In 1973, having finished a doctoral dissertation on Nabokov, Bobbie Ann Mason found herself compulsively rereading her favourite childhood books: series fiction about daring girl detectives, especially Nancy Drew. Admitting to such low tastes in the Seventies was like confessing a fondness for Hello! magazine today. Graduate schools regarded an interest in popular culture as a sign of intellectual frivolity, and demanded Leavisite vows (or appearances) of poverty and high culture. I still remember the shock and disdain of two senior professors whom my husband and I invited to join us at the original screen version of Village of the Damned; they restricted their movie-going to the annual Bergman film, always sufficiently depressing to count as Art. Thus Mason is quaintly self-conscious and defensive about her tastes, pointing out that while historians of children’s literature dismiss the series books as ‘bad habits’, they constitute the primary reading that shaped the desires and fantasies of millions of American girls; ‘even Lolita must have read Nancy Drew.’ In fact, 1973 was something of a turning-point for popular culture; Mason proudly notes that the ‘august MLA’ has just scheduled a seminar on juvenile series books. Anticipating the coming rise of cultural studies, Mason predicts the emergence of Scholars of Relevant Trivia, who say: ‘it’s okay for literate people to like kitsch.’
Now that kitsch’s time has come, and Mason is established as a prize-winning American regional novelist, the University of Georgia Press has reissued The Girl Sleuth,her engaging study of several of the most popular 20th-century American series novels for girls: the family stories about Honey Bunch and the Bobbsey Twins; the girl detectives Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton and Trixie Belden; and the ‘career girls’ Cherry Ames, Vicki Barr and Beverly Gray. These are books which girls inherited, and which no boy would be caught dead reading. In her Introduction to this new edition, Mason describes the stories, most of which were developed between the Depression and the Fifties, as metaphors for a vanishing American childhood and perhaps even a vanished America. In retrospect, she now sees the mystery stories, along with jigsaw puzzles and quilt-piecing, as influences that led her ‘to delight in the intricate designs of fiction’. While much has changed in these two decades, Mason still believes that stories about the girl sleuth deserve a privileged position in American fiction. In 1973, she argued that ‘the girl sleuth is the supreme role given to females in juvenile fiction, the role which allows more freedom than any career.’ Even today, she still sees herself as ‘a girl sleuth, setting my magnifying glass onto words and images and the great mysteries of life’.
Indeed, The Girl Sleuth is most interesting for what Mason tells us about herself along the way; the book is really a portrait of the artist as a young girl. Growing up in relative poverty in rural Kentucky on a hardscrabble farm with a vegetable garden, ‘endless weeds’ and no furnace, Mason looked to the series books for glimpses of middle-class American culture, city life and the world beyond. These stories shaped her dreams of plenty and her longings for travel and experience; she still has ‘recurring food dreams where I stand in a cafeteria line, and have to choose from a thousand beautiful foods and by the time I get done choosing it’s time to wake up and I don’t get to eat the food.’ At the same time, the novels’ images of femininity are both liberated and constrained; as a teenager, Mason dreams that she was ‘a prostitute in a cream-puff shop, an old-fashioned soda shop/tea room right out of the Nancy Drew books I had been reading’.
The series books were hardly feminist; they reflected the materialist, gender-bound, even racist values of their era. ‘Cotton picking is a healthful exercise,’ a plantation owner assures the visiting Bobbsey Twins, as they watch the merry black servants at work. Mason sees the Shirley-Templeish Honey Bunch series as promoting an especially pernicious model for feminine behaviour. ‘Honey Bunches’ are little girls from four to eight, nymphets ‘with a built-in chastity belt’, programmed for flirtatious cuteness. The affluent Bobbsey Twins, whose series began in 1904, are less coy, but also bound to a smug social hierarchy which Mason calls the Great Chain of Bobbsey, where success comes from kowtowing to higher authority, and accepting service from those below.
Honey Bunch and the Bobbseys were young children who led fairly placid lives, with trips and travel providing most of the plot-line, and only the odd puzzle or mystery to liven up the day. Sixteen-year-old Nancy Drew, who made her literary debut in 1929, was the first real sleuth in the series books. Even in 1933, in the depths of the Depression, Macy’s sold six thousand Nancy Drews at Christmas, and they had sold sixty million copies worldwide by 1975. Nancy is the perfect teenage princess, ‘as cool as Mata Hari and as sweet as Betty Crocker’. The surrogate hostess for her widowed father, Nancy does not seem to go to school, but spends her time alternating debutante pursuits – tea dances, calls, antiquing – with detection, pursuing various thieves, con men and kidnappers from the lower classes, men with names like Rudy Raspin and Mr Warte, who ‘want to upset the élitist Wasp order’. Seemingly fearless, multi-talented and mature, Nancy is also invariably ‘dainty’. To Mason, she represents the ambivalence of 20th-century women, both ‘protected and free’. In later series, the career girls Cherry, Vicki and Beverly extended the boundaries of feminine ambition a bit more, aspiring to be either nurses or airline hostesses. But solving mysteries was the real outlet for female intelligence and daring, offering much more freedom than any of the available ‘careers’.
In describing her mesmerised reading of these tales of juvenile detection, Mason presents herself as a kind of Kentucky Catherine Morland, desperately longing to find some clues and solve some mysteries of her own. She longs to follow the girlish heroines into their magical world where footprints are always ‘freshly made, like cookies’, in the snow. ‘I looked for footprints until I was blue in the face,’ Mason writes; in Kentucky, where the snow quickly turned to mud, they were hard to find. In 1951, with a girlfriend, she formed a detectives’ club.
I longed with all my heart to solve a mystery. I sniffed for clues like a starved sleuthhound. If only I could find a cryptic note, a lost love letter in a hollow oak, a quaint genealogical enigma behind an emerald embedded in the eye of an old figurine in the attic! I eavesdropped lustily for the secrets of thieves and searched for footprints and signet rings, but all I ever found was an old tin can and a twisted cigarette wrapper in the woods – the case of the phantom litterbugs.
The analogies to Jane Austen’s parodic female Gothic are not really very far afield. In the Nancy Drew stories, ‘all mansions are haunted’; they are juvenile, Americanised forms of the haunted castle of classic female Gothic, where the heroine searches for the mystery of femininity itself. This coded search accounts for the ‘mythic’ quality in stories that seem otherwise stereotyped and banal. Like the heroines of Mrs Radcliffe’s archetypal stories, Nancy is motherless, and in novel after novel, her quest leads her to secret rooms, hidden chambers, treasure-chests and jewel-boxes. Discoveries of secret compartments, Mason notes, are a recurring scene in the stories which she now recognises as ‘a celebration of masturbation’: “‘I can feel something with my fingers!” Nancy said in an excited voice... “it’s a tiny knob! Girls, I’ve found a secret compartment!” ’ The treasure that has to be found and protected, ‘something hidden, precious and beautiful which must be defended from the greedy, disreputable tricksters’, seems to be ‘a neat Freudian analogy to the precious jewel of a girl’s virginity’.
More important, the plot structure of the Nancy Drew series, with its pair of femme/butch sidekicks (Bess and George) for Nancy, its balancing act between adventure and domesticity, effectively sets out the options for female development. Mason is retroactively charmed by Honey Bunch’s sidekick, a feisty little girl nicknamed ‘Stub’, who looks like a football or a potato, and longs for a tool-chest rather than a hope chest. ‘Stub is the real heroine of that series,’ Mason now realises; but this seems too reductively feminist an interpretation. The appeal of the books, after all, is not just to the stubby and aggressive side of femininity, but also to its internalised preoccupation with domestic sanctuaries. Mason notices in the stories a fascination with the attic, a recurring motif in women’s writing since Jane Eyre and Little Women. While ‘boys act out their fantasies in the outside world’, girls retreat from their assigned roles to these places to contemplate their secret longings.
Mason also describes a female space she calls the ‘kitty corner’, a cozy diminutive interior in the various stories, ‘a perfect world in miniature, a little elf nook, a playhouse, a gingerbread cottage, an English garden in a terrarium, a hideaway in an attic’. In a famous, flawed experiment, Erik Erikson had 12-year-old children play with blocks. The boys built towers and fortresses, and then assaulted them: the girls constructed interiors and defended them. Erikson said the children were playing out their body maps, but 12-year-olds already know quite well what sort of play is expected of boys and girls. Still, there’s some thing about this experiment, and about the kitty corner, that rings true. I’ve always preferred movies like The Alamo and Fifty-Five Days in Peking, where the fortress is being defended from within, to those like The Guns of Navarone in which it is besieged from without. For years, Mason confesses, she herself was obsessed with the notion of the perfect play house. Indeed, this ‘subversive affirmation of a feminised universe’ is finally more appealing than the detection, and as in Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz, the girl sleuth’s quest ‘is not really for the unknown, but for the known, the familiar’, or perhaps the familiar romanticised.
I, too, loved series fiction as a girl, but Nancy Drew was never high on my list, and The Clue of the Leaning Chimney, which I have just reread, strikes me as unspeakably dull. My favourites were the luridly masochistic Elsie Dinsmore books, set in the Deep South after the Civil War. In the first book, Elsie is ordered by her papa to play the piano on a Sunday; too pious to obey, she sits mute on the piano bench until she faints and gets brain fever.
I also treasured a wonderful series about a girl called Maida, set in Boston, where I grew up, and written by Inez Haynes Irwin, a novelist, suffragist and all-round feminist radical who graduated from one of the first classes at Radcliffe in the 1890s, and came to Europe as a war correspondent during the First World War. Irwin hung out with the expatriates in Paris, including Gertrude Stein, whom she found obnoxious and overbearing, and in the mid-Twenties contributed an anonymous autobiographical essay to a series in the Nation which was entitled ‘These Modern Women’.
There’s virtually nothing about the Maida books in Irwin’s papers at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard. But as a child I identified with them with the same passion that Mason feels for Nancy Drew. When I was 11, and about to have an operation on my eyes, I stayed up all night to reread them in hospital. In the first book, Maida’s Little Shop, ten-year-old Maida, the motherless only child of a rich Boston newspaper publisher, is recovering from a serious illness which has left her listless and weak. The ebullient chief reporter Billy suggests that she be sent to live for a while with his mother, who runs a penny candy and toy store in a working-class area of Charlestown. Maida’s growing interest in the shop and the neighbourhood parallels her growing friendships with the local Irish-American and Italian-American kids. By the end of the story, her father has decided that her health depends on staying with this large surrogate family of siblings. He persuades the parents to agree to let their children come to live with Maida on her fabulous estate, and to be tutored and counselled by a glamorous young couple named Robin and Bunny. In the subsequent books, the Big Eight, as the children are called, study in Maida’s Little School, summer at Maida’s Little Camp, and have endless adventures in exquisitely equipped schoolrooms, libraries, gymnasiums, theatres and house boats, up till the time that Maida’s dad pays for them to go to college. All the girls in the story were intelligent and talented, and one of them, Rosie, was a real hell-raiser, but it was the decor that appealed to me most of all, along with the adults’ collective devotion to creating a perfect dream environment for each child.
Mason sees the girl sleuth as a ‘pathfinder and an explorer’, someone who carries on in the tradition of Alcott’s Jo March. Nancy would never dream of writing a story herself, but Mason was inspired to write as a child by imitating the formulae of the series novels. She modelled her first childhood efforts, which she ironically calls ‘Bobbie Ann: Her First Little Novel’, on the adventures of the insufferable Honey Bunch, whose books are called Her First Trip West, Her First Little Mystery and so on. At 11, she wrote a full-length series novel, The Carson Girls Go Abroad, in which twin sisters Sue and Jean unmask a stamp counterfeiting ring in provincial France. The story, she now thinks, ‘reveals a desperate dependence on escapist fantasies’. But it’s obvious that Mason had a lot to escape from, and an unusually urgent relation to her reading. It’s hard to imagine a girls’ series superheroine for the millennium; supermodels seem to have taken the place of the Nancy Drews and Famous Fives. Nancy Drew paperbacks are still on the market, but what’s really happened to the girl sleuth is that she’s become a woman, the feminist detective of Amanda Cross, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Joan Smith or Sarah Dunant. The crimes are now drugs, rape and murder, but the fantasies are the same: ‘no thugs and smugglers can dwell in their grungy hideouts for long when a girl sleuth is around.’