Visual Arts

“A Plucky Sort of Girl” Early 20th Century Fiction for Girls (and Others)

Why, what’s the matter?, asked Miss Celia, as Ben dropped the handful of what looked like rubbish. Alice Barber Stephens (1858–1932), for Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott (Boston: Little, Brown, 1905). Charcoal on illustration board. 19 3/4 × 12 3/4 in. (50.2 × 32.4 cm). Gayle and Alene Hoskins Endowment Fund in memory of Diane Nangle, 2013

In Edward Salmon’s 1886 article “What Girls Read,” the British educator proclaimed that “Boys’ literature…ought to help build up men… Books for girls… are mental food for…future wives and mothers…” His admonition prevailed among many American and British late-19th century fiction writers—women and men—who portrayed female characters engaged solely in the “domestic sphere” of home and family life and males involved with the wider world.

Advertising campaigns banked on this contrast as a selling point. But some critics challenged the status quo. An American reviewer commented that “girls, as well as boys, delight in life and action.” A British critic noted that “Girls’ literature would be much more successful…if it were less goody-goody.” Another questioned, “Why are there so many books…for boys, and so very few for girls? Do girls not care for reading? They certainly do if they get the right book…”

The world received an answer to that question in 1867, when Louisa May Alcott’s publishers asked the established author to write a “girls’ book.” Resisting the idea of writing something sentimental, she responded, “Said I’d try. …I don’t enjoy this sort of thing.” A year later, the first two editions of Little Women quickly sold out. The innovative story centered on the domestic life of four young sisters and their mother, but gave the characters individual personalities and varying expectations about their paths in life. Little Women set the tone for more “right books.”

Alcott’s wider lens gained popularity, especially among women writers. Over the next few decades, societal changes also affected popular literature, and fewer readers accepted Salmon’s edict about “future wives and mothers.” Readership diversified as national literacy advanced. Women’s rights advocates defied traditional roles. More fictional females ventured beyond housekeeping and child bearing. Catherine Louisa Pirkis’s 1893-94 collection of mystery stories The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective gave girls an adventurous heroine long before Nancy Drew, and as the distinction between childhood and adult literature diminished, so did the concept of boys’ and girls’ books.

She liked to have the children about her. Eugenie Wireman (1874–1961), for “Miss Clementine’s Christmas Present,” Harper’s Bazaar, January 1913, p. 11. Oil on canvas, 29 × 21 in. (73.7 × 53.3 cm). Gayle and Alene Hoskins Endowment Fund, 1982”

Johanna Spyri’s widely-translated Heidi, an 1880 favorite of the young Charles de Gaulle, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885-86), despite their titles and protagonists, were beloved by multi-generational readers of both genders. Black authors such as Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins—neglected by critics until the late 20th century—published primarily in the black press. Her 1901-02 novel Hagar’s Daughter, serialized in the Colored American Magazine, focused on a lively, mystery-solving Black woman, and exposed racial injustice. Women fiction writers such as Harriet Prescott Spofford contributed to several literary genres, including her biography of Charlotte Brontë and a critical introduction to an 1898 edition Jane Eyre.

In a period when readers expected illustrated stories, editors of best sellers and prestigious magazines chose artists carefully. For a 1905 edition of Louisa May Alcott’s Under the Lilacs, first published in 1878, the publisher commissioned the renowned Alice Barber Stephens, whose work appeared in books by Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Eliot, Arthur Conan Doyle, and popular magazines such as The Ladies’ Home Journal. In Under the Lilacs, pre-teen girls Bab and Betty befriend 12-year-old runaway orphan Ben, and the trio enjoys a summer of adventures under the watchful guidance of the girls’ resourceful neighbor Celia.

The children—who also embrace Celia’s disabled brother Thornton—learn compassion and self-reliance from their affectionate rapport. In this illustration, we see Ben reach into a drawer, while the curious Celia (her arm in a sling after a horseback riding mishap) and Thornton lean forward. They discover that money possibly stolen by someone in the household was simply shredded by mice. In choosing a moment of suspense and then relief, Barber Stephens also highlights the trust restored among the group. Summaries of Under the Lilacs often call it a boy’s coming-of-age story, but Celia’s spirited and self-assured character is the novel’s core.

Eugenie Wireman was the artist for Harriet Prescott Spofford’s story Miss Clementine’s Christmas Present in the January 1913 Harper’s Bazaar. She was a prolific illustrator of books, magazines, and advertisements, and created covers for leading publications ranging from The Saturday Evening Post to Collier’s. Art editors valued her versatility and expertise in depicting children. Wireman or the editor eliminated the original painting’s border design and caption, perhaps for space reasons.

The scene captures a warm and comfortable middle-class home during a snowstorm. Against a backdrop of decorative fabrics, a caged bird, and solid furniture, Wireman highlights the emotional isolation of the three people in the room. The standing seamstress, Miss Clementine, concentrates on items on the bed, the seated woman looks down at her sewing, and the girl with a ruffled pinafore and abundant toys faces away from the adults.

We are looking at the storyteller’s memories of her childhood, when her family, to her shame now, resisted paying their skilled seamstress more than her minimal wages. The narrator later welcomes the elderly Miss Clementine into her own home to save her from the “poorhouse,” and learns that the seamstress had used her meager funds to help a wayward young woman become a teacher. At the story’s conclusion, a benefactress steps in and buys Miss Clementine a house so she may have the “luxuries and pleasures” that poverty and selflessness denied her. The story exemplifies how women who worked in the “domestic sphere” of others did not often share in its privileges.

Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Prescott Spofford moved beyond formulaic stereotypes in their stories of girls and women. Alice Barber Stephens and Eugenie Wireman forged successful careers when such artists were still regularly categorized as “women illustrators”—set against a male standard that art critic Regina Armstrong described as harboring “a lurking suggestion… as if to separate the sheep from the goats, or to divide an art by a question of suffrage.”

The professionalism and courage of female authors and illustrators breaking new ground for boy and girl readers was well-stated by Ben in Under the Lilacs, when he remarks to outspoken, self-confident 10-year-old Bab “I guess you are a plucky sort of girl.”

Louisa, Harriet, Alice, and Eugenie—plucky women all. G&S

© Mary F. Holahan 2024

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