WARNING: CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR ALL OF THE BOOKS!
Probably in 1991, I first read the children’s classic Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, originally published in 1880 by Harriett Mulford Stone, under the pseudonym Margaret Sidney. In 2009 I started going through the whole series as an adult, something I didn’t do as a preteen, having only read the first book and then not having finished the sequel. She had first introduced the Peppers in a series of stories published in the newspaper, and the readers liked them so much that they demanded a whole book about them. Very wisely, Ms. Stone decided not to just give them the stories in book form and then add some new stories, but to create a whole original book with all new stories and its own unifying plot.
Fans ended up liking it so much that she was driven to create a four-book series, and after she thought the series was complete when the baby of the family, Phronsie (Sophronia), finally came into adulthood and got married, fans still clamoured for more. She wrote even more books about the family, some of them so-called “midquels,” like Five Little Peppers Abroad (which picks up exactly where Five Little Peppers Midway, the second book, leaves off) and Five Little Peppers at School, and some of them just books of stories that don’t really add anything to the overall series, like The Stories Polly Pepper Told in the Little Brown House and The Five Little Peppers and Their Friends. Overall, in spite of the annoying Victorian tendency towards over the top sentimentality and emotionalism, it really is a charming series, a really sweet picture of a vanished world.
The plots of the four books of the original series:
Five Little Peppers and How They Grew concerns the struggle Mrs. Pepper and her five young children go through to keep the wolf from the door. Mr. Pepper died when Phronsie was a baby, and oldest children Ebenezer (Ben) and Mary (Polly) are very much parentified children, having to labor long and hard each day to help to take care of their three younger siblings and hold the household together, along with helping their mother. After spoilt coddled Phronsie goes wandering off after an organ grinder (the first of three times she goes wandering off in the book without even getting punished or yelled at), the family meets the acquaintance of a rich young man named Jasper “Jappy” King.
Jasper and his widowered old grumpy father are taking a summer holiday in the New England small town of Badgertown, and Jasper, bored with his empty rich boy’s life, starts spending a lot of time with the Peppers. Mr. King found this scandalous until Phronsie sent him an ugly misshapen gingerbread man when he got sick, and eventually the entire family, bit by bit, ends up leaving town and moving into the King mansion, where Mr. King and Jasper live with Mr. King’s adult daughter Marian Whitney and her three sons Percy, Van, and Dick. At the end of the book, Polly, while out buying birdseed for her pet bird Cherry, runs into a man who, wonder of wonders, happens to not only be Marian’s husband Mason (who’s been abroad), but also Mrs. Pepper’s wealthy first cousin! Yeah, that wasn’t one of the biggest deus ex machina endings of all time!
Five Little Peppers Midway takes place five years later, when Polly is about 16, Ben is now working as an errand boy or something for some company, middle children Joel and David are away at school most of the book (in an era long before free mandatory public education or equal educational opportunities for girls), and Phronsie is about eight. I continued to like middle child Joel best in this book, since he seems the best-written and most believable character. Phronsie starts the book as coddled, spoilt, and infantilized as she was in the first book, though I was very pleased that, by the end, she had finally started to grow up a bit, show more self-awareness, and become a bit more mature. The main plot of the book revolves around Mr. King’s insufferable cousin Eunice Chatterton, whom no one likes but who is still staying in the mansion.
She can’t stand the Peppers and can’t believe her cousin is keeping this once-poor family in his beautiful mansion and letting them have all of the perks of wealth, like private school, piano lessons for Polly (who hopes to become a private music teacher to girls, in an era when that was one of the few respectable career paths for a woman of means, at least before having to lose any job or career upon marriage), and association with other well-off people. By the end of the book, she’s come around a little bit, and has made Phronsie her heir. (Mr. King was actually planning to kick Mrs. Chatterton out of the house at one point, when she was ill, but Polly, like a goody-two-shoes, pleaded with him and Jasper to keep her, since she instantly felt bad for having ripped her a new one and talked back to an adult, like it was so horrible that she stood up for herself and defended her class origins and the way her mother raised her.) Mr. King, Jasper, Mrs. Pepper (now Mrs. Fisher), the Peppers’ new stepdad Dr. Fisher from Badgertown, a Badgertown couple named Mr. and Mrs. Hendrickson, Polly, and Phronsie leave to go abroad as the book ends.
Five Little Peppers Grown Up takes place five more years later, when Polly is twenty and teaching piano to other single rich girls, and Phronsie is thirteen. The middle children Joel and David are away at college with the older two Whitney boys Van and Percy, Ben is working, and Jasper is involved in the publishing business, which Mr. King disapproves of greatly. A number of guys are competing for Polly’s hand in marriage (some of them even daring to ask for her hand directly instead of asking her stepdad and Mr. King first, a scandal in an era when women were property and needed daddy or hubby’s permission to do just about anything), but of course, as was already hinted at from the first book, Jasper wins out in the end and becomes Polly’s husband. (Seriously, Jasper’s proposal is pretty damn lame and unromantic for something the average reader has been waiting a pretty long time for!)
Phronsie Pepper, which I haven’t read yet, came out in 1897, and finally lets the baby of the family grow up and get an adult storyline. (Seriously, what twenty year old young woman would still go by a babyish nickname? In spite of being coddled and rather infantilized by Mr. King and the entire family, she does grow up a fair bit since the first book, to the point where you’d expect she would have switched to Sophronia by now!) Mr. King still sees her as his sweet little pet and doesn’t want her to grow up, to the point where he’s chased away her suitor, painter Roslyn May. (Ms. Stone certainly gave her characters a fair share of silly and pretentious names!) Mr. King later regrets it when Roslyn takes ill in Italy, and he, Phronsie, and Joel go abroad to try to save him. There’s some business with a fire on their ship, which covers nine chapters, and during which Joel is rather heroic and is one of the last men to leave the ship. The old Mr. King finally relents and lets his little pet and adopted granddaughter grow up and become someone’s wife and an adult woman. There’s a wedding at Dunraven, the orphanage which Phronsie opened or helped financially with the money she got when Mrs. Chatterton passed away, and the orphans each pass by her and give her a flower.