The Magazine

Where Has Jane Eyre Gone?

In praise of girls' books

Jun 25, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 39 • By GINA R. DALFONZO
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

OF ALL THE DREARY DEMYSTIFICATIONS of female experience advanced by feminists, surely one of the silliest is the claim that the heroines of girls, classics helped turn generations of admiring readers into milksops. Yet that is the thesis of Deborah O,Keefe,s Good Girl Messages: How Young Women Were Misled by Their Favorite Books.

A former professor of English at Vassar and Manhattanville, O,Keefe would persuade us that "many girls were damaged by characters, plots, and themes in the books they read and loved," because in these books "female virtue" is invariably bound up with "sit-still, look-good messages." Arguing from supposedly stereotypical literary scenes-depictions of mothers making their daughters feel safe and loved, for example-along with ominous anecdotes attempting to show how the women of her own generation are passive and pliant, O,Keefe insists that until about 1950, a vast literary conspiracy was trying to suck the brains and spirit out of little girls.

What is impressive about this contention is the boldness of its inversion of reality. Indeed, O,Keefe does her readers a favor by sending us scurrying to our shelves to pore through half-forgotten, well-loved stories and confirm that, sure enough, the exact opposite is true: The great girls, books of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (many of them further popularized in film, television, and stage versions) are filled with active, vibrant young women notable for their moral strength. These novels celebrate character in girls and women in a way that their contemporary counterparts, filled with characters brooding over nasty boys and weight problems, seldom do.

To revisit the girls, classics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, actually, is to enter a heroines, hall of fame. This doesn,t stop O,Keefe from disparaging characters like "brave but passive" Sara Crewe. The central figure in A Little Princess (1905) by the English-born American writer Frances Hodgson Burnett, best known for The Secret Garden (1911), Sara endures hardship, including her beloved father,s death and her resulting poverty, in a way that has inspired girls for a century. "You have to bear things," Sara explains to a friend early in the story, when her father has left her at boarding school. "Think what soldiers bear! Papa is a soldier. If there was a war he would have to bear marching and thirstiness and, perhaps, deep wounds. And he would never say a word-not one word."

This kind of stoicism is bad, O,Keefe explains, because eleven-year-old Sara doesn,t escape her awful situation on her own, but merely suffers until a heroic male, her father,s old friend, rescues her. Besides, isn,t there something sinister, O,Keefe insinuates, about this "father-worship"?

Yet it would be hard for parents to provide their daughters a better model of generosity and resourcefulness than Sara Crewe. With the help of a few friends and a vivid imagination, she creates an inner life as a "princess" that helps her endure the worst circumstances with dignity. In the book,s most moving scene, Sara uses a coin she has found to buy six buns, then gives five of them to a beggar girl who is even hungrier than she is:

[Sara] was talking to herself, though she was sick at heart. "If I,m a princess," she was saying, "If I,m a princess-when they were poor and driven from their thrones-they always shared-with the populace-if they met one poorer and hungrier than themselves."

Sara,s imaginary royalty gives definition to her private sense of who she is: one held to a very high standard. Her notion about princesses (whether or not Burnett intended it) reflects the Biblical concept, second nature to nineteenth-century readers, that the greatest of all is the person who serves others. It makes Sara so attractive that her story has never gone out of print.