12 April 2014

+JMJ+

Reading Diary: Dear Enemy by Jean Webster

You've heard of Daddy-Long-Legs (and read my Reading Diary entry on it), but what about its "sequel" Dear Enemy? And did you know that Jean Webster, whose most famous novel has stayed in print for over 100 years and inspired several stage and film productions, wrote other books that have since been forgotten? In the spirit of last year's Frances Hodgson Burnett reading project, I have decided to give Webster's lesser-known novels a try, starting with the only other one I had heard of before this idea took root.

Dear Judy:

Your letter is here. I have read it twice, and with amazement. Do I understand that Jervis has given you, for a Christmas present, the making over of the John Grier Home into a model institution, and that you have chosen me to disburse the money? Me--I, Sallie McBride, the head of an orphan asylum! My poor people, have you lost your senses, or have you become addicted to the use of opium, and is this the raving of two fevered imaginations? I am exactly as well fitted to take care of one hundred children as to become the curator of a zoo.

And you offer as bait an interesting Scotch doctor? My dear Judy,—likewise my dear Jervis,--I see through you!

This time, Judy Abbot is not writing the letters, but receiving them. Well, some of them. And our faithful, chatty correspondent is her friend and former roommate Sallie McBride, who gets her own fish-out-of-water story when she leaves her rich family to be the administrator of Judy's old orphanage. And you know what? It's a really fun read!

So the question is begging to be asked . . . Why is it, in a world where girls have continued to fall in love with Judy Abbot, Modern American Cinderella, and where their older versions have turned the Working Girl into a uniquely American archetype, hardly anyone remembers one of the original Working Girls in American literature, Sallie McBride?

Some historical context . . .
In between writing Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy,
Jean Webster marched for the vote

Was it really--as Michael Crichton suggested to us in State of Fear--just that some of Webster's beliefs have become embarrassing? Off the top of my head, I can cite Sallie's liberal view of divorce, her support for the Temperance movement, and her fascination with eugenics. (Hi, Stilwell!) In a letter to one of her suitors, a politician, we read . . .

It seems that feeble-mindedness is a very hereditary quality, and science isn't able to overcome it. No operation has been discovered for introducing brains into the head of a child who didn't start with them. And the child grows up with, say, a nine-year brain in a thirty-year body, and becomes an easy tool for any criminal he meets. Our prisons are one-third full of feeble-minded convicts. Society ought to segregate them on feeble-minded farms, where they can earn their livings in peaceful menial pursuits, and not have children. Then in a generation or so we might be able to wipe them out.

Did you know all that? It's very necessary information for a politician to have . . . It's also very necessary information for me to have. There are eleven of these chicks that I suspect a bit . . .

I came up here to make over this asylum in such little details as fresh air and food and clothes and sunshine, but, heavens! you can see what problems I am facing. I've got to make over society first, so that it won't send me sub-normal children to work with. Excuse all this excited conversation; but I've just met up with the subject of feeble-mindedness, and it's appalling--and interesting. It is your business as a legislator to make laws that will remove it from the world . . .

Apparently, it took World War II for popular readership to be repelled by such a passage, though eugenics had its (embarrassingly unfashionable) enemies before then, too. But let's not pat ourselves on the back just for having been born in an age in which it's uncool to segregate people according to genetics. Especially not if we can't really see why, one hundred years ago, reasonably intelligent people who liked to read would have been totally okay with dividing people into "normal" and "sub-normal" camps--in the latter's case, quite literally a concentration camp.

Squint if you have to, but surely you'll admit that it's quite realistic for a college-educated heroine to be sympathetic to self-supporting divorced women, be drawn into a political cause championed by the most charismatic female leaders of her day, and be interested in a veritable avalanche of "scientific" information on the right ways to choose a mate and to bring up children. Don't we ourselves meet many such women today? Heck, even I match that description somewhat! =P The details of the causes may change, but plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Plus, Sallie herself is adorable. She is loyal to her friends, motherly to the orphans, efficient with the employees, diplomatic with the trustees, and apparently the perfect mix of sweet and saucy with her suitors. And she does it all with domestic, feminine flair, insisting on cheerful colour schemes for the rooms and defending the "impractical" pastel dresses for the girls! Granted, her sense of humour makes her a bit insensitive--and she can trample all over another character's feelings without even realising it. Not a good thing, of course, but what I like is that this doubles as a character flaw and another peek into the social atmosphere of the 1910s. A peek which it's good for us to take because the 1910s can also serve as a mirror to our own age.

* * * * *

Anyway, yes, eugenics falling out of fashion had something to do with Dear Enemy being less fun to read. But I also think that there's a second significant reason, which is genre. For Dear Enemy is not as easily classified as Daddy-Long-Legs. The latter follows enough Boarding School Story conventions to hook fans of those popular "girls' books"--and these, combined with Judy's lack of worldly experience, make her a great heroine for much younger readers. And three years after her story became a huge hit, a lot of those girls would have been old enough to appreciate Sallie's post-college adventures in Dear Enemy, too. So far, so good. But a mere twenty years later, someone just discovering Webster would get both books at the same time . . . and might not be too ready to jump straight from the first one into its sequel.

At least that is what happened in my own reading. Take the literary trauma of falling in love with Louisa May Alcott's Little Men, only to want a no-fault divorce from its sequel Jo's Boys. The original fans of the March family had had to wait fifteen years to know "what happened next" for Plumfield's first "crop" of students--and I probably should have, too. =( Of course, Jo's Boys also happens to be awful. That doesn't help its case at all.

Then there were the adjustments I had to make for Susan Coolidge's Katy novels. It was easy to read What Katy Did and What Katy Did at School back-to-back: although the former is a Big Family Story and the latter is a Boarding School Story, both are still definitely children's books. But then Coolidge waited thirteen years to write What Katy Did Next--and as with the belated Jo's Boys, it shows. She might as well have let Katy age a decade, too, given the maturity of her heroine's original fans and the fact that she was just rewriting her own travel diary. And yes, that last bit is your hint that What Katy Did Next is also pretty bad on its own merits--though, in fairness, it also inspired a Locus Focus post.

And how could I forget my violent reaction to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling's fifth addition to what had hitherto been a Middle Grade series? Although I had actually waited longer than most others to read about the boy wizard's fifteenth year, the huge difference in tone between this novel and the previous installment was just too dissonant. And I'm not alone in thinking this: there's at least one set of parents in this world who happily gave their tweens the first four Harry Potter novels, but decided to wait several more years before letting The Order of the Phoenix into the family library. Incidentally, the fifth book also happens to have some of Rowling's crappiest writing ever. 

But this is where Dear Enemy diverges from these other cases: it's some very nice writing! It just isn't a children's book. Instead, it's a class of book I've never written about on Shredded Cheddar before today. And I assure you that I'm stunned to realise that Dear Enemy is . . . Chick Lit. =P

So forget about girl readers for a moment. Why didn't women readers keep passing Dear Enemy down through the generations? Or is it that they tried and failed? What if Chick Lit is meant to be momentary rather than enduring--like women's fleeting fashions rather than women's constant desire to be fashionable? Do the stories of one generation of women grow demode too quickly for even their own daughters? We can be fairly sure that books that were already classics for us will also stand up for future readers, but how do we spot a classic-to-be in our own time?

* * * * *

That parallel between popular literature and popular style is real, though I didn't quite see it until this week. Reading Dear Enemy was a little like playing dress-up in the gowns of 1915: crepe for some scenes, homespun for others; fun all around. I could feel the novel's themes like the weight and drape of fabric--and I liked that, even as I knew I'd never wear those clothes outside of play . . . and even as I recognised that some of the fashions were objectively bad

I'm not drawn to the Chick Lit of my own time (or Chick Lit in general), but based on this experience, I think it would be a very good exercise, once in a while, to read "women's novels" from other eras. I don't expect to be convinced of their ideas, but I want look honestly at how they saw the world . . . and how I might have seen it, had I been in their place.


Image Source: a) Dear Enemy by Jean Webster, b) Official programme of the Women's Suffrage parade of 1913, c) Jo's Boys by Louisa May Alcott, d) What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge

5 comments:

Stephanie Robinson said...

What an interesting post. I haven't read anything by this author- but I have heard of her and been curious about her first book you talked about on your blog. I agree with you that it would be interesting to read chick lit from different time periods. I am sure it would be quite telling. I am glad you gave this one a try and that it gave you some things to think about.

Thanks for sharing.
~Jess

DMS said...

Just saw I was signed in on the computer as a different name. Woops. :) It was me.
~Jess

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Hi, Jess! Happy Easter! =)

Since "Chick Lit" is such a new term, I was a little surprised to see a hundred-year-old book matching the conventions. But wasn't one criticism of novels, when they first became popular, that only women really liked them? There are probably a lot of these books that have since been forgotten!

Poking through books from "the attic" can be fun, but it also makes me wonder whether this is the fate of all Chick Lit novels. Or is it possible for a Chick Lit novel to become an enduring classic?

NoelCT said...

It's always fun digging into the more obscure works of classic authors. As you mention, there can at times be very obvious reasons why those books fell by the wayside instead of carrying to the heights of their siblings, but the bonus is they give a much deeper view of who the author is that one can't get through their successes alone. :)

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

It is a fun project, but a bigger time investment than I had imagined it would be! Which is why I haven't even finished that other Jean Webster novel I decided to blog about . . . =P