10 April 2015


Reading Diary: When Patty Went to College by Jean Webster

"Listen, girls. You mustn't tell a soul, because it's a great secret. We're going to plant the class tree tonight, and I am chairman of the ceremonies. Everything is ready--the costumes are finished and the plans all arranged so that the class can get out to the place without being seen. The freshmen haven't a suspicion that it's going to be tonight. But they have found out that I'm chairman of the committee, and, if you please,"--Mildred's eyes grew wide with excitement,--"they've been tracking me for a week. They have relays of girls appointed to watch me, and I can't stir without a freshman tagging along behind. When I went down to order the ice-cream, there was one right at my elbow, and I had to pretend that I'd come for soda-water. I have simply had to let the rest of the committee do all of the work, because I was so afraid the freshmen would find out the time. It was funny at first, but I am getting nervous. It's horrible to think that you're being watched all the time. I feel as if I'd committed a murder, and keep looking over my shoulder like--like Macbeth."

Before Jerusha "Judy" Abbot (and Sallie McBride!) got to go to college, Patty Wyatt was there. And she was pretty fun! Although we can't quite say that they all crossed paths while at school, I'd like to think that Patty was exactly the sort of confident senior who would have made poor freshman Judy feel like an interloper. Not because she would have bullied our beloved asylum orphan, but because she takes her world of culture, learning, and class trees entirely for granted, while for Judy, it is something completely new and amazing.

It is something new and amazing to me, too: there are so many things about Patty's life as a middle class American girl at the turn of the twentieth century that I naturally find very strange. You might say that I am the Judy of When Patty Went to College . . . or at least the Judy of its reading. =P Which makes you, dear readers, the "Daddy" figure who gets all my letters! So let's talk about those trees . . .

It turns out that Vassar students started planting "class trees" in 1868--a tradition that had acquired an edge of inter-class rivalry by the time Webster participated in it as part of the Class of 1901. It had become a matter of honour for the sophomores planting their tree to keep the ceremony absolutely secret from the freshmen . . . and an irresistible challenge for the freshmen to crash! The tradition continued until World War II, when someone made the season-wise, century-foolish decision to keep things more sober during wartime. But the postwar classes never really regained interest in the old ritual; and Vassar students of our own generations are more likely to fund some new landscaping or to refurbish existing infrastructure. Sic transit gloria collegii puellarum!

Did you know that, Daddy dear readers? Until the conspiracy of Chapter XIV got me googling, I hadn't! Now, I'm a reasonably smart reader (I hope!), so I managed to figure out what the ceremony meant and only needed to do the research to check my understanding . . . but as much fun as I had doing that, I knew that When Patty Went to College isn't the sort of book that survives if most readers need to meet it more than halfway.

Remember last year, when I concluded that Webster's Dear Enemy didn't become a classic because it was a style that went out of fashion? We don't expect modern women to wear their great-grandmothers' clothes, so why should we expect them to read their great-grandmothers' best-sellers? Well, this earlier novel of Webster's has only refined that opinion. For as I was reading it, I couldn't help being reminded of teen sitcoms--and we know how much higher the "turnover" rate is for those! As high-quality and enduring as Boy Meets World has proven to be, that didn't stop studios from creating Drake and Josh one decade later--or for that matter, Girl Meets World the decade after that. =P Though perhaps it has taught them not to write in anything that would date their shows too much. That would be a shame, though, because those details from "real time" are also what make stories so much richer. I'd much rather get a story set in a world that is already fading away than a story set in some timeless vacuum . . . but I also have to admit that the former requires a level of work from the audience that not everyone considers leisure.

Anyway, there's definitely a sitcom quality to When Patty Went to College--which shouldn't be surprising! Before we had TV episodes, we had episodic novels. Not every storyteller is a Scheherazade or a Vince Gilligan, capable of knitting elaborate tapestries out of a single labyrinth-defying plot thread. But those who can't knit, can find metaphors in other fabric arts: this novel, for instance, is clearly a granny square afghan. Just not one that a post-WWII reader would want in her college dorm room. (Come to think of it, what were girls reading in the late 1940s?)

* * * * *

I'm starting to think that I need a proper name for these "reading projects" in which I explore a dead author's out-of-print works. Frances Hodgson Burnett got to be first, after I learned that her oeuvre was more extensive than her three famous children's novels . . . and she was almost the last after the "forgotten" book I had picked at random to read proved that it deserved to be lost to memory. =P But then I reread Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs (See my Reading Diary entry!) and remembered that I had always been curious about its sequel, the less successful Dear Enemy. And while the former on its own had always been "just" Classic Children's Literature to me, both of them together became the foundation of a thesis.

Though I started When Patty Went to College shortly after finishing Dear Enemy, it didn't hold my interest at the time. And that would have been it for my "Jean Webster reading project," had I not made CLEAR my word for 2015 stumbled upon some critical reviews of Daddy-Long-Legs that all but called Jervis Pendleton the Edward Cullen of the 1910s. (LOL!!!) I had already come out in defence of "Jervie" in my very first Book Boyfriend of the Week post, but it would have been more fun to blog it if I had known about the "sputter potential." ;-)

Anyway, I'm going to proceed with Just Patty now--the "prequel" which we might as well call "Before Patty Went to College". I just hope it doesn't also take a whole year to read. LOL! If you think of a name for my reading project, please let me know! =)

Image Source: When Patty Went to College by Jean Webster, b) Vassar class tree, Class of 1907


mrsdarwin said...

When we moved into our house, we had a chance to assess the tastes of the previous owners (and of their children who'd left these particular books of mom and dad's to the tender mercies of the next comers). There were some real finds (a early American hardcover edition of LOTR!) and some solid classics, but there were also a lot of novels that were Very Important the year they were written. I flipped through many of them, and I have to say: they were rightly forgotten. An author needs to deal with more than the pressing topic of the day to be timeless. But you're right that being grounded in a time period does help a story to remain vibrant -- as long as it feels like a real slice of slice, and not creampuffery. I wonder if the real reason Daddy Long Legs has endured better than Webster's other novels is Judy's particular situation of coming to education and privilege from conditions of real disadvantage, combined with the Cinderellaesque aspects of the story, plus the intrigue of the hidden benefactor and the good-enough romance. Patty, on the other hand, sounds like nothing deeper than coed fun and games, told in a way that binds it to its time without transcending it.

Enbrethiliel said...


When we moved out of our old home, we had to dispose of several boxes of old books that had belonged to various people from different generations of the family. They ran the gamut from Danielle Steele Romances to Edgar Cayce biographies. Had we left them behind, the new owners would not have been impressed by our reading tastes at all! But in that case, I'd hope they'd understand that the books that are taken along (and I still have about 500 in "storage" at two friends' houses) are always more indicative than those that are left behind.

I'm in the middle of Webster's Just Patty now and am so impressed by how funny it is! One thing about Daddy-Long-Legs that always left me skeptical is Judy's supposed talent as a writer, because her letters to "Daddy" are pretty ordinary. Well, if they had been half as funny and scintillating as Webster's writing in the "Patty books," then I wouldn't have murmured so much! =P Anyway, I agree that the Cinderella elements are the best thing Daddy-Long-Legs has got going for it; the second-strongest thing being what a friend has described as the "unbalanced" romance. (Hmmmm. That's probably a Cinderella element, too!) I've already pointed out the similarity to Twilight, and last weekend, I also saw a parallel to the love story in The Time Traveler's Wife.

Emily J. said...

I have to admit I just read Daddy Long Legs last year - and only because it was featured in the Mother-Daughter Book Club series I read with my daughter. I thought it was entertaining, but predictable. But Jean Webster might have a mini-revival because of this contemporary feature?
I also have a couple of my grandmother's books - "Shepherd of the Hills" and "First Violin" - which are interesting as a bit of history but forgettable. If you had a smackdown comparing Webster to say, her contemporaries Willa Cather or Katherine Mansfield, the competition would be too unfair.

Sheila said...

If you like this era, but would like the books written for an audience that doesn't "get it" -- you definitely *must* read the Betsy-Tacy books. Especially the high school ones; they're the greatest. I would have loved a childhood like that -- if I couldn't get Laura Ingalls' childhood.

I think schools today would be a lot more fun if they had, for instance, societies that competed with one another (like Harry Potter! Only in B-T they are called Zetamathion and Philomathion) and clever little traditions like that class tree. How did we lose those? (Answer: zoning, consolidation, and an overall hatred of tradition in postwar America. Sigh.)

Enbrethiliel said...


Emily -- One of my friends and I may be the only ones in the world who were completely surprised when "Daddy's" identity is finally revealed! LOL!

How did you know that the magic word is "smackdown"? ;-) If I were making a bracket, I'd pit Webster against other writers whose target readers were teenage girls. Webster has only one novel that aims a little older, and it's definitely Chick Lit rather than more serious fiction. So there's another sense in which it would be too unfair to compare her to Willa Cather or Katherine Mansfield.

The modern writer whom Webster reminds of the most is Meg Cabot, because she has written a mix of YA and Chick Lit, and has a reputation for being funny. (I haven't read her myself.)

Sheila -- The early 1900s is definitely a fun era to read about! If a time machine zapped me back then (and into a reasonably developed area!), I wouldn't be too traumatised! And the Betsy-Tacy books have been on my radar since you brought them up during the Laura Ingalls Wilder readalong. ;-)

What I'm most interested in at this time, though, are the out-of-print or otherwise more obscure "siblings" of classic novels. I was thinking of tackling Johanna Spyri's children's books next, or the rest of the Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel series.

Sheila said...

There is more Scarlet Pimpernel out there?!

COUNT ME IN. If I can find them. ;)

Enbrethiliel said...


I think most of them are in the public domain, so we're both in luck!

But now I'm paralysed with my usual indecision . . . Do I continue with I Will Repay, which was written right after The Scarlet Pimpernel, or with Sir Percy Leads the Band, which was the fourth to be written but is chronologically second???