Betty Wales

March 25, 2008

I’ve spent the past week writing the first draft of my thesis, which is why I haven’t updated. But although I may stop writing here, I never stop reading, and one of the things that made working on my thesis the most difficult was that I became completely absorbed in reading the first few Betty Wales books.

I had a very strong sense of déjà vu all the way through the first half of Betty Wales, Freshman and then again through the second half of Betty Wales, Sophomore, and I’m still not sure whether I’ve read them before or whether it’s just because these college girl books are all so much alike. My best guess so far is that the beginning of Freshman uses a number of incidents that appear in lots of similar books, and that I did at some point — probably about six years ago — read Sophomore.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that books about college girls from the first couple of decades of the twentieth centuries have a fairly limited range of plots between them. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not fun individually. The Betty Wales books are nice. They’re a bit better written than the average college girl series book. The characters occasionally seem as if they might be, you know, human.

And that’s also why they’re kind of painful. Having had first-hand experience of being at a women’s college, and having, this past semester, made a huge effort not to ever have first-hand experience of it again, I know that the quiet, bookish girl who has a hard time making friends does not always find her niche. Nor does the girl who doesn’t feel like a part of the college community necessarily learn to make the student body’s ideals her own.

They’re pretty good, these Betty Wales books. But if you hated college, you might find that they make you kind of miserable at times.


  1. My favorite college girls series is the Molly Brown books by Nell Speed, although the series becomes less delightful after Nell died and her sister took over writing the books. You can tell the shift in authors, even though they continued to be written under Nell’s name.

    I attended a women’s college (and loved it) and even took a Jan term (three week) course called “The Education of a Girl at Notre Dame,” in which the college historian brought to life what a girl attending the college in the late 1800s or early 1900s might have experienced. It was one of my favorite classes.

  2. These books (I just found them in the public domain collection manybooks.net, and am currently reading Sophomore) remind me incredibly strongly of the book Daddy Long Legs, although the main character of Betty Wales is far less sympathetic and down-to-earth than Jerusha Abbott (who I see now as Betty Wales with a little Jane Eyre in her). The strange thing about these books is that I feel the author identified with the side characters: snobbish, yet vulnerable Eleanor, poor, plain Helen, and enigmatic, self-effacing Miranda; more than she identified with Betty, who she once calls (from another character’s point of view “nothing more than a pretty child”).

    • I think all college girl books from this era are at least a bit similar, and I find that a lot of plot points are repeated from series to series. Most of the authors — including Jean Webster — went to Vassar, although the author of the Betty Wales books went to Smith.

      The side characters are definitely fun. And if you like them, you might be interested in checking out the Grace Harlowe books — mostly the college ones, although if you’re a completist like me, you’ll probably want to start with the high school ones.

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