Common Traits of Nineteenth-Century Girls' Series Heroines

Girls ' series books became popular in the nineteenth century and have remained popular for well over 150 years, changing their patterns and protagonists to fit the tenor of the times. During the nineteenth century, two major character types prevailed in girls' series fiction: the sweet, passive heroine and the active, flawed one.

Elsie Dinsmore is perhaps the earliest example of the first type. This kind of heroine is usually thought of as soft, pretty, sweet, faithful, often pious, and generally unassertive. Elsie embodies all of these traits: she turns to her father, husband, or Lord for comfort, advice, and reassurance; her loyalty to these three is unswerving. Indeed, her strong faith provides the central conflict in Elsie at Roselands, the second book of the series, and her obedience to her father and her Lord is stressed throughout the series. Elsie is often described as pretty or lovely in a wholesome, unaffected way and is fond of wearing simple white dresses. She speaks softly and cries easily.

Despite her many adventures, Elsie is essentially a passive heroine: things happen to her; she does not go out and initiate them. She shows determination and assertiveness only when defending the things she loves: her religion, father, or family. Her only break with this tradition is an occasional touch of slight temper in the early books, a flaw which she works to correct.

Similarly, Clover Carr (What Katy Did series) also possesses these traits. This description appears early in the series:

She was a fair, sweet dumpling of a girl, with . . . short-sighted blue eyes, which seemed to hold tears, just ready to fall from the blue . . . these eyes, and her soft cooing voice, always made people feel like petting her and taking her part . . . Clover was sunny and sweet-tempered . . . and very modest about herself... Everybody loved her, and she loved everybody, especially Katy [her sister] . . . whom she looked up to as one of the wisest people in the world.
          -- Susan Coolidge, What Katy Did

Katy will do the scrapping and fighting; Clover will always remain essentially the peacemaker, soft and domestic, standing up only to defend family and home.

A third example of this type is found in Flossy Shipley in the Chautauqua Girls series:

She was small and fair, blue-eyed, flossy yellow curls lying on her shoulders, her voice was small and sweet, almost too sweet or too soft . . . She was going to do or not do, speak or keep silent, approve or condemn, exactly as the mind which was for the time being closest to her chose to sway her.
          --Pansy, Four Girls at Chautauqua

These are ultra-feminine heroines who look to others for assistance and guidance. Indeed, Flossy's greatest change through the series is the development of her religious faith and the courage—but only when supporting or defending it—which accompanies her conversion.

Except for Elsie, this type of character is usually not strong enough to sustain a plot for an entire book. Elsie is the exception, not because of any significant difference in her character, but because the books are structured so that things happen to her. The Elsie books are based on her trials and sorrows, and the plot action controlled by her tormentors. Elsie's part is only to bear, and bear bravely.[1]

A second, stronger type of heroine is needed to do what Elsie and the others cannot—generate enough interest and action to move a book along and enliven it. Often, the two types of characters are paired in a series with the dominant personality taking a more visible role. Witch Winnie and Adelaide Armstrong (Witch Winnie series), Katy and Clover Carr (What Katy Did series), and Ruth Erskine and Flossy Shipley (Chautauqua Girls series) are examples of this. In a few other series, the strong character stands alone, as with (the eponymous) Mildred Keith.

The second type of heroines are essentially good, in that they have the right instincts and desires, and sterling characters, but they are still working to overcome some flaws. Jo March, in Little Women, may have been the model for this (just as her sister Beth embodies the first type): Jo has all the right impulses, but is cursed with a temper, impatience, and awkwardness.

Katy Carr, especially, exemplifies this pattern with a vengeance:

Katy's hair was forever in a snarl; her gowns were always catching on nails and "tearing themselves" . . . Katy was the longest girl that ever was seen . . .Whenever she stopped to think about her height she became very awkward, and felt as if she were all legs and elbows . . . Happily, her head was so full of other things, of plans and schemes, and fancies of all sorts, that she didn't often take time to remember how tall she was. She was a dear, loving child, for all her careless habits, and made bushels of good resolutions every week of her life, only unluckily she never kept any of them. She had fits of responsibility about the other children, and longed to set them a good example, but when the chance came, she generally forgot to do so.
          --Susan Coolidge, What Katy Did

Katy is, in this description, the most extreme example. Many of the other characters have one or two of her flaws but not all combined. Temper, impatience, pride, insufficient love for or tolerance of others (usually because of the first three qualities)—these seem to be the major problems for other heroines. Ruth Erskine has pride, which interferes with her ability to love and witness as her new-found religion requires; Mildred Keith, too, has difficulty loving some of her less refined neighbors and is sometimes impatient or angry with her younger brothers and sisters and the neighborhood gossip; Witch Winnie is impulsive and outspoken. (It should be mentioned that the characters do not remain this way. Part of their stories focus on their character development, and by the end of the series they have learned to control or overcome their faults.)

These girls have other common traits: they are assertive, ready to stand up for their rights, if necessary, and are capable of facing up to and coping with the world. They do not need to lean on fathers, husbands, or relatives for support, but, rather, have family members and friends who turn to them for advice and assistance. Their faults, too, are connected with their independence. These characters like to get things done and are not always patient or understanding with those who are more timid or less energetic or who interfere with their plans.

Despite their differences, both types of heroines also display certain similarities in background and character. All are essentially good Christian souls, with a clear awareness of good and evil and a desire to do right. Most are well educated, either at home (Mildred Keith, Elsie Dinsmore) or at school (Katy and Clover Carr, Witch Winnie and her friends, Ruth Erskine). Most love books and knowledge. Though the majority are from upper-middle class homes, often with fathers in respected professions (doctors, lawyers, judges), the girls would be able to support themselves if necessary, either as schoolteachers (because of their education) or in a more specialized area of the arts. Several have special, but not extraordinary, talents: Elsie and Mildred play the piano (and Mildred does give lessons for a while); Witch Winnie is an artist.

The girls, none-too-surprisingly, are all attractive—though a certain Pride and Prejudice syndrome is in the background, as the girl who is physically the most beautiful is not always as loved and admired as the girl whose character and intelligence give her a certain spark that adds to her attraction. [2]

The heroines are also natural or unspoiled—pure in heart, unsophisticated at times, sincere. They are expected to judge others solely by character, without other considerations; to be polite, but honest; and to enjoy life, but always in a wholesome fashion. Much is made of this: Katy Carr is often contrasted with her cousin, Lilly Page, a class-conscious, shallow girl whose manners are regulated by the status and income of the company she is in and who is perfectly willing to slight those whose social status is not equal to or better than her own.

The Elsie books also stress this point. Elsie is often sneered at by her Aunt Enna, a girl two years younger than Elsie. Enna takes pride in looking more sophisticated and worldly than her niece, and is repeatedly shown as shallow and selfish, interested in styles and status--in appearance, not character. All of the series bring up the contrast between worldly, shallow characters and the unaffected heroines at least once. Some come back to it repeatedly, including foil characters like Enna and Lilly as part of a continuing cast. For example, Elsie and Enna are compared not only as adolescents, but also as adults, showing the long-term effects of such attitudes:
Enna had lost flesh and color; and long indulgence of a fretful, peevish temper had drawn down the corners of her mouth, lined her forehead, and left its ugly pencilings here and there over the once pretty face, so that it already began to look old and careworn. She was very gayly dressed, in the height of the fashion, and rather overloaded with jewelry; but powder and rouge could not altogether conceal the ravages of discontent and passion. She was conscious of the fact, and inwardly dwelt with mortification and chagrin upon the contrast presented by her own faded face to that of Elsie, so fair and blooming, so almost childish in its sweet purity and innocence of expression.
          --Martha Finley, Elsie's Womanhood

A final common trait is the single-parent syndrome -- or, to be more specific, the widowed father as head of household. Elsie, Katy and Clover Carr, and Ruth Erskine all come from this environment. All except Clover are either an only child or the eldest child and thus have a special relationship with their fathers. In several cases there is a non-threatening (i.e., impossible to marry) female present in the household: Elsie's mammy and Katy's Aunt Izzie (her father's sister) are two such examples. In some cases, the father remarries in the course of the series (Ruth Erskine's Crosses, Elsie's Girlhood), and the girls' reactions and adjustment sometimes provide subplots for the books.

To a certain extent, these traits carry over into twentieth-century girls' series. Nancy Drew blends both types of protagonist, and might be considered an active/passive heroine: She has the assertiveness, education, and intelligence of the stronger heroines, and in some degree creates many of her own problems by her persistence in tracking down criminals, but still displays some of the traits of the first type of heroine, like Elsie Dinsmore. Nancy has much of Elsie's perfection. She is also "done to": much of the plot centers around the actions of the villains (who are just as flat and evil as they are in the Elsie series) who attempt to swerve Nancy from her course, just as the Elsie series depends upon Elsie's antagonists, who either sneer at her purity or try to lure her from the straight and narrow. Elsie clings to God, while Nancy believes firmly in right and justice. Nancy also shares many of the other traditional characteristics of the nineteenth-century series book heroine: she has is attractive, talented in the arts (dances ballet), apparently well educated (able to discuss Shakespeare with her boyfriend's college professor), and she comes from an upper-middle class, single-parent home with a professional (lawyer) father.

Other twentieth-century heroines, such as Trixie Belden, Cherry Ames, and Judy Bolton, echo the traits of the spirited, but flawed heroine. They are assertive, intelligent, often impatient or quick-tempered, attractive, and upper-middle class. Trixie and Judy are natural and unaffected and are occasionally contrasted with more worldly or sophisticated characters, just as Elsie Dinsmore and Katy Carr were, years before.

The two types of characterization, passive and active, played a key part in shaping the themes and tone of nineteenth-century girls' series, and, in the process, presented young readers with models of different personality types and their reactions to life's challenges.


[1] In this respect, the model for the books appears to be earlier religious fiction and lives of the martyrs, where the plot centers on suffering for one's beliefs; it's perhaps significant, too, that Elsie dies in the first book, but is revived: this, in one sense, could be considered a form of resurrection, since, after her death and reawakening, she's soon taken to her (earthly) father's house to live with him there.

[2] The characters in Pride and Prejudice might be considered as early influences on the girls' series: Jane is a passive, pretty heroine; Elizabeth, a strong one.

Copyright 2001 - Deidre Johnson

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