Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Yesterday's Dime Novels Today

Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley's Secret has garnered mention on a couple of my favourite blogs recently. Danielle noted that she has long been meaning to read it and Dorothy W. bought a copy last week.

I too have been meaning to read Lady Audley's Secret since picking up a copy at a thrift store. The book jumped out at me from the shelves because I remembered the pivotal role that it played in another book, one of my childhood favourites, Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown.

Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, the fourth instalment in Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy series, begins in 1904. Betsy Ray, twelve-years-old and a budding writer, has fallen under the spell of the dime novels that she surreptitiously borrows from her family's "hired girl" Rena, and passes on to her best friend Tacy Kelly. As the book opens, disaster has struck. Tacy's father found Rena's copy of Lady Audley's Secret hidden under Tacy's bed, and was so horrified at the idea of a child of his reading such trash that he flung it into the kitchen stove where it perished in the flames. Ever resourceful, Betsy and Tacy find a way to earn the funds to buy Rena a replacement—Mr. Cook of Cook's Books remarks that it's "a strange book for ... little girls to be buying"—but the impact of the incident extends beyond this adventure. After mulling over the fact that Mr. Kelly has pronounced the very sort of books she plans to write "trash," Betsy finds herself reluctant to share her latest stories with her mother. When she finally does, this is how the scene unfolds:

     Mrs. Ray gathered up the tablets. The titles flashed past. Lady Gwendolyn's Sin. The Tall Dark Stranger, Hardly More Than a Child.
     For quite a while she did not say a word. She did not open the books. She just stacked them into a pile which she shaped with her hands, thoughtfully.
     Betsy stole a glance at her mother's profile, fine and straight like George Washington's. It did not look angry, but it looked serious, grave.
     "I think," said Mrs. Ray at last, "that Rena must have been sharing her dime novels with you."
     Betsy did not answer.
     "Betsy, it's a mistake for you to read that stuff. There's no great harm in it, but if you're going to be a writer you need to read good books. They train you to write, build up your mind. We have good books in the bookcase downstairs. Why don't you read them?"
     "I've read them all," said Betsy.
     "Of course," said her mother. "I never thought of that."

The happy outcome of this exchange is that Betsy is given permission to go downtown by herself on alternate Saturdays to borrow books from the newly opened Carnegie Library. So begins her love affair with the classics.

With this build up, I can't help but have some preconceptions about Lady Audley's Secret. But more than a century has passed since Rena's copy of it was consigned to the flames by Tacy's irate father. How do yesterday's dime novels read today? Might Mr. Kelly's "trash" be my treasure? I am curious to find out.


Dorothy W. said...

Oh what a great post. I'm curious about Lady Audeley's Secret too, and I think I should re-read the Betsy-Tacy books because I used to love them but haven't looked at them in a long time.

Melanie said...

I enjoyed Lady Audley's Secret; and I liked the BBC film adaptation, mostly because Stephen Mackintosh is in it...I like him. :)

Eva said...

I read Lady Audley's Secret for the Classics Challenge earlier this year, and I loved it (! In fact, I read it all in one night. :) Thanks for talking about another book that sounds great!

Gentle Reader said...

Great post! I have Lady Audley's Secret on my shelf from when I went on a Victorian novel jag, but I never got to it. I think I'll have to pull it out again--thanks!

sassymonkey said...

I've never read the Betsy-Tacy books. But now I really want to, in fact, I may need to!

Orange Blossom Goddess (aka Heather) said...

Fabulous post!! I want to read it now!! Love the book cover!

danielle said...

I didn't read the Betsy-Tacy books when I was young--I should go back and read them now--they look good. I hate to admit though I love the classics, I sort of love those melodramatic sorts of dime story novels as well. I'm looking forward to reading Lady Audley's Secret--hopefully before the end of the year.

Julie said...

Makes me think of Louisa May Alcott, who wrote dime novels AND the episode in Little Women where Jo gets in trouble for writing them.

I only discovered the Betsy-Tacy novels as an adult. I have read several and liked them. I think I'd have liked them even more if I'd read them as a kid.

Kate, I took the liberty of tagging you for a meme. :)

Cereal Girl said...

Thanks for the comment re. my Frida Kahlo piece. It brought me here to what looks like a very interesting blog! I'll be reading.

Kate S. said...

It's great to see so much interest in Lady Audley's Secret. I look forward to comparing notes with you all when the book makes it to the top of our respective TBR piles!

Given the "dime novel" designation, I sought out the most lurid cover I could find online to illustrate the post!

It's funny to think of this book which was presented as being in dramatic contrast with the classics of the day a century ago now being considered a classic itself! Literary values certainly change with the times...

I didn't know that there was a BBC film adaption. I'll have to track it down and watch after I've read the book.

Excellent point about the connection with Jo March's early literary efforts. And just as Louisa May Alcott continued to write and published such potboilers even while seeming to condemn them in Little Women, Maud Hart Lovelace published more than a few melodramatic tales worthy of Lady Audley's Secret in her time!

Thanks for tagging me. The meme questions are very intriguing (as are your answers to them!) and I will enjoy having a go at them.

Kate S. said...

I find that the Betsy-Tacy books hold up very well to adult rereading, especially the high school books and beyond. I think that you'll enjoy revisiting them!

Karen and Danielle,
I know quite a few people who didn't discover the Betsy-Tacy books until adulthood and they've thoroughly enjoyed them all the same (as Julie attests in her comment). The writing in the series progresses along with the characters, so that the first three books which take Betsy et al from ages 5-10 are fantastic first chapter books for very young readers, while BATGD and the high school books that follow have a depth and richness that can be appreciated by older readers. For that reason, for anyone first reading the books as adults, I'd recommend beginning with Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown (the one I've quoted from in this post) or Heaven to Betsy (the first of the high school books) rather than with the very beginning of the series. Though if you really fall for them, you'll likely want to go back later to find out how it all begins...