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,
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?)
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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
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