Nowhere on my voluminous "To Do" list was there an imperative to re-read Betsy and the Great World, my favourite instalment in Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy series. But I spent part of today doing just that. Nothing calms me in times of stress as effectively as revisiting a book that is essentially an old friend. Today, Betsy and the Great World did the trick.
For those of you not initiated into the cult of Betsy-Tacy, I offer up an excerpt from the first chapter which nicely sets up the rest of the book. As far as background goes, this particular scene takes place in the summer of 1913, Julia is Betsy’s older sister, Margaret her younger sister, and Tacy her best friend.
"Don’t think," Mr. Ray continued, "that Mamma and I haven’t seen which way the wind was blowing. You haven’t been happy, Betsy, and we’ve known it."
Betsy didn’t speak.
"You’re going to be a writer," he proceeded thoughtfully. "No doubt about that! You’ve been writing all your life. And you’ve worked harder this summer at that story you’re writing than you’ve worked for all your professors put together. What’s the name of it anyway?"
"'Emma Middleton Cuts Cross Country,'" Betsy replied. "It's about a little dressmaker, like the one who made my Junior Ball dress. She gets disgusted with everything and walks out and makes a new start."
"Sounds good," said Mr. Ray, nodding sagely, although he never read stories, except Betsy’s. "You certainly write like a whiz. Do you remember the letter Dr. Sanford wrote you about your story in the college magazine?"
Betsy nodded, moist-eyed.
"I was very proud of that letter," Mr. Ray said, which made her tears spill over for it seemed to her that she had given him very little reason to be proud of her lately. He put down his cigar.
"You're going to be a writer," he repeated, "and you need more education. That’s plain. But college isn’t the only place to get an education. I have a 'snoggestion.'" That was what Mr. Ray always called a particularly good suggestion. "I've sounded Mamma out and she approves. How would you like a year abroad?"
"But, Papa!" Betsy had thrown her arms around him, frankly crying now. "What a glo-glo-glorious snoggestion! I've always planned to go. But I never thought of you sending me. I thought I’d earn the money myself some day."
"Oh, I don’t think it would cost so much more than a year at the U!" said Mr. Ray. "You'd have to go in a modest way, of course. But Julia had two trips abroad. You’re entitled to one, too. Maybe when Margaret goes, Mamma and I will go along."
"Would I ... would I go to school over there?"
"You don't seem to be getting what you need out of a school. But judging by our experience with Julia, you learn a lot just from traveling in Europe ... seeing the art galleries, learning the languages and all that stuff. You could go on a guided tour like Julia did."
"No, Papa!" Betsy knelt beside him, her hands on his knee. "Guided tours are all right for some people, but not for a writer. I ought to stay in just two or three places. Really live in them, learn them. Then if I want to mention London, for example, in a story, I would know the names of the streets and how they run and the buildings and the atmosphere of the city. I could move a character around in London just as though it were Minneapolis. I don’t want to hurry from place to place with a party the way Julia did."
Her father looked perplexed.
"But it doesn’t seem safe, Betsy. You're only twenty-one. You know how much confidence Mamma and I have in you, but we wouldn't want you living in those big foreign cities all alone."
"Maybe we could pick out cities where I know someone ... or you do, or Julia."
"Maybe. I’ll talk it over with your mother."
So Betsy dashed off to Tacy’s apartment and they talked, talked about the wonderful trip.
"I’m just going to travel around like Paragot," Betsy said, referring to a character in William J. Locke’s novel, The Beloved Vagabond, a favourite with both of them.
And off she goes, setting forth from Boston on the S.S. Columbic in January 1914 and spending time in Munich, Venice, Paris, and London until the start of WWI cuts her travels short.
I’ve been meaning to read The Beloved Vagabond ever since I saw it referenced in Betsy and the Great World, but decades on I still haven’t gotten round to it. One book often leads me to another in my non-fiction reading; this is particularly true of literary biographies. But, though I often intend to, I can’t think of too many instances when I’ve taken up the book recommendations of fictional characters. Have you ever read a book simply because you read a reference to it in another book? Which ones?
I’m off to put a copy of The Beloved Vagabond on hold at the library. I’ll keep you posted as to how it measures up after a couple of decades of anticipation...
[Illustrations from Betsy and the Great World are by Vera Neville.]