Tuesday, June 14, 2011

LT Meade's A Sweet Girl Graduate - A Classic Fish Out Of Water Story

Hope everyone took a look at the "Anabel Lee" Glogster link I posted previous to this entry. That link was in relation to this post's book, A Sweet Girl Graduate by prolific early 20th century writer, L.T. Meade, who has been featured here before (and will be a number of times again, I suspect, as I have a number of her books on my shelves). More on the Anabel Lee connection later....

L.T. Meade portrait

A Sweet Girl Graduate is a story that will take you by surprise once you start reading because it is not the cute, innocent "chick lit" that one might expect and was so prevalent during Victorian and Edwardian times. Nope, this one is actually more as if someone today might mash up the story lines of Pretty In Pink and Mean Girls, with a tinge of gothic pathos for good measure. :-P

 For those not familiar with these films, check out below:

Pretty In Pink

Mean Girls

In A Sweet Girl Graduate, teenage Prisicilla Peel  or "Prissie", is that all too familiar "girl from the wrong side of the tracks"; she's orphaned and living with her aunt and three younger sisters in a small community in Yorkshire, England. By some stroke of luck, her aunt and the local vicar manage to pool enough money together to send Priscilla to St. Benet's, an exclusive college for women in Devonshire for 3 years.  Priscilla goes, planning on focusing on nothing but her studies - which turns out to be mainly Latin with an emphasis on Greek literature (and nowadays people pile into Business Administration classes!). Priscilla soon runs into the dilemma most first year college students hit - the realization that it takes some SERIOUS willpower to do nothing but study! Making her already unfamiliar environment even more bizarre and stressful is Priscilla learning that her room was the room of the enigmatic Anabel Lee, strangely a girl everyone loves to idolize but not really give any specific details about... and why are they talking about her in the past tense, Priscilla wonders?? 

Eventually Priscilla just gets fed up with all the mysterious talk and basically says "either spit the story our or shut the hell up ". Turns out Anabel Lee was formerly the most popular girl at St. Benet's (a place where the girls call themselves "inmates") and also the best friend of Maggie Oliphant, the reigning popularity queen. Anabel was of course everything nice: the most beautiful, the most glamorous, the best taste in everything,  the kindest heart, the cheeriest personality.... and then she unfortunately dies of typhoid fever, leaving the entire school, and most particularly Maggie, who idolized her, devastated. In death, Anabel is put on a pedestal much like her Poe namesake. As Edgar Allan Poe famously said, "The death of a beautiful woman, is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world."

Maggie is exposed to typhoid as well, but manages a recovery, though not fully as far as her spirit. Maggie, carries an immense amount of guilt around for being in love with Anabel's friend, Geoffrey, the most popular man in town (who, much to everyone's shock and disappointment, also develops a friendship with Priscilla, the "poor girl"). Maggie finds a second chance at a deeply meaningful friendship with Priscilla but it seems from every angle Priscilla is attacked for her lack of money and expensive luxuries in her dorm room. Everyone else has the best of furniture, linens, clothes... all paid for by indulgent parents,,, but no one seems to care too much about actual school attendance. Priscilla tries to do right by the people that worked so hard to give her a better shot in life but is blindsided by the vehement dislike of all these rich girls telling her she's not good enough to run in their circles. Maggie is cornered and questioned for her friendship with Priscilla.  Even Maggie's popularity was a mystery to me - though she was one of the richest girls in the school, throughout the story she constantly seemed to be having what she called "one of her bad half-hours" (only they were coming around like clockwork) where she would bite someone's head off for no reason one minute, call them names, ridicule them and then in the next instance profess her undying love and luck in friendship with them! It struck me as if maybe Maggie was a closet bipolar.

" Maggie's mood scarcely puzzled them. She was so erratic that no one expected anything from her but the unexpected..."

Not to say that bipolar people don't need love too, they do, it was just a mystery to me that Priscilla being poor was unforgivable but the abuse Maggie showed her friends was just considered something of a personality quirk! I saw this behavior a number of times myself when I was in school and it didn't make any more sense back then. Though being a girl myself, I just gotta get this out - women are freakin' weird sometimes!!

The saddest scenes are when Priscilla tries to put differences aside, help these girls out when they get in a bind and finds that she's been led into traps specifically set up to publicly humiliate her. To this day, I am still amazed at how catty women can get sometimes over the most petty things! Case in point, one of the girls, Polly, another slightly less popular but comes from a family with money kind of girl, gets into some money trouble spending too much in the local shops (she bought a bunch of stuff on credit and couldn't pay it back and knew her parents wouldn't give her the money). This poor girl has to auction off her stuff to raise money again so her father won't find out her spending addiction. Well, the girls go nuts, like tigers at dinnertime at the zoo, and start fighting over who gets what of her stuff - before she's even organized the auction! The school does not approve of the auction, but doesn't find out about it until it's over, getting a bunch of girls in trouble, including Priscilla, who didn't buy anything but merely attended because her friend Maggie was there. 

Much of the drama of the novel stems from this auction, where Maggie and Rosalind, a girl with a peculiarly strong hatred for Priscilla (which is intensified when Rosalind feels she's been replaced as Maggie's personal pet of a friend) get in a bidding war over Polly's sealskin coat and coral jewelry set. 
Coral Jewelry

Early 1900s sealskin coat

Maggie doesn't understand Rosalind's behavior and in fueled defense of her friend, Prissie, Maggie bids on the coat and wins it (though she has no interest in owning it). She also bids on the coral jewelry, mainly just to drive up the bid that Rosalind would have to pay. Rosalind gets caught up in the bid and ends up bidding five pounds higher than she can actually afford. It's like an episode of Storage Wars! :-P Thus starts the real drama to the story - what cheap levels Rosalind will stoop to, to gather that extra five pounds... eventually putting together a scheme that sheds a particularly bad, and undeserved light on Priscilla. But karma wins out in the end
;-) Big fan of that girl, Karma lol.

Priscilla reminded me a lot of me my first year of college, before I had a healthy dose of the real world lol. Many of the conversations she has with teachers and friends I remember having at times. One in particular, a scene where Priscilla visits the vicar that helped send her to school, struck me as a sort of a mix of myself then and now:

"So I have come to you," continued Priscilla, " to say that I must take steps at once to enable me to earn money...I must earn must as soon as it is possible for a girl to do so, and I must stop dreaming and thinking of nothing but books, for perhaps books and I will have little to say to each other in the future,"

"That would be sad," replied Mr. Hayes (the vicar), "for that would be taking a direct opposite direction to the path that Providence clearly intends you to walk in....when it comes to a woman earning her bread, let her turn to that path where promise lies...Here there is much." He touched her big forehead lightly with his hand. "You must not give up your books, my dear," he said, " for independently of the pleasure  they afford, they will also give you bread and butter."

I still struggle daily with finding my "bread and butter" path in life! And there have been times when I've said that I just need to pull my head out of my books, but in fact - those books are such a huge part of the person I've become today. They gave me a source of reason and teaching when nothing else was offered. They gave me peace in knowing that my feelings were not exclusive and I was not alone in days of suffering. As cheezy as it sounds, books also kept me believing in love and good people. If you don't have a source, any source, of hope and faith, what do you have??

Hope by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones

There was one other experience of Priscilla's that struck a chord with me: the moment she goes back to her humble roots after attending college and seeing a bit of the world:

"Priscilla had seen elegance and beauty since she went away; she had entered into the life of the cultivated, the intellectually great. In spite of her deep affection for Aunt Raby, she came back to the ugliness and the sordid surroundings of home with a pang which she hated herself for feeling. She forgot Aunt Raby's sufferings for a moment in her uncouthness. She longed to shower riches, refinement, beauty on her."

I've felt this a number of times in my own life, anytime I've "gone back to my roots". Though still modest, the life I live now would seem nearly "well-off" to those who raised me, because we started so close to the bottom.  I struggle with mixed feelings of being embarrassed of that former life and at the same time wanting to take my family still there out of it and give them the life they've never known. 

That's one of the things that surprised and impressed me about this novel - the subtle mix of innocence, darkness, petty behavior, jealousies, conflicted emotions, guilt... it's all in here!