten and marketed)

Margaret Sutton. She is willing to talk of the appeal of these books in ways that acknowledge deep-seated needs and desires in human nature without castigating them.  Books have individuality; some real imagery and scenes. Such as love of gothic:  this is a kind of romance that has long been favorite among women, though it's not fair to say men don't read gothics.  They do, but not quite the same kind.  Stephen King is a gothic.  Male gothic is more violent; women go for mysteries and ghosts; attics are part of this female gothic:  a place to escape to. She finds good humane values in the Bolton books too.Trixie Beldon:  except for nonsense about how miserable it is to be rich (all these servants around cluttering up the place), she makes a good case.

Glamour Girls:  up in the clouds, in hospitals, in ad agencies, in the movies. Rich picturesque places far away.  Beverly Gray, college girl (ivy league):  a moment in which the hack writer writes real prose with feeling, thought, individuality at least minimally there.  Helen Wells's Cherry Ames, Vicki Barr, better written, more stylish, more thought out, p 109:  Cherry Ames has original source in World War Two fervor.  Vicki Barr stories really about creating homes for herself, males are brothers and fathers. Connie Blair, most sexist, least inspiring.

Recent junior novels and praise for them shows you can't trust views of committees of teachers.  Committee choices of books are often conventoinal; they alienate you from your real self in other ways.  Problem of self-alienation due to norms we can't and really don't want to meet.  Betty Cavana books: we meet girls trapped by sex roles.  Mason herself wrote a series called the Carson girls

The crux of the problem:  these books have not gone beyond Louisa May Alcott, though this is a picture of favorite book from my childhood and I loved these illustrations:

The girl sleuth is perpetually a girl, perpetually disconnected, a virgin or unmarried.  There is a need for a heroine who becomes a woman who is an adult. Imposter Tea:  Nancy Drew series continues to thrive on descriptions of gourmet and luxurious eating:  latest book is a cookbook,; some of the more obvious snobbery and racism cut; at the same time characters more simplified.  Carson Drew still the reward. New emphasis on team work brings us back where we started, Outdoor Girls Series feature emerging youth class, privileged by early sophistication and postponed adulthood, p 136

Truth is fundamental values of American society changed very little from the beginning of the 20th to the beginning of the 21st century:  no challenge, no healthy truths about sex and our hidden lives straight. In Mason's early career:  she tried writing this kind of stuff; she went to New York to work on a magazine. She went on to write Shiloh and Other Stories (remarkably effective reflections of lower middle class people living in Kentucky); Clear Springs, autobiography, effective story of a vet who is disabled coming home to live with a niece, In Country. A movie was made.  She explores American here and now, the middle part of the country. She really really read for role models in this manner. She rejoiced and felt better when they read of powerful women who assert themselves against struggle. Feminist movement has freed women to talk of these things in ways they never did before, but not to go to the center of the problem which is sexuality and the taboos and contradictary pressures put on them.

Flaws in book.   She idealizes the workplace.   The modern workplace is the product of capitalism.  That she does not acknowledge she is arguing to create more people deeply engaged with the profit, vanity, pride, money, ambition motive is curious.  That she never talks about losses and gains.  In every social rearrangement there are winners and losers. There are only so many places on top.  She doesn't go into marraige: the books don't, but she allows us to skim over it as do the books. So central thing insisted that women do is not explored:  recent Jane Austen bio movies insisted she was miserable because she never married.  There's no evidence for that whatsoever, much on the contrary. She could have a writing life. She could have a writing life. however, marriage is satisfying and having children can be too. It's an occupation respected by society (if not paid) and she does not knowledge this nor the difficulties women have (very real) in going to work and caring for a family.

I would say outlook of book is upper middle class in its assumptions of people's expectations and what they can get from workaday world. She assumes work outside the home is fullfilling.  That when you "go out" there you get freedom.  There is sense of this. She need not go on about it, but there should be some acknowledgement. She also discounts too strongly the escapist motive which is important for adults and children. 

She is a wonderful writer I should add and her Clear Springs a moving memoir of her growing up in Kentucky.

Still I think the book is an eye-opener.  It was and still is genuinely ground-breaking.  The only one of its kind I know of.  It makes the reader think about what books he or she really might have read in childhood and why.  We can recognize ourselves. She's right that books like this for boys and girls have played an immense psychological role in the history of children and their culture and thus formed us.  A good similar book is Deborah O'Keefe's Good Girl Messages


Remedios Varos, A Paradise for Cats

A brief history of children's literature:    Earliest children's books by which I mean books written for children specifically begin around the turn of the 18th century, 1790's, around time of French revolution. Before that children given Bible, Aesop's Fables, chapbooks with stories that we would recognize as folk and fairy tale.  Seven with one bound.  Jack, the Giant Killer.  Snow White and Rose Red.  Also tiny readers to go with chalk slates.  They were also in Europe given the Bible to read, but the Bible is hard, has a lot of sex and violence and it was more they were told stories from the Bible (like you would have a child's book today)

Attitudes towards childhood changed; new enlightened notions about development, about children not being little adults.  Important in this were ideas of Rousseau and various educationalists in 17th through 18th century. which only slowly altered European middle class households in the 19th.   First books were however, highly didactic.  Goody Two-Shoes. Eric or Little by Little.  We would find them insufferably moral. Since Victorians demanded their novels be sex-free, some of the novelists' novels could be read by 11 year olds (David Copperfield), also interest in childhood makes novelists choose to tell stories from time of hero or heroine's younger life.

Nineteenth century sees these patterns: In school upper class boys learned Latin and Greek; middling classes went to day schools to learn practical things like reading, writing, 4 kinds of arithmetical procedures, and sew and crafts. Around 11-12 some children graduated into adult reading, many stopped reading.   Boys began university which was often professionally oriented (law, medicine, the church) around 12.  Other boys apprenticed, went to sea.  Girls did not. Stayed home, at best by mid-19th century went to finishing school. The great real aim was to protect her virginity for the male; keep her sheltered and obedient.

Early children's classics of later 19th century are written as labor of love by people who are themselves people who write for adults.  Alice in Wonderland written for a real little girl as a present; Beatrice Potter's first books written for a child-friend. o money in it.  Not an industry.

As standard of living goes up and public education spread in 1870's we get first longer books published for money for children.  Time of The Secret Garden.  Wind in the Willosw.  The Little Princess actually was a play originally.  One could call this still the golden age of children's literature since it was not quite an industry, not truly commercialized, and yet books being produced. However, unless you got them in stallments in magazine form only the elite child could have them. In fact in the 1930s such magazines Girls' Own and boys' version sold popularly.  These are rather crude; it's in the book we find more complexity and more playfulness as in Winnie the Pooh typical, first written for child, and then published.  Period may be said to have lasted into World War II. Basically adults have far more disposable income and the coming of the paperback brought down the price of books.
Children's literature as a industry born after that.  Beginnings seen in syndicated books like Honey Bunch and Hardy books, and in magazines for boys and girls.  Really took off since 1950's.  Since the 1970s and 80s we get a prize culture.  Books are awarded prizes, very often these are (as in adult marketplace, inventions to sell books by publishers)  Rich and fertile.  Some wonderful books for children are written nowadays.  But a lot of trash and junk.  Some mediocre.

Adults control what can be written and shape it:  children seen as investment.  And dreams we have later on grow out of these, for me there is an indirect link by way of Dorothy Sayers and Harriet Walters as Harriet Vane that leads to Petherbridge as Lord Peter with his brilliance, sensitivity, humanity and butter-colored hair

Twilight with a rose


Tags: children's-girls' books, politics, women's art, women's novels

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