Shallow high school hijinks, Edwardian-style, Part II

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

Making my way through the Betsy-Tacy series has been quite frustrating so far. I really wanted to like these books more, since there are so many loyal fans, and a lot of fellow writers speak glowingly about the huge influence this series has had on their lives. And Mrs. Lovelace, while operating under the style of a bygone era (e.g., way too many adverbs, a lot of telling instead of showing), was clearly a good writer. Many of her passages are quite beautiful.

I also love slower-paced, character-driven stories with more of an episodic structure and series where coming of age IS the storyline, and of course I love almost anything historical. So why has it been so hard for me to click with most of these books?

Betsy in Spite of Herself: a Betsy-Tracy High School Story: Lovelace, Maud Hart: Amazon.com: Books

Because not only do these characters have unrealistically charmed lives, their few problems are so minor and fluffy. For all my issues with the Five Little Peppers series, at least they have real problems that aren’t easily, quickly resolved!

I had zero interest in parties, dating, or shallow social life in high school. The antics of the popular crowd seemed so boring and stupid. I also don’t come from a privileged bourgeois background like Betsy and her huge group of BFFs.

Amazon.com: Heaven to Betsy/Betsy in Spite of Herself (9780061794698): Lovelace, Maud Hart: Books

It’s September 1907, and Betsy is starting her sophomore year. She tells her journal she wants to reinvent herself and become a totally different, more exciting person. Didn’t we just go down that road in the previous book?

Betsy sets her sights on junior Phil Brandish, who has a red car. That automatically makes him more desirable and exciting than any of the other boys she knows. Betsy never lacks for male attention, but thinks all these guys only flock to her house for the food.

Despite only having FOUR classes (Latin, rhetoric [i.e., English], geometry, and modern history), Betsy once again neglects her studies. Parties, football games, and hanging out with “The Crowd” are just so much more fun than boring schoolwork!

Betsy in Spite of Herself: Lovelace, Maud Hart, Neville, Vera: 9780613100120: Amazon.com: Books

Betsy stays by her old friend Tib (real name Thelma) in Milwaukee during the last two weeks of the year, and has a grand time in this then-very German city. She loves the lavish Christmas celebrations which last an entire week, attending the theatre, eating wonderful new foods, learning some German, and getting to know Tib’s extended family.

On New Year’s Eve, Betsy and Tib stay up all night talking, and Betsy starts hatching her plan to reinvent herself in earnest. She makes a checklist of things to do differently on the train home.

One of those changes is adopting the ugly kreatyv spylyng Betsye, which I mentally pronounced Bets-YEE. Because, you know, letters mean something and aren’t just tossed into names willy-nilly to look cool.

Betsy Tacy Boxed Set 6 PB Maud Hart Lovelace Lois Lenski Heaven to Go Downtown 64401278 | eBay | Betsy, Maud, Hardcover

Betsy gets Phil to ask her to the Leap Year Dance by putting out the word that she had a dream about him (which never happened). To stay on the controlling Phil’s good side, Betsy passes up party invites, refuses to join the girls’ debate team or sing the silly Cat Duet she and her best friend Tacy have been singing for years, and almost declines to be one of the sophomore participants in the yearly essay contest. All so she can date a rich boy with a car.

As in the previous book, Betsy realises near the very end that she shouldn’t have pretended to be someone she’s not, all for the sake of popularity and male attention. This would feel less deus ex machina if she’d gradually built towards this instead of only coming to see the error of her ways when everything blows up in her face in a very public way.

I was also super creeped out by how Betsy’s sister Julia, a high school senior, dates two grown-ass men, one of them Betsy’s English teacher!

52 Betsy-Tacy Cover Art ideas | betsy, books, maud

I just can’t relate to someone who’s so boring and shallow, and lives such a charmed, idyllic life. Maybe I’d feel differently if I’d taken part in the cliché high school experience or grown up bourgeois.

Shallow high school hijinks, Edwardian-style

Heaven to Betsy (Betsy-Tacy, #5) by Maud Hart Lovelace

Because I mostly enjoyed Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, the fourth book in this vintage coming-of-age series strongly based on the author’s own overly idyllic life, I thought I’d like the high school books even more. After all, as characters gradually get older, their adventures automatically become increasingly more interesting and mature.

Right?

Wrong!

Amazon.com: Heaven to Betsy/Betsy in Spite of Herself (9780061794698): Lovelace, Maud Hart: Books

First of all, this barely qualifies as a proper Betsy-Tacy book because Tacy is barely in it. She’s relegated to more of a secondary character most of the times she appears, since she’s not interested in the shallow, insipid goings-on of “The Crowd” (what a stupid, unoriginal name for a big group of friends). This book would’ve been so much more compelling if Tacy’s lack of interest in boys, social life, and partying had been developed as a foil to Betsy’s new obsessions.

There was such poor character development of “The Crowd,” I totally forgot Herbert and Larry are brothers until it was pointed out again near the end! All these new friends ran together. While I usually write with large ensemble casts myself, you can’t just throw them all at the reader in one fell swoop! You gradually introduce them a few at a time, even if they’re all present early on.

Vera Neville’s illustrations don’t help, since they make everyone look almost identical.

Heaven to Betsy (Betsy-Tacy #5) by Maud Hart Lovelace | The Dog Gone Bookshop

This book feels like a reversion to the earliest books in the series in that it consists of a series of random episodes instead of one cohesive plot or story trajectory. Am I supposed to give a damn about the endless parties, get-togethers, and flirtations of these popular, upper-middle-class ninth graders? Or relate to Betsy for being instantly popular and sought after by multiple boys from Day One of high school?

Betsy is so obsessed with currying favor with “The Crowd,” she feels she can never turn down an invitation. At one point, she pretends her mother cautioned her against ice-skating due to cold weather, and when that ruse fails, she fakes a sprained ankle rather than tell her supposed friends she just doesn’t like skating.

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Despite attending what must be one of the easiest high schools ever, with only FOUR classes (Latin, composition, algebra, and ancient history), Betsy still manages to do poorly in everything but English for much of the year. Her final grades in Latin and algebra are Cs, and she somehow manages to greatly pull up her history grade near the very last minute to finish with a low A.

I was embarrassed for Betsy when she used a nonfiction essay about Puget Sound to write a freaking short story about herself, her friends, and her sister Julia taking a visit there. She read that “essay” before the entire school, and got a huge round of applause! If I were her English teacher, I’d have failed her for not following directions. I remember several assignments I got Cs on or was told to redo because I misunderstood the objective or made my own character up instead of using a real person.

Heaven to Betsy (Betsy-Tacy, #5)

The boys were so freaking entitled and obnoxious, I failed to see why any of the girls liked them so much. E.g., they break into a house during an all-girl Halloween party, steal the ice-cream, and hold it hostage till the girls feel browbeaten into inviting them inside. Later, they force kisses on unsuspecting, non-consenting girls as they walk under a doorway with mistletoe, and even laugh about how Tacy’s coming next and will be really mad. It is NEVER okay to kiss someone without consent!

Betsy is nominated as one of the two ninth grade contestants for the annual essay contest, and has six weeks to research this year’s topic of the Philippines. But because she just can’t turn down a party invitation, she only visits the library a handful of times and predictably comes to the contest poorly-prepared.

Betsy Tacy Boxed Set 6 PB Maud Hart Lovelace Lois Lenski Heaven to Go Downtown 64401278 | eBay | Betsy, Maud, Hardcover

There’s a subplot about Betsy and her sister Julia wanting to join the Episcopal Church and freaking out about how their Baptist father will react. I wish that storyline had been featured in greater detail, since it’s a lot more compelling than Betsy’s stupid parties and boy-chasing.

Minor nitpick, but I was pulled out of the story every time the Ouija board’s planchette was called a “table.” That’s never been the word used for that object! (And if you’re wondering, scientific studies have shown the Ouija board works by the ideomotor effect, subconsciously moving the planchette to answers you want.)

Bottom line: Betsy is really shallow and boring in this book, and it feels kind of deus ex machina and unrealistic when she finally realises near the end that she shouldn’t have abandoned her writing and pretended to be someone she’s not for the sake of popularity and male attention.

And enough already with the constant parade of unnecessary adverbs!

De Monarchia

De Monarchia is a three-part treatise Dante wrote anywhere between the 1290s and the final year of his life, 1321. Since this wasn’t an era when people tended to date their work, and record-keeping wasn’t as precise as it is today, we can only guess. Some people believe he wrote it when he still lived in his beloved Florence, while others think it was a heralding or commemoration of Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII coming to Italy, and thus written from 1308–14. Still other scholars believe it was one of Dante’s final works, written from 1318–21.

Though Dante argued for the use of vernacular language in De Vulgari Eloquentia, he chose to write De Monarchia, De Vulgari Eloquentia, Eclogues, and Quaestio de Aqua et Terra in Latin because it would assure a much wider audience. If he wrote in Italian, he’d only reach people in his own homeland, border regions, and nearby areas under Italian rule. In the Middle Ages, Latin was Europe’s lingua franca, understood by all educated people.

Because this book isn’t easy to find in translation, and the subject isn’t exactly lighthearted or of general interest, not many modern people have read it. As much of a passionate Dantephile as I am, even I can’t see many people choosing to read it for fun. It’s the kind of thing people might point to on their bookshelves as proof of how intellectual and educated they are, but aren’t very likely to have actually read unless they’re hardcore Medieval history scholars.

De Monarchia comes to about 28,000 words (plus a lot of modern, explanatory footnotes), so it’s not a very long read. Don’t come to it expecting to be blown away by beautiful, timeless poetry. This is about the relationship between religious (i.e., Papal) and secular (i.e., the Holy Roman Emperor). Dante tries to be fair to both sides instead of taking one absolute position and tearing apart any other views.

Dante’s position is that both the Pope and Emperor are human, and derive their authority and power directly from God. Because they’re both humans and peers, they shouldn’t have power over one another. While Dante was always very careful to kiss up to the Pope and take his religious authority seriously, he also didn’t think one peer should rule over another. Only God has the right to do that.

Instead, the Pope and Emperor are two equal swords, each given power by God to rule over their own respective domain. They should respect one another’s different spheres and not encroach upon matters and territories which aren’t theirs.

The purpose for which God created humans, Dante believes, is to make full use of our highest intellectual potential. And to do that, we need universal peace. If we’re forced to deal with wars, internal strife, and political bickering, we can’t accomplish our work very easily or freely.

It’s the natural order of things for one person to assume the leading role in a household, community, city, empire, etc. Very rarely can two equals share power without clashing, since the desire to be top dog and have no competitors is so strong.

Thus, the world needs one unified leader for its well-being.

Humanity is made in the image of God, and “is ordered for the best, when according to the utmost of its power it becomes like unto God.” And when we unite as one, we most live up to our Divine image, since God is also one. However, we need a single monarch and empire to achieve this oneness.

Justice is most effective when the monarch is just, and the worst enemy of justice is greed. Dante idealistically believes this perfect world monarch has no reason for greed, since he has nothing to desire with all his power and wealth. Greed is only manifested among rulers of individual cities and kingdoms.

Love and charity exist to the highest degree in this monarch, and thus his sense of justice is magnified and most effective. Because of this great love, humans are most free when ruled by a monarch instead of game-playing politicians.

Dante supports local rulers and laws, since every region has different needs, but the monarch should still govern in general matters germane to all humans.

As an Italian, Dante was obviously biased in claiming his Roman ancestors as the noblest people on Earth, and therefore deserved precedence over all others. He cites myths and fictional stories with heroes who can do no wrong, exaggerated and apocryphal historical stories, and Biblical literalism.

Dante interprets the Romans’ many military victories over other empires and huge expanse of territory as proof God was on their side. Lots of theological opining under the guise of historicity and political science follows.

While Dante believes the Pope has authority to rule the Church, he also thinks the Pope should stay in his lane and not meddle in secular governance. In other words, he advocates separation of church and state. Radical thinking for the 14th century!

In 1329, De Monarchia was burnt at the stake as heretical, due to charges brought by French cardinal Bertrand du Pouget. This was the same person who sought to have Dante’s bones burnt at the stake.

In 1559, the Inquisition included De Monarchia in its first index of forbidden books. It remained on the list till the end of the 19th century.

The Divine Comedy

Dante began work on his magnum opus somewhere between 1304 and 1308, inspired by an idea he’d had for many years—immortalizing his unrequited love Beatrice for all time in a long, epic poem. Since the original manuscript isn’t known to survive, and Dante didn’t record his exact writing dates, all we have to go upon are hypotheses. Dante finished it in 1320 or 1321.

The oldest known manuscripts date from 1330, hand-copied in full by the great Giovanni Boccaccio. He didn’t copy them from the original, but from other copies.

After Dante’s death in 1321, the final section couldn’t be located, and there were no notes left behind with instructions for finding it. Then Dante appeared to his son Jacopo in a dream, showing him where the end of the manuscript was kept. Jacopo found it in that exact location!

1555 Ludovico Dolce edition, owned by Galileo

The original title was simply Commedia (Comedia in Latin, as Dante identified the work to one of his friends). About 40 years later, Boccaccio first appended the adjective “Divine” to the title. The version pictured above marked the official first time the book was titled The Divine Comedy.

Many contemporary people are confused by the title, since it’s not what we recognize as a comedy in modern times. But historically, a comedy was a genre with a difficult start for the protagonist and a happy ending, written in everyday language.

The first printed edition was published in Foligno on 11 April 1472. Fourteen of the 300 copies are known to survive. The printing press is in Foligno’s 15th century Oratorio della Nunziatella (which is kind of like a chapel).

Venice printed the next edition in 1477, followed by Florence in 1481.

The book is divided into three canticles, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Each contains 33 cantos (i.e., a section of a long poem), for a total of 100, including the introductory canto. Most people count the first two cantos of each canticle as prologues.

Dante wrote in terza rima, three-line stanzas (tercets) with the rhyming pattern ABA BCB CDC. This was a poetic form he created, possibly influenced by the Provençal troubadours he so admired. Because Italian is such a poetic language, it’s easy to find natural rhymes for so many lines. It’s much more difficult in English, causing some translators to employ forced rhyme schemes.

Each canticle ends with the sweet, hopeful word “stars.”

Thirty-five-year-old Dante wakes up in the Wood of Error on Maundy Thursday 1300, no idea how he got there or lost the way so badly. Taking courage by the rising sun, Dante starts climbing the Delectable Mountain and presently encounters a female wolf (avarice), a leopard (lust), and a lion (pride). Dante turns back fearfully and comes face-to-face with another terrifying being.

Dante is ecstatic when the shadowy form identifies himself as Virgil, author of The Aeneid and Dante’s idol. Virgil says he was summoned by Dante’s lost love Beatrice, who’s desperate to save him before it’s too late. Virgil guides him through Hell and Purgatory, providing support, encouragement, and protection when Dante is afraid or overcome by emotions.

Dante encounters many famous people during his journey down through the nine circles of Hell, some of whom he personally knew. Each circle holds a different type of sinner, and the lowest circles contain multiple rings.

Dante and Virgil then reach the shores of Purgatory, which is guarded by Cato. The lower slopes of the Mountain of Purgatory comprise Ante-Purgatory, for souls who need to do extra penance before gaining admission to the real Purgatory. Purgatory proper has seven terraces.

As they leave the Fifth Terrace, they encounter Roman poet Statius, who accompanies them the rest of the way. Statius ranks fourth of the poem’s recurring characters, after Dante, Virgil, and Beatrice.

Finally, on Easter Sunday, Dante reaches the Earthly Paradise (the Garden of Eden) on the summit of Mount Purgatory and meets Matilda, who prepares him for his reunion with his beloved Beatrice. Dante begins crying when he realises Virgil is gone, and Beatrice rebukes him and tells him to pull himself together. For the first and only time in the poem, Dante is addressed by name.

On Bright Monday, the day after Easter, Beatrice escorts him to Paradise, composed of nine concentric, celestial spheres around Earth. Paradise is topped by the Empyrean, home to the most important saints and Biblical figures. Mary is on the top step.

Dante is able to see the light of God, and with it the perfect union of all realities and the understanding of everything in this world and the next. In the centre of this light are three circles representing the Trinity, but, being a mere mortal, Dante can only see so much.

His soul, however, perceives the harmony of the Universe, and he understands Love is the mechanism behind God, the Universe, life, and everything else in existence.

Long ago and worlds apart in small-town Minnesota, Part III

Seeing as I came to this series well into adulthood, without a rosy-colored childhood nostalgia view, it took quite awhile for me to start warming up to it. While I found some episodes cute, sweet, and charming, these books are just too idyllic and happy-clappy for my tastes. I quit watching Full House cold turkey at thirteen because I finally got sick of their unrealistic, syrupy, corny stories, insipid characters, and problems easily solved by quick heart-to-heart pep talks.

I’m not asking for a nonstop parade of doom and gloom, esp. considering these are children’s books, but at least give me some edge, real conflict, actual consequences or pushback when these kids misbehave, do something potentially dangerous, or annoy someone! Even a deliberately episodic, slower-paced, character-based story needs hung on some kind of arc.

The “Kids back in the day were so much more innocent and wholesome!” angle also fails for me. My great-grandparents were born around the same time as Mrs. Lovelace, and they only wished they could’ve had such an idyllic childhood as hers. Poor and working-class kids have never had that luxury.

Image result for betsy and tacy go downtown book cover

It’s 1904, and Betsy and her BFFs Tacy and Tib are twelve, old enough to start having more mature, sophisticated adventures like going downtown alone and attending the theatre. Betsy is also spending more time writing stories, often while sitting in the “crotch” of a tree by her house. (Until I read this book, I’d never heard the word “crotch” used in that way!)

Tacy comes to Betsy in tears, saying her dad burnt a book lent to her by Betsy’s family’s maid Rena, Lady Audley’s Secret. He denounced it as trash because it’s not “real” literature like Shakespeare and Dickens. (This élitist attitude towards popular fiction will come back later in the story, even worse.)

To get the dime to buy another copy of the book, the three girls force their presence on Betsy’s older sister Julia and her beau Jerry. In the past, Jerry has given them a dime to get them out of their hair, and they know he’ll do it again.

Jerry does one even better this time and gives them each a nickel. Now they’ll have five cents left over to buy candy. (If only the cost of living were still that low!)

Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown (Betsy-Tacy, 4): Lovelace, Maud Hart, Lenski, Lois: 9780064400985: Amazon.com: Books

Downtown, they’re amazed to see a car, the very first in their town. Its presence causes a great hullabaloo, and Tib eagerly volunteers to take a ride in it with owners Mr. and Mrs. Poppy. The Poppys are from Minneapolis, so glamourous they live in a hotel, and both weigh over 300 pounds.

After the brief car ride, the girls go to the Opera House and are delighted to see an advertisement for an upcoming performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was a hugely popular, famous play in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Everyone was familiar with the story, and going to see it live was a major deal.

Towards this end, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib launch a committed campaign to convince their new friend Winona to give them her other three “comps” (complementary tickets she begged off her newspaper editor dad).

After pulling out all the stops and finally resigning themselves to not being able to go, the girls are oh-so-predictably invited last-minute. They have an absolutely fabulous time at the show, and since they arrive so early, they’re able to tour the beautiful theatre. Best of all, they get to sit in an upper front box instead of the cheap seats.

BETSY AND TACY GO DOWNTOWN by Maud Hart Lovelace, Illustrated by Lisl Weil /1st: Amazon.com: Books

Some time afterwards, Betsy’s mother gives her a “writing desk,” a trunk that used to belong to Betsy’s maternal uncle Keith, who left home to become an actor and has been estranged from the family ever since. (This subplot, like almost everything in the series, is based on Mrs. Lovelace’s real life, but it feels so sappy and tacked-on!)

While Mrs. Ray is making a nice little writing station for Betsy, and insisting over and over she’ll never snoop and read Betsy’s stories without permission, somehow Betsy gets a bug in her ear and throws down her notebooks. Mrs. Ray sees their “scandalous” titles, like The Tall Dark Stranger, Hardly More Than a Child, and Lady Gwendolyn’s Sin, and tells Betsy she needs to read “great books” if she wants to be a good writer. God forbid anyone write commercial paperback fiction!

Towards that end, Betsy’s parents let her go to the new library every two weeks so she can read “proper” literature like Shakespeare, Milton, Homer, and Dickens. I was so pissed when Betsy threw her stories in the stove to be BURNT! She’s TWELVE! Find me one 12-year-old who’s pretentiously trying to copy “tHe ClAsSiCs” instead of, you know, writing like a normal CHILD!

Shaming a child, even in sweetened language, about the kinds of things she enjoys writing, isn’t a good look.

Betsy runs into Mrs. Poppy on her way home from the library, and is invited into the Poppys’ luxurious hotel suite. She’s delighted when Mrs. Poppy treats her to a tea party, promises to try to find Uncle Keith, and invites her and her friends to a Christmas party.

Betsy and her friends have a bunch of winter and Christmas fun over the next month, and Betsy sends a story to a magazine in Philly, hoping for publication and $100. Then everyone’s invited to star in an upcoming production of Rip Van Winkle, and you can probably guess what that’s leading towards.