Sunday, November 24, 2013

Grace Harlowe's college years

Grace Harlowe's First Year at Overton College
Grace Harlowe's Second Year at Overton College
Grace Harlowe's Third Year at Overton College
Grace Harlowe's Fourth Year at Overton College

Josephine Chase dba Jessie Graham Flower

The story of Grace Harlowe's college years, as told in a series of four books, follows a series about Grace in high school, and proceeds two further series about her adult life. No longer in print, these pulp books for girls were published a century ago and are rather undistinguished as literature. Author Josephine Chase also wrote the Marjorie Dean series, with equally pedestrian titles and equally tun-of-the-mill plots and characters. This was the era when the genre of the college novel flourished, with iterations ranging from the literarily ambitious to this - novels by formula for a young audience that wanted exactly more of the same.

It's not a reflection on the era, of course, or even the age of the readers. The Sweet Valley novels that reigned during my childhood years were equally formulaic, while some girls' novels of a century ago featured fully developed characters that grew and changed over time. Not Grace or Marjorie! Then again, the girls wouldn't be able to change, at least not for the better, as they start off their series as the implausibly ideal girl. Grace might have a weak thought every now and again, but she would never act on it, and her friends all look up to her as an example.

In her book on campus life, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz describes the difference between the well-off, for whom affording college is not a struggle, and the ambitious poor, who must attend to secure a living - what she calls the college joe versus the greasy grind. Most of this struggle is invisible in the lighter college fare for children. Generally there is one poor friend, yet she somehow rarely struggles to keep up with her gang. But social difference does rear its head briefly in the Grace Harlowe series. Grace discovers a group of poor students living in a cheap, unpleasant boarding hall and forms an organization of students to raise funds for their aid. The aid is delivered anonymously, and most of it is given as loans. While the poor students go without necessities such as gloves, their patrons buy fabric and trimmings to make elaborate costumes for their fund-raisers. "It doesn't seem fair that I should have had such good times when so many girls here have nothing but hard work and worry over money matters," Grace says in her senior year. Not incidentally, these girls are "digs" who study hard and enjoy few of the pleasures of college life.

Even with additional funds and anonymous gifts of accessories, though, these poor students remain in a separate world. Class and money are addressed nearly directly at one point when Arline, an especially wealthy student, stays on campus for Christmas and serves as the anonymous benefactor of social outings for the poorer girls. On Christmas day they dine at two local restaurants regularly patronized by the wealthier girls - the first time for most of the poor digs. Arline comments to her friends afterward about how difficult it was to socialize with them because of these differences.

Much is made in college novels of the 19th and early 20th centuries of "doing something" for ones college (as well as one's class year) - in the more serious novels as well. Playing basketball, holding charitable events - these are "doing something." One can only assume the students at Overton who don't have the time or money to do for are thereby taking from the college, but doing nothing for it.

This brief flash of class consciousness aside, other forms of diversity don't appear. The students are, to a number, Christian, white, and female. (The last of these is to be expected at a woman's college, which Overton is.) The institutions of the era were not diverse, but the erasure of all diversity is still problematic.

In short, these books create a pretty, pleasant fantasy world, at least for those girls who can imagine themselves to be inside of it. They're amusing and, almost, harmless.