Saturday, August 4, 2012

What I Failed to Learn from A Sweet Girl Graduate

Okay, so A Sweet Girl Graduate, by L.T. Meade, is not A Girl of the Limberlost, even though both are books about poor country girls who go to school. A Sweet Girl Graduate is not great literature. The heroine is relentlessly good, the story is preachy, and this is an example of the writing:

"Prissie felt full of courage and good resolves. She was going out into the world to-morrow, and she was determined that the world should not conquer her, although she knew that she was a very poor maiden with a specially heavy load of care on her young shoulders."

But I loved this book when I was younger, and I think it's still worth a read now. Here's why.

1. I love the entire genre that this book belongs to: the school novel. Maybe it's because I'm a professor and so I never really left school? I will read any book in which anyone goes away to school, from Jane Eyre to Harry Potter. And in A Sweet Girl Graduate, L.T. Meade really gets it right about what it's like to arrive in college: the strangeness of your room when you're in it for the first time, the feeling of being far away from everything you know.

2. The heroine's name is Priscilla Penywern Peel, which is such a great name. (She is aptly nicknamed "Prissie.")

3. The plot is basically Mean Girls of 1891. (There is so much drama about the relationships between the girls; I hope someone has written an article on depictions of sexuality and gender in this book! I do really like this take on the play that the girls perform.) Anyway, the meanest girl is blonde, baby-faced, and delightfully evil. L.T. Meade is so good at writing villains.

4. The other thing that gets me every time about this book is the interior decorating. I love L.T. Meade's room descriptions! Of course the whole point of the book is that decorating your room is wrong, because you shouldn't care about material things, but that's not the message I took away when I read it as a child. I just remembered the pale blue walls of Priscilla's room with their boldly-painted frieze of briar roses, and the cozy room of Maggie, queen bee of the college. Maggie's room is full of knick-knacks, "tempting, small, neatly bound books," and piles of sheet music. "A fire glowed on the hearth and a little brass kettle sang merrily on the hob. The cocoa-table was drawn up in front of the fire and on a quaintly shaped tray stood the bright little cocoa-pot and the oddly devised cups and saucers."

Oh, Maggie, I don't care how high-drama you are; I still want to hang out in your room and drink cocoa.

 (Maybe I need a brass kettle!)

 (And a cocoa-pot!)

5. In this book, Latin and Greek are beautiful indulgences, like cocoa-pots and coral necklaces (the story also involves the girls' desire for a lovely but decadent coral necklace). The moral is that you should give up these things: don't spend your money on expensive luxuries, and don't study subjects that won't get you a high-paying job. I get that. Studying Latin and Greek will not make you rich! But again, somehow I failed to learn any lessons from this book. I teach Latin and Greek, I like decorating my house, and I am totally going to get a cocoa-pot. I'm not tempted to get a coral necklace, because I don't like the idea of wearing coral -- but, okay, maybe I am a little tempted by this one:

(This pendant has already sold, so at least I'm not leading anyone down the wrong path with this image.)

6. Sure, A Sweet Girl Graduate has its issues. But I'm in favor of any book that involves women going to college and becoming teachers. I even love what Priscilla's Aunt Raby has to say on the subject: "Go and learn all you can at your fine college, Prissie. It's the fashion of the day for the young folk to learn a lot, and there's no going against the times. In my young life sewing was the great thing. Now it's Latin and Greek. Don't you forget that I taught you to sew, Prissie, and always put a back stitch when you're running a seam; it keeps the stuff together wonderfully. Now go to bed."


  1. Great post, Elizabeth. As it happens, I'm thinking a lot about young women going off to college as part of my new book project. There's an engaging history of American women entering co-ed colleges up to the present in Lynn Peril's "College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens and Coeds then and now". LOVE the coral pendant. I have a similar one but it's in amber.

  2. Thanks! I need to read that book; it sounds really interesting!

  3. That is a most elegant coral pendant I have ever seen! And the Victorian Trading Company has the cutest little chocolate pot.