The perfect conclusion to a classic Bildungsroman series

Betsy has just returned home from her interrupted Grand Tour, which her dad sent her on to get inspiration for her writing. (If only everyone had that kind of class privilege!) Before she left London (due to the outbreak of WWI), she and her ex Joe arranged to meet in New York Harbor on 7 September and make another go of their relationship.

Betsy and Joe were practically engaged as university students, but broke up when she sort-of cheated on him. During Betsy’s entire Grand Tour, she frequently found herself thinking about Joe, and when they meet again, they immediately decide to marry.

Since most of their relationship happened between books, though, and Joe was always more of a secondary character, the lightning speed of their reconciliation and their intense feelings don’t feel entirely believable. I wish Mrs. Lovelace had written a few books about the years between Betsy and Joe and Betsy and the Great World. The infodumpy backstory in Chapter 2 of Great World and Betsy’s appearances in spinoff books don’t have the same impact.

Betsy and the Great World/Betsy's Wedding: Lovelace, Maud Hart: 9780061795138: Books: Amazon.com

Betsy and Joe have a grand time in NYC, though Betsy keeps pressing Joe for a formal proposal. She sensibly doesn’t want Joe to waste money on an engagement ring, but he buys her a wedding ring at Tiffany’s. Soon after their reunion, Betsy journeys home to Minnesota.

Since the Rays are joined at the hip, Betsy’s parents are convinced she’ll stay at home for many years. When she breaks the news about her engagement, they’re stunned. Particularly because she and Joe want to be married in a week, and Joe lives in Boston.

But Betsy reassures them she’ll still be nearby, since Joe quit his job in Boston. Without having a new job in Minneapolis lined up! And he didn’t even ask Mr. Ray for permission. (An unthinkable horror!)

Betsy's Wedding (Betsy-Tacy): Lovelace, Maud Hart, Neville, Vera: 9780064405447: Books: Amazon.com

Since there are no truly black clouds in Betsy’s idyllic life, her parents’ objections are quickly overcome, and Joe finds a newspaper job after going to several offices (racking up a huge cab fare in the process). Tacy and her husband Harry (whom I will never see as anything but a creepy groomer) loan them a cottage by the lake for their honeymoon, and there’s a lovely wedding at the Rays’ house.

After an idyllic honeymoon, Betsy’s little sister Margaret finds them a great apartment. The landlady is the mother of her BFF Louisa, whom Margaret calls Boogie. Louisa in turn calls her Bogie, and Mrs. Ray and Betsy can’t believe these high school girls aren’t boy-crazy yet.

Betsy is determined to be the perfect housewife, though she’s never been domestically inclined. She puts her mind to learning how to cook, clean, bake, budget, and iron, having many funny failures along the way. Betsy even refuses a job offer from Joe’s boss, saying her only job is being Joe’s little wifey. (A complete departure from her well-established character!)

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the character Anna Quindlen thinks is such an incredible, unsung feminist! A few books earlier, Betsy and Tib lamented how Tacy would be an old maid because she wasn’t interested in dating at the ripe old age of seventeen.

Betsy and Tacy’s schemes to marry off Tib backfire, and Betsy eventually realizes how wrong it was to try to choose a husband for another woman. You can’t force a relationship on anyone, and it’s better to marry for love. I was very happy when Tib found her perfect match all by herself.

A monkey wrench is thrown into Betsy and Joe’s lives when Joe’s aunt Ruth comes to live with them. They’re forced to buy a house and give up their lovely apartment. More challenges come when Joe starts working the night shift

But through all these ups and downs, Betsy emerges as a mature adult in her own right, and still finds time for her old friends. These things become very useful when the U.S. joins WWI and Joe enlists in the Army.

Betsy's Wedding - Lovelace, Maud Hart/ Neville, Vera (ILT) - 9780606141635 | HPB

A Grand Tour on the eve of destruction

Betsy and the Great World (Betsy-Tacy): Lovelace, Maud Hart, Neville, Vera: 9780064405454: Amazon.com: Books

Over three and a half years have passed since Betsy’s high school graduation, and she’s been at loose ends for some time. Early in her freshwoman year at the University of Minnesota, a bout of appendicitis interrupted her studies, and she went to her grandma in California to recover.

When she returned to school, she was overcome by depression at being a year behind her old friends. Though Betsy became actively involved in a sorority and the school newspaper, academia just didn’t agree with her. She also sort-of cheated on her almost-fiancé Joe, which led to their breakup.

Finally, Betsy confesses to her parents that she’s not getting much out of her education, something that’s been obvious to them for a long time. She only wants to write, and her parents feel a trip to Europe would provide wonderful inspiration and hands-on experience.

Betsy and the Great World: Lovelace, Maud Hart: 9780606141628: Amazon.com: Books

But the book doesn’t open with that. No, it opens as Betsy is preparing to board a ship sailing to Europe in January 1914. The story of the last three and a half years is told in a long backstory infodump in the second chapter. We also learn in this chapter that Mr. Kerr’s grooming and aggressive pursuit of Tacy was successful and that they’re now married.

Why couldn’t there have been a few books about Betsy’s university days, year in California, and split with Joe? These events have less emotional resonance because we’re told about them after the fact instead of experiencing them along with Betsy as they unfold.

The death of Tacy’s father merits a single line in this long infodump. There was a lot more time and care given to the death of a secondary character’s father in Betsy Was a Junior! How do you just gloss over such a huge event in the life of a main character?!

Amazon.com: Betsy and the Great World/Betsy's Wedding (9780061795138): Lovelace, Maud Hart: Books

Anyway, Betsy has a grand time on the S.S. Columbic, making lots of new friends, enjoying dances and dinners, hobnobbing with society people, flirting with a much-older guy who turns out to have a wife and five kids, taking daytrips to a few islands and cities along the way to Naples. These first seven chapters were my favorite part of the book.

The first stop on Betsy’s itinerary is München (Munich), where she stays in a pension (i.e., a boardinghouse that provides meals) full of people from all over the world. She falls in love with the city, and makes several good friends.

During this time, Betsy also gets $100 for a story published in Ainslee’s magazine.

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Betsy comes off really poorly during a daytrip to Sonneberg, the toy and doll capital of the world. Despite initial opposition, she manages to talk her way into touring a doll factory. After learning the doll heads are assembled in people’s houses, Betsy peeks in windows to see the process.

None of the children have any dolls of their own, which greatly puzzles Betsy. Shouldn’t they have their pick of the best dolls when they live in a city renowned for making them? But Betsy is reassured everything is peachy-keen when a little girl shows her a headless doll.

Betsy returns to the factory to buy a fancy doll she admired earlier, though she feels very silly walking through the streets with a doll in her arms at her age. She doesn’t give it to one of the children, but keeps it for herself.

She still shows no self-awareness when she decides to give the doll to Tacy’s potential daughter.

Another daytrip is to Oberammergau, which has been putting on Passion Plays since the 17th century. Betsy is enthralled by the town and how seriously people take their roles. If she’d stayed long enough to see the next play, I doubt she would’ve picked up on the blatant antisemitism built into this play until a major update in 1950.

Betsy then jaunts off to Venice, where she spends six weeks. During her stay, a young man named Marco falls in instalove with her.

Then it’s off to Switzerland and Paris, skimmed over in a chapter written by Mrs. Lovelace’s daughter Merian. So much of this book reads like a shallow travelogue instead of an actual novel!

Amazon.com: WW1 Newspaper Poster Replica - GERMANY DECLARES ALL EUROPE IS IN ARMS - Size 8.3x11.7 inches - WWI 1914 Military Memorabilia Wall Decor: Posters & Prints

During Betsy’s stay in London, where she happily acquires a group of friends called The Crew, war is declared. Though the events described are gripping, there’s never any real doubt Betsy will get a ticket for a ship home. She’s upper-middle-class and has many well-connected friends.

This book is the weakest in the series. Not just writing-wise, but in Betsy’s lack of emotional growth. She never goes off the beaten path in any of her travels, and reacts with naïveté and willful blindness when confronted with people who weren’t lucky enough to be born into the privilege she takes for granted. She develops zero perspective or class consciousness from seeing how the other half lives.

Betsy also never has to navigate her travels all by herself, as she always has multiple people looking out for her. And what 21-year-old goes around telling people about her pretend maid Celeste like she’s a real person?!

BBC News | Enlarged Image

Betsy’s declaration of support for women’s suffrage also comes from out of left field. There was never so much as an indirect hint in any of the previous eight books she deeply cared about this issue!

At least this Grand Tour helps Betsy to realize she needs to try to make things right with Joe already, and the ending sets things up for the final book.

Senior year, Edwardian-style

Betsy and Joe (Betsy-Tacy, #8) by Maud Hart Lovelace

While it seems safe to say at this point that I’ll probably never join the small but committed group of stans for the Betsy-Tacy series, these books and characters have slowly but surely grown on me. One doesn’t have to be a diehard fan or the target audience to genuinely like a series. I just regard it in a different way.

The book opens in summer 1909, as Betsy’s family are on their annual holiday by Murmuring Lake (real-life Madison Lake in Minnesota). Betsy is very excited to get a letter from her longtime crush Joe Willard, who entrusts her with the secret that he’s covering a big land-swindle trial for The Courier News in Wells County, North Dakota.

Joe also invites her to regularly correspond with him, an offer she happily accepts.

Amazon.com: Betsy Was a Junior/Betsy and Joe (9780061794728): Lovelace, Maud Hart: Books

Betsy’s older sister Julia is away in Europe, and constantly sending letters home about her exciting adventures in places like London, Paris, Naples, the Azores, and Amsterdam. After summer ends, she’s due to spend a year in Berlin studying opera.

Though Julia is warmly accepted by a host family, her trunk doesn’t immediately arrive. Everyone keeps carrying on about how awful it is that she hasn’t any proper, new clothes to wear to important events or to impress people, as though there are zero department stores in Berlin or it’s impossible for anyone to lend her clothes.

Betsy and Joe (A Betsy-Tacy High School Story) by Maud Hart Lovelace (1948) Hardcover: Amazon.com: Books

Betsy, now a senior, once again has only a paltry four classes—physics, German (she dropped Latin), civics, and Shakespeare. I truly can’t wrap my brain around a high school even 100+ years ago only offering 4-5 classes to each grade! And to only require two years of math and science (with no trig, chemistry, or biology), and not have gym or electives like art, music, and creative writing!

I wish these books spent more time on Betsy’s academic life instead of being so heavily focused on her social life. E.g., how and why did she choose the classes she did? What kind of homework, papers, and tests did she have? If her parents think it’s so great she’s studying America’s then-unofficial second language her senior year, since so many people in town speak it, why didn’t they have that conversation when she started high school and steer her towards German instead of Latin from the jump? Did Betsy consider studying French? Does the school even offer French, or any of the other courses basic to 99.999% of all high schools?

I also wish there were more details about just what exactly Betsy is writing all these years. We’re told she’s writing novels and submitting stories to magazines, but we know little to nothing about any of these ventures. Only the fourth book explored her writing in any depth, and then her social life eclipsed her writing.

Senior year seems to start off promisingly, with Joe finally visiting the house and going on some dates with Betsy, but a love triangle soon emerges with Tony Markham, whom Betsy had an unrequited crush on in ninth grade. Now that Tony finally has feelings for her, she no longer likes him in that way. Betsy sees him more as a brother.

Because tradition of that era dictated a girl had to accept the first guy to ask her to a dance or other event, Betsy is roped into going out with Tony many times. She doesn’t have the heart to say she’s not interested, and Joe’s work commitments preclude him from asking first on most occasions. Joe also doesn’t let her explain the situation, assumes the worst, and immediately finds another girl to escort.

There’s a pointless subplot about a hot new boy in school, Maddox, joining the football team and becoming an object of ridicule on account of barely participating to protect his handsome face. After he’s publicly mocked in front of the whole school during a pep rally, he lets himself get battered during the last game of the season. I’m so glad modern football helmets protect the face!

Football team in the 1910s

It was jaw-dropping to see Betsy and Tib several times lamenting how Tacy will probably be an old maid because she still shows no interest in dating and boys at the ripe old age of seventeen. Tell me again how Betsy is such an unsung feminist icon of girls’ fiction?

And right on command, shortly after Tacy’s 18th birthday, we meet her future husband, who works with Betsy’s dad and is 27 years old. Mr. Kerr steals a photo of Tacy from Betsy’s photo album and announces he’s going to marry Tacy, no matter how long it takes. He also later sends several bouquets.

GROOMER!

Why would a well-adjusted adult man be interested in a high school girl who has absolutely no experience with men? Betsy’s dad even laughingly says Tacy had better watch out, since Mr. Kerr has a way of always getting what he wants!

Creepy, Wrong, Immature and Pathetic: Older Men Chasing After Much Younger Women – Christian Pundit

Anyway, Betsy grows more mature as the year wears on, and realises she has to be honest with Tony. If she makes it clear once and for all romance is off the table, she just might finally win her dream man.

Shallow high school hijinks, Edwardian-style, Part III

Amazon.com: Betsy Was a Junior (Betsy-Tacy) (9780064405478): Lovelace, Maud Hart, Neville, Vera: Books

After struggling to find a connection to this series since the first book, I’m finally starting to come around. But it didn’t happen immediately in this the seventh volume, and there were still some things which bugged me. Still, I’m looking forward to the eighth book to see if my connection continues to improve. I plan to reread the entire series when I’m done with it. Some things are better the second time around.

Looking back, part of my difficulty may have been caused by how I heard almost nothing but good things about these books going in, instead of having a blank slate. When your expectations are raised so high, you often feel disappointment at whatever not living up to the hype more keenly. Perhaps I have been too hard on these books, though I remain annoyed at how unrealistically charmed these people’s lives are, without any serious problems.

Betsy Was a Junior (Betsy-Tacy, #7) by Maud Hart Lovelace

It’s now September 1908, and Betsy once again vows to do everything differently this year so she’ll do better in school, get the guy she likes, and improve herself overall. Much of the first chapter is given over to an infodumpy recap of the last two books, interspersed with Betsy’s resolutions.

Betsy gets a happy surprise near the end of her annual summer holiday at Murmuring Lake (real-life Madison Lake in Minnesota) when her old friend Tib (real name Thelma) arrives. When she last saw Tib over Christmas 1907, Tib revealed the secret that her family were seriously considering returning to Deep Valley (real-life Mankato), and that they’d never sold their old house.

Just as Betsy advised her, Tib has begun acting like a giggly ditz to attract male attention.

Betsy Was a Junior (Betsy-Tacy Books (Prebound)): Lovelace, Maud Hart, Neville, Vera: 9780780790957: Amazon.com: Books

Tib is instantly popular with “The Crowd,” Betsy’s huge group of BFFs, despite not having known most of them prior. I so dislike the trope of the new kid being immediately, warmly accepted! That wasn’t my experience at all my junior year of high school. Most people are too busy getting it on with the BFFs they’ve known since kindergarten to care about newcomers.

Now that Betsy is an upperclasswoman, she’s taking five instead of four classes. (I have such a hard time picturing a real high school even 100+ years ago with such few class periods!) This year, she has Foundations of English Literature, modern U.S. history, botany, home ec (which her school pretentiously calls Domestic Science), and Cicero (i.e., Latin).

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Betsy’s older sister Julia rushes home from university unexpectedly, awash in homesickness, and tells the family about sororities. Three different houses are wooing her, though first-year students aren’t allowed to join until the spring. Julia has her heart set on Epsilon Iota, and won’t hear of rushing any other sorority.

Mr. Ray sensibly thinks Greek life sounds really exclusionary and to the detriment of a university’s real purpose, but Mrs. Ray begins living vicariously through Julia and starts researching the school’s sororities. Later on, she visits campus and goes to all these parties, teas, and lunches alongside Julia. (Can we say helicopter parent?)

Betsy is so taken with the idea of sororities, she starts her own with seven friends, Okto Delta. Eventually, eight boys start the Omega Delta frat. And here Betsy’s troubles begin.

A few of her friends rightly feel excluded, causing strains in their relationships. And just as in the previous two years, Betsy’s attention to social life takes precedence over schoolwork. In particular, she, Tacy, and Tib put off their botany herbariums till almost the last moment.

Slowly, it begins dawning on Betsy that perhaps she’s being snobby and shallow, and that it might be time to put away childish things. I was glad to finally see pushback and real consequences. Hopefully this emotional growth won’t be undone in the last high school book!

A pretty low bar for inspiration

When I think of inspiring, against the grain girls in classic children’s literature, I think of characters like Laura Ingalls, Caddie Woodlawn, Anne Shirley, Jo March, Arrietty Clock of The Borrowers series, and Pippi Longstocking. Yet in the foreword to the reissue of Betsy Was a Junior, the seventh book in the Betsy-Tacy series, Anna Quindlen argues that the rather conformist Betsy is a feminist icon.

And why might that be?

Because Betsy always wants to be a writer, and no one ever tells her she can’t. Oh, and she’s not a fairytale princess or presented as perfect.

WHAT!

Is the bar really set that low these days?

For historical perspective, the books are set from 1897–1917, during the First Wave of feminism. Many women in the First Wave did tend to be rather conservative in their aims; e.g., they didn’t think to question the Mrs. Husband’s Full Name convention, and frequently argued against African–Americans (men or women) getting the vote before white women.

But they lived in a much different world than we do today. Merely working for women’s suffrage, higher education, and employment was seen as radical in their era. Successful, longterm changes happen gradually, not overnight.

Ms. Quindlen claims Anne Shirley and Jo March “are implicitly made to pay in those books for the fact that they do not conform to feminine norms.” That implies their respective authors wanted to punish them and teach them a lesson for not being girly-girls and aspiring to a life beyond housewifery. When does that happen in either Little Women or the Anne series?

It smacks of classism to say Anne “never is permitted to forget that she must work for a living.” As compared to upper-middle-class Betsy, whose parents can afford to send on a freaking Grand Tour to inspire her writing, and who doesn’t have to attend university on scholarship or through her own earnings?

And if you subscribe to Third Wave “choosey-choice feminism,” why bewail how Jo March chooses to marry an unromantic, much-older man instead of the young, hot, rich guy who instead goes to her sister? Prof. Bhaer supports and encourages Jo in her writing, and not all strong marriages begin with nonstop fireworks and a superficial attraction.

From what I’ve read so far, Betsy is a lot more interesting in the first four books than she is in the high school books. Once she hits the teen years, she becomes very boring and shallow, caring more about a constant whirlwind of social life, parties, sports matches, boys, clothes, and hair than schoolwork. I’ll eat my hat if the fourth and final high school book goes down a totally different trajectory than the first three, wherein Betsy resolves to change herself to be more popular and get male attention, suffers in school, doesn’t get the outcome she wants, has everything blow up in her face in a big way near the end, and resolves to be truer to herself.

It obviously takes all types to fill our world, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a social butterfly with more passion for fashion, parties, and dating than intellectual pursuits, but that’s not the kind of character who strikes me as a feminist icon!

Also, while some people in Betsy’s era still didn’t take women’s writing seriously, it was nevertheless usually seen as a respectable profession. Would everyone have encouraged Betsy the same way if she’d always wanted to be a doctor, lawyer, politician, or professor?

To date, I’ve yet to see anything that could remotely be construed as First Wave feminist inclinations in these books—women’s suffrage, focusing on studies instead of social life and clothes, thinking about entering the workforce in addition to writing, the birth control movement, nothing. In fact, in the last book, Betsy and Tacy try to pressure Tib into marrying ASAP so she won’t be a pathetic spinster! At all of 25 years old!

Have I mostly enjoyed this series so far? Yes, despite my continued frustration with how everyone’s lives are just too idyllic and charmed. I also mostly like these characters. But to claim the protagonist is some kind of unsung feminist icon? I hope you stretched before that reach.

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