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» Monday, August 05, 2002
Hail Alma Mater!
Having had my first experience with early 20th century florid writing with one of my favorite writers, Albert Payson Terhune, and then continuing reading 19th and early 20th century children’s texts via e-books and old issues of St. Nicholas, I thought I’d experienced everything in wordcraft.
Then along came Jane Allen: Junior.
Jane Allen is a Montana girl–dad has a fabulously successful ranch–who is attending Wellington College (all-girls, of course) in the late ‘teens. Jane is one of that breed in this type of young adult fiction who, clean cut and bold minded, becomes an instant leader within her “set” of girls. Now in her second year as a junior (no, she hasn’t flunked out; she is taking extra studies toward her major, sociology, which somehow means a second junior year is required), the way is clear for her to become the most popular girl Wellington has ever known. She’s a good (not sterling) student and champ basketball player as well (apparently earlier books in the series talked about her prowess on the court).
Ah, the text! The book opens thus: “The late September day waved back at Summer graceful as a child saying goodbye with a soft dimply hand; and just as fitful were the gleams of warm sunshine that lazed through the stately trees on the broad campus of Wellington College. It was a brave day–Summer defying Nature, swishing her silken skirts of transparent iridescence into the leaves already trembling before the master hand of Autumn, with his brush poised for their fateful stroke of poisoned beauty; every last bud of weed or flower bursting into heroic tribute, and every breeze cheering the pageant in that farewell to Summer.”
While the book isn’t overloaded with descriptions of this sort, they do dot the textual landscape occasionally like imposing structures. One has to wonder reading the highly stylized dialogue of Jane and her chums if, even in the more formal days of the early 1920s, anyone actually spoke in this manner. Slang is, of course, always deplored and put in quotes, clearly representing to the reader that this is not proper English.
Viewed with a late 20th century eye some of the girls’ customs seem unusual. Girls walk with arms around each other’s waists, tenderly put a injured or sick comrade to bed with a loverly fuss, dance with each other when there are not enough boys at a holiday dance. Yet these were all fixtures of girls’ friendships in those days and no proper parent, nosy neighbor, or stern clergyman could have seen anything wrong with it. Here too are the “crushes” that were considered natural back then: a younger girl hero-worshiping an upperclasswoman, and frequently the older girl would mentor the younger with motherly affection. It always seems a bit melancholy that these friendships could now be seen as something totally different by cynics in a jaded world.