Posted in 1890s, 1900s, 1910s, Books, Historical fiction

General thoughts on the Betsy-Tacy series, Part II

Books and Beyond: Literary Dream Tour, Part 6: Betsy-Tacy in Minneapolis

A collection of observations, questions, and thoughts I didn’t mention or go into detail about in my book review posts (in no particular order):

22. The spelling Anastacia for a non-Latina born in 1892 seems very anachronistic.

23. It’s really weird how Betsy, Tacy, and Tib still believe in Santa at age twelve, and still believe in him well into their teen years.

24. I roll my eyes when a book or film paints a clearly comfortably bourgeois family as struggling financially because they can only afford one servant and live in a house under 3,000 square feet!

Quotes from Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy Novels | LiteraryLadiesGuide

25. It makes no sense for shy Tacy to go from total disinterest in boys to charmed by a much-older groomer as soon as she turns eighteen. I wouldn’t be so disturbed by the nine-year age difference or even the ages she and Mr. Kerr get together if they hadn’t met while Tacy was still in high school and she weren’t so naïve and completely inexperienced with men!

26. Why the hell does Mr. Kerr even want to attend a party for high school kids when he’s 27?!

27. Betsy also does a quick about-face regarding older men. She goes from calling Mr. Kerr a grey-beard to wanting to hook up with a dude in his thirties en route to her Grand Tour a few years later!

28. How exactly did Mr. Ray’s business improve to such an extent he could afford a huge house in another part of town?

29. He can afford fancy new digs, but can’t even buy Betsy a real desk?!

30. That piece of chamois used by all the girls in the high school locker room for rubbing their faces sounds like germ city!

Betsy-Tacy (Betsy-Tacy Books): Maud Hart Lovelace, Lois Lenski: 9780064400961: AmazonSmile: Books | Favorite childhood books, Childhood books, Easy chapter books

31. Betsy’s parents really think she can do no wrong! In Betsy Was a Junior, they can’t believe her Latin teacher was so cruel as to actually punish her for trying to pass a note to Tacy during class.

32. Speaking of junior year, it was good to see Betsy facing consequences for her élitist attitudes. Teachers point-blank tell her a lot of students resent how Betsy and her Crowd have everything, and exclude her from several events she took for granted she’d be a shoe-in for.

33. Betsy’s parents aren’t really preparing her for a career in writing when they carry on about how the essay judging committee is out of its mind for daring to not hand her the prize on a silver platter. They should’ve told her you can’t win every contest, and that maybe she needs to work on her research and writing skills.

Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown - Wikipedia

34. Not being from a close-knit, lovey-dovey, touchy-feely family, it was weird to read about Betsy kissing her mother multiple times a day! I don’t remember kissing my mother once my entire life, and can’t see myself ever doing so.

35. Domestic Science is a really pretentious name for home ec.

36. For a series about a budding writer, we see almost nothing of what Betsy’s actually been writing all these years! We’re not even given descriptions of her work.

Betsy and Joe - Wikipedia

37. Why couldn’t Mrs. Lovelace write a few books about Betsy’s college years and sabbatical in California? Hearing a summary of those events in other books doesn’t carry the same impact.

38. I obviously know this wasn’t done at all in mainstream books until the 1960s, but I would’ve liked reading about Betsy’s first period and how menstruation was handled in the Edwardian era.

39. Likewise with reading about Betsy’s first time wearing a corset. Particularly since Edwardian corsets, in contrast to Victorian ones, came all the way down over the thighs, changing the position of the hips, and made walking very difficult and restrictive.

40. And Betsy’s first time having sex! Nothing graphic or even an actual sex scene, but just her feelings about the experience.

41. Are she and Joe using any birth control?

42. I know most people used a “generic he” in this era, but it felt wrong and jarring to see that grammatical convention used even when referring to an all-female group!

Posted in 1890s, 1900s, 1910s, Books

General thoughts on the Betsy-Tacy series, Part I

A collection of observations, questions, and thoughts I didn’t mention or go into detail about in my book review posts (in no particular order):

1. What kind of high school only makes students take 4-5 classes a year?! Even in the Edwardian era, when high schools were rather uncommon in the U.S., that seems odd! And to only have to take two years of math and science?

2. How did Betsy choose which classes to take? Did her parents decide for her, did they confer together, or was she given free rein to study whatever she wanted? I’m particularly interested in why she chose Latin as her foreign language for the first three years.

3. I know the Establishment Clause was treated like a joke in many public schools of the era, but it always jolts me to see the school day starting with Protestant prayer, hymns, and Bible-reading!

Heaven to Betsy / Betsy in Spite of Herself by Maud Hart Lovelace

4. Also jolting, but in a good way, to see a depiction of school before it became common to do a creepy daily loyalty oath to the flag. Seriously, almost no other countries in the world make kids do that! And a lot of people believe it’s against the law to refuse to take part in that ritual, instead of protected free speech since 1943.

5. What’s the point of the first day of school just being a morning assembly and scheduling classes? Why didn’t they register for classes during the summer?

6. My jaw dropped when Betsy gave a speech, in her debate team, supporting the restriction of immigration. I don’t associate that kind of attitude with her at all! Well, she got her wish when racist, xenophobic, nativist, eugenics-inspired, severely restrictive quotas were passed in 1921 and 1924.

Heaven to Betsy - Wikipedia

7. Speaking of immigrants, I loved the respectful depiction of the Lebanese in Little Syria (so called because Lebanon was part of Syria at the time). I just wish they’d been featured more often.

8. I know this was a common attitude many immigrants felt compelled into in that era, but it made me sad to see Naifi, in the third book, declaring that she has to ditch her lovely native culture so she can become a whitewashed “real American.”

9. I’m far from the only reader who doesn’t like all the over the top, jingoistic flag-waving at the end of the third book. Though it was published in 1943, when that attitude was considered important for the war effort.

Betsy Was a Junior/Betsy and Joe: Lovelace, Maud Hart: 9780061794728: Books - Amazon.ca

10. What a different world when students were expected to memorize everything, even their graduation speeches and research for essay contests! Now kids whine about having to memorize and recite very short poems.

11. I wish we’d gotten more insight into Betsy’s conversion to Episcopalianism. It seems she only liked superficial things like music and social life. I know that’s what initially motivates a lot of conversions, but it should gradually lead to more substantial theological convictions.

12. Many times, old-fashioned words are used without any context to picture what’s being referred to. E.g., I had to search around for awhile before I finally figured out what exactly a dressing sacque, foolscap, and hair rat are.

Betsy in Spite of Herself (Betsy-Tacy): 9780064401111: Lovelace, Maud Hart, Neville, Vera: Books - Amazon.com

13. Such a big deal is made out of Betsy’s first visit to her town’s new Carnegie library, but we never find out just what she thought of the books she checked out, nor do we see her making many non-school-related future visits.

14. No-longer-famous writers’ names are casually dropped with the expectation that readers will automatically know who they are, like Mrs. Muhlbach (who?).

15. People back in the day were so trusting of strangers inviting their teen daughters to spend a summer or school break on their farm in another town!

Buy Betsy-Tacy: 1 Book Online at Low Prices in India | Betsy-Tacy: 1 Reviews & Ratings - Amazon.in

16. I hate how Betsy is made to feel she should only read literature that improves her mind, and that anything mass-market, popular, and/or sensationalistic is trash she should shun.

17. Judging from the types of magazines she submits to and the few glimpses we get of what exactly Betsy’s been writing all these years, she doesn’t exactly aspire to follow in the footsteps of writers like Dickens and Longfellow!

18. The old-fashioned, then-common spelling Mamma is used. I always mentally pronounced Mamma and Papa the normal English way, not the pretentious Ma-MAAAAAAAAA and Pa-PAAAAAAAAA.

Betsy-Tacy and Tib: Lovelace, Maud Hart, Lenski, Lois: 0201564400972: Books - Amazon.ca

19. It’s not fair that Tib’s name is only in the second book’s title. She takes equal part in Betsy and Tacy’s adventures in most of the other books!

20. What are the names of all of Tacy’s other siblings? I didn’t expect all ten of them would be major characters, but why not at least provide their names? We only get to know older sister Katie. A few brothers are briefly mentioned in the earliest books, and Tacy’s baby sister Bee passes away in infancy.

21. I was afraid to Google the type of winter hood Betsy struggles to put on in the first book, since I knew it would yield lots of porn.

Amazon.co.jp: Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown (Betsy-Tacy Books Book 4) (English Edition) 電子書籍: Lovelace, Maud Hart, Lenski, Lois: 洋書

Posted in 1890s, 1900s, 1910s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

A sextuple dose of antique horror

Welcome to this year’s celebration of classic silent and early sound horror films with landmark anniversaries! Sadly, the Monster template is no longer available. I’m so disappointed and upset! Every year, I looked forward to changing my blogs into that theme for October.

We’re starting off with the 1897 British film The X-Rays (sometimes called The X-Ray Fiend), directed by George Albert Smith. Many of Mr. Smith’s films feature horror and/or supernatural themes. Some sources say he also directed a lost 1897 film called The Haunted Castle, but most film scholars believe this is a misattribution to either the 1897 Georges Méliès film of the same name, or the 1896 Méliès film The House of the Devil, released as The Haunted Castle in the U.S.

An aggressive would-be suitor tries to woo a woman who wants none of it, and an X-ray machine appears and turns them into skeletons. The woman’s parasol also transmogrifies into just its metal supports. The special effects via jump-cuts were state of the art by 1890s standards.

The woman is played by Mr. Smith’s wife, Laura Bayley, and the man is comedian Tom Green.

Sorry there’s no soundtrack, but it’s only 44 seconds long

My yearly horror film spotlight wouldn’t be complete without grand master Georges Méliès! The first of the films featured this year is The Treasures of Satan (Les Trésors de Satan) (1902), released in the U.K. as The Devil’s Money Bags.

In a castle, Satan and two assistants put six moneybags into a long chest. After they leave, a stranger (Méliès) creeps in with the intent to steal the moneybags. He breaks the lock, and the moneybags begin dancing in the air. Then he sits on the chest, but is forced off when the lid flies up.

Six ladies in devil outfits pop out, each holding a moneybag which transmogrifies into a spear. When the would-be robber jumps into the chest to take shelter from their torture, the chest changes position, and he’s left exposed. Then the ladies jump back into the chest, and the chest continues moving all around the room before turning into a demon. More torture follows.

Finally, Satan and the demon capture the robber and put him back into the chest. The ladies return and dance as the chest explodes in fire and smoke.

The moneybags are safe and sound after all that drama.

Satan in Prison (Satan en Prison) is a simple story of an imprisoned man (Méliès) who conjures up a fireplace, a table, chairs, a tablecloth, plates, silverware, a mirror, a woman, and various items of home décor. When the guards return, he makes all these objects disappear as magically as they appeared, and reveals himself as Satan. He then disappears with the aid of his cape.

The Red Spectre (Le Spectre Rouge) was directed by Segundo de Chomón (Segundo Víctor Aurelio Chomón y Ruiz). Señor de Chomón is widely considered the greatest Spanish silent film director, and often compared to Méliès because he used many of the same magical illusion tricks and camera work.

In 1901, he began distributing his films through the French company Pathé, and moved to Paris in 1905. He remained with Pathé even after returning to Barcelona in 1910.

In an underground grotto, a dancing coffin opens amid flames to reveal a demonic magician in a skeleton suit and with a magnificent cape. He conjures up five dancing ladies, flying flames, and decorative gold cauldrons which he lights. He then brings back two of the ladies, wraps them in a black tarpaulin, and makes them levitate and disappear. His next magic trick is making the ladies appear shrunken-down inside large bottles which he fills with liquid.

A Good Spirit does some back and forth tricks, including an easel projecting films and throwing objects at him from thin air. Finally, the Good Spirit reveals an area of the grotto with the other ladies, and she takes him downstage, pours something on him, and turns him into a lifeless skeleton.

Satan at Play (Satan S’Amuse) (1907), also directed by Señor de Chomón, is frequently confused with The Red Spectre at IMDB and on YouTube. They’re obviously two completely different films, which makes me wonder if people even bothered watching before mindlessly copying and pasting a synopsis. Sadly, I couldn’t find a single video of it anywhere, because everyone mislabeled The Red Spectre!

The Devil is bored. He goes back to Earth with a magic elevator. He surprises two sewer workers, disguises himself as a city man, and spreads improbable events: quarrel with a coachman, altercation with a city sergeant, the mystification of a barman, and quid pro quo with couples. He gets trapped in a cage with a young woman and goes down to Hell. It is revealed that the young woman is in fact Madame Devil, disguised by jealousy.

The sixth film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was released 16 January 1912. James Cruze, a prolific actor of the silent era who also directed many films from 1919–1937, stars in the lead role, and Florence LaBadie (the Thanhouser Girl) plays his sweetheart. Mr. Cruze’s real-life first wife Marguerite Snow appears as an extra.

Who isn’t familiar with this story? A young doctor concocts a potion to transform himself into a grotesque creature, who commits evil acts and obeys his baser instincts. Before long, he no longer needs to drink the potion to transform, and his alter ego becomes more and more deranged, with tragic consequences.

Posted in 1890s, 1900s, Books, Historical fiction

Long ago and worlds apart in small-town Minnesota

It’s quite surprising I don’t recall hearing about the Betsy-Tacy series till a few years ago, since I read so many other old books and series when I was in elementary school. For whatever reason, I just never saw or was told about these books until I was well past the age of the intended primary audience.

This 10-book series is strongly based on author Maud Hart Lovelace’s own life, so much so it’s all but a memoir with different names and a few tweaked details. Apparently it has quite a cult following, with many people effusively crediting it with their decision to become writers, citing it as one of their favorites growing up, and calling the characters friends.

There’s even a Betsy-Tacy Society, with regular events like trivia contests, Victorian Christmas parties, concerts, wine-tasting fundraisers, and writing workshops. They also have a gift shop and give tours of the real-life places in Mankato, Minnesota which feature in the series.

But does it hold up for someone only coming it to as an adult, without rose-colored childhood nostalgia?

Image result for betsy-tacy

A month before Elizabeth (Betsy) Ray’s fifth birthday, a new family moves into the house across the street. Both houses are at the end of Hill Street, which aptly has a big hill behind it. Betsy is very excited to learn the new neighbors have a little girl her age, since none of the other kids on Hill Street fit that description.

The new girl, who’s extremely shy, runs away when Betsy tries to meet her on a snowy March day. She shouts out her nickname, Tacy, and for some reason Betsy thinks she’s calling out a mocking name. (Even if someone has a very unusual name, why would that be your first thought?!)

Next month is Betsy’s fifth birthday party, and Tacy is among the guests. Betsy learns her name is Anna Anastacia, and that Tacy is her nickname. (Mrs. Lovelace found the name Tacy in a Colonial newspaper while researching another book. It was a 16th–18th century Puritan name derived from Latin tace, “be silent.” As for Anastacia, that spelling seems really out of place on an Irish–American Catholic girl born in 1892.)

Image result for betsy-tacy

The two become instant BFFs, and they begin having all sorts of old-timey fun and games like playing pretend (though these magical stories are written as though they’re actually happening!), eating lunch in a piano box, going up the Hill Street Hill and sitting on a bench, hanging out on the hitching block, buying candy for a penny, starting kindergarten, playing with paper dolls, dyeing Easter eggs, selling colored sand, dressing up like their mothers and going calling as them. At the end of the book, they meet their new BFF Thelma (Tib) Muller.

A couple of problems crop up, but they’re all rapidly, smoothly resolved—Tacy running away from school in tears on the first day during recess, Tacy’s baby sister Bee dying, Betsy being upset when her parents have a new baby.

And speaking of the lattermost, Betsy’s dad was so sure he’d finally get his precious male heir and Junior, he didn’t bother thinking of a girl’s name! He asks Betsy and her older sister Julia, the day the baby is born, to give her a name!

Other than that, nothing really happens. Everything and everyone are all happy-clappy in this idyllic small town full of comfortably bourgeois people. Betsy and Tacy never quarrel. No neighbors ever confront them about how they’re screaming at the top of their lungs in the middle of the street.  Their only consequences for mild misbehavior seem to be mild scoldings and their parents quickly laughing off their antics.

Plus, it’s written in that dated, distant, spoilerific God-mode, so I never felt in anyone’s head or like there were compelling, emotional stakes.

Sorry not sorry, but I need a real reason to care about characters and storylines beyond them being thinly-fictionalized memoirs of an old-timey childhood. Having grown up poor and working-class, I know real life ain’t like a Norman Rockwell painting or Andy Hardy movie for most people, and can’t relate to such idyllic tales. My great-grandparents, who were born around the same time, only wished they could’ve had such happy, innocence-laced childhoods!

Also, even a deliberately episodic, character-based story needs hung on some kind of narrative arc.

Image result for betsy tacy and tib

The second book is pretty much exactly the same, a bunch of random episodes in an unrealistically idyllic small town, only with a third girl added. And did people in the 1890s really think trouble automatically begins when three girls become BFFs?! Plenty of trios have been friends for decades!

The first chapter pissed me off, when the girls make themselves look like (physically) dirty beggars and pretend to Mrs. Ekstrom at the top of the hill that they’re starving. Betsy and Tacy’s older sisters come in, and they cowardly flee, whining, “They’re eating our cookies!” Mrs.  Ekstrom didn’t make those cookies for YOU!

There are more playing pretend episodes written as if these magical things are really happening. The girls also attend a street fair with a flying lady, build a miniature house in Tib’s basement, bake a repulsive concoction with literally everything in the pantry and predictably get sick, and start a secret club.

Image result for betsy tacy and tib book cover

The girls cut their hair after Tacy recovers from diphtheria, with the intent of making memorial jewelry, and their parents completely overreact initially (because God forbid a girl might have SHORT hair!), but quickly laugh it off and even out the rough edges. It reminds me of the chapter in the dreadful Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family where Mama tells Charlotte and Gertie that Papa would’ve given them the worst beating of their lives if she thought they gave their cousin Ruthie a bad haircut on purpose. WTAF!

The girls decide to hang bags around their necks and fill them with stones every time they’re “bad,” and soon are delighting in “naughtiness” so they can add more stones on purpose. Their “misbehavior” is truly tame, like putting mud in their pockets, calling their sisters stuck-up, making faces at people, and picking flowers in their own gardens. You rebels, you!

At the end of the book, they meet Tib’s beautiful Aunt Dolly from Milwaukee.

Image result for betsy tacy and tib book cover

Honestly, there’s no narrative drive to hook me. These girls’ lives are too happy-clappy and picture-perfect, and I don’t see them growing and maturing beyond getting a bit older. There are no serious consequences for anything they do wrong, as there are for girls like Anne Shirley, Cady Woodlawn, and Laura Ingalls. Nothing truly bad ever happens to them. They get to do whatever they want without any real pushback.

Slice of life stories still need some dramatic tension and a sense that these episodes are connected in some way. I don’t like my books to be as syrupy and annoyingly perfect as Full House in written form.

Posted in 1890s, 1900s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

A quintuple shot of antique horror

Jehanne d’Alcy, star of lost film Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb

As always, my yearly October salute to vintage horror films celebrating landmark anniversaries kicks off with grand master Georges Méliès. Sadly, two of his 1899 films represented here are lost.

Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb (known in its original French as simply Cléopâtre) stars Méliès as a tomb-robber and Jehanne d’Alcy as Cleopatra’s ghost. Our dastardly tomb-robber chops Cleopatra’s mummy into pieces, then “produces a woman from a smoking brazier.”

D’Alcy was the first film actor to portray Cleopatra VII (albeit as her ghost). She and Méliès later became one another’s second spouses.

On 22 September 2005, it was announced this film had been found, but alas, it turned out to be a different film with the robbing of an Egyptian tomb.

In The Devil in a Convent (Le Diable au Couvent (1899), Satan arises from what appears to be a baptismal font and disguises himself as a priest delivering a sermon to nuns. They flee in fear when he transmogrifies back. When he’s alone, Satan conjures up several demonic statues, a large mask, and many other devils.

Their fun in the convent ends when the nuns return. The other devils flee, and Satan is pursued by many priests. An angel statue comes to life and slays him with a sword, and Satan vanishes in a cloud of smoke.

In 2010, Cinémathèque Basque received a box of 32 films in 35mm, including hand-coloured copies of The Devil in a Convent and another 1899 Méliès film, The Mysterious Knight. These films were rescued from a rubbish bin in Bilbao, Spain in 1995.

The Pillar of Fire (Danse du Feu) (1899) was originally released in the U.S. and U.K. as Haggard’s “She”—The Pillar of Fire. The Devil, dressed in green, leaps out of a cauldron and begins creating smoke all over the room with a bellows. He then conjures a young lady who performs a serpentine dance before disappearing in a column of smoke.

This was the first film based on British writer H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She: A History of Adventure. Given the scant length of films in this era, Méliès chose to use title character Ayesha (not the protagonist) as inspiration for one of his famous trick films. There are at least ten other film adaptations of this book.

Occultist Count Alessandro Cagliostro, né Giuseppe Balsamo (1743–95)

Cagliostro’s Mirror (Le miroir de Cagliostro) (1899) is sadly lost. It depicted a basket of flowers appearing in large frame on a wall, followed by a beautiful young lady’s picture. Her picture becomes animated, and she begs to get out of the frame. A visitor starts to comply, only to see her turning into a skeleton and huge devil’s head.

Faust and Marguerite (known in French as Damnation du Docteur Faust) (1904) was Méliès’s fourth and final film adaptation of the German legend of Faust, a scholar who makes a deal with the Devil and finds himself in way over his head after the initial thrill wears off. Once more, Méliès played the part of Mephistopheles, the Devil.

Unfortunately, this film isn’t widely available to the general public in its 15-minute entirety. A print with some missing scenes is held at the Paper Prints collection in the Library of Congress, and a short fragment of the 15th and 16th scenes is in a private British collection.

Like many of Méliès’s other films, this one too is meant to be played alongside spoken narration. It can be difficult to figure out exactly what’s going on without this narration. Those who’ve seen F.W. Murnau’s classic 1926 Faust will be familiar with the storyline, though there are some divergences.

This particular Faust adaptation is based on Charles Gounod’s 1859 opera. Méliès’s 1903 version was based on Hector Berlioz’s 1846 opera.