June 30th, 2011


My girl’s from Vassar…Jean Webster

Most people will have heard of Jean Webster’s most famous book, Daddy-Long-Legs even if they haven’t read it. Some will even know the sequel, Dear Enemy. I know I have copies of both and have wasted time in a fruitless search for them. They must still be in a box! The Patty books are much less well known and I’d never read them, so when I found they were available as free downloads for the Kindle I snapped them up.

When Patty Went to College (Patty & Priscilla in Britain) was published in 1903 and Just Patty in 1911. This is the wrong reading order as Just Patty is set at a school, St Ursula’s and When Patty went to College er, at college as you’d expect. Webster used her own experiences at The Lady Jane Grey School and at Vassar for background and colour. Patty Wyatt is a very different character from either Jerusha Abbott, the rescued orphan or Sally McBride, the social reformer. She whirls through life, always surrounded by friends, looked to as a leader and not appearing to take anything seriously.

Just Patty is definitely a school story, but very different from any English one you’re likely to have read. (For comparison, Angela Brazil’s first book, A Terrible Tomboy was published in 1904.) The American girls seem to spend a lot more time organizing social events then their English counterparts; they have lessons in ‘manners’; they have far more freedom to go out of bounds and to receive correspondence from whom they please. There’s no plodding arrival at school and then working her way up for Patty. She’s there fully formed, as it were and already an established school character when the book starts. You’d be looking a long time for any idea of schoolgirl honour or earnestness about work or games (although the girls seem to take basketball seriously).

Patty has a great way of turning the tables on the teachers. Miss Lord, the Latin teacher, is keen on sociology: Miss Lord was the one who struck the modern note at St. Ursula's. She believed in militant suffragism and unions and boycotts and strikes; and she labored hard to bring her little charges to her own advanced position. When Patty finds another girl in tears over learning eighty lines of Virgil, she tells the girls to strike for sixty lines on the grounds that Miss Lord should see the sense of it because ‘we’re just like the laundry girls’. "You, Miss Lord, will appreciate the fairness of our demands better than any of the other teachers, because you believe in unions.” Poor Miss Lord, hoist with her own petard. A compromise is reached but there’s no doubt that Patty is the victor. She has a wonderful knack of being popular with the girls and amusing the staff so that they tolerate her many breaches of the rules. Patty thinks trivial rules are just made to be broken, but she does nothing underhand or dishonourable. She has a lot in common with Rose Red of What Katy Did at School but is nicer, kinder and less irritating.
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