Nina’s Career

June 7, 2018

The bad news is that Nina’s Career isn’t as good as The Story Book Girls. The good news is that it’s still good enough that I want to read everything Christina Gowans Whyte ever wrote.

Nina Wentworth is an orphan being raised in London by three spinster aunts. Their income will die with them, so eventually Nina will have to support herself, and as she’s shown some artistic talent, she’s training to be an artist.

That’s not what the book is about.

Honestly, I’m not 100% sure what the book is supposed to be about, and that’s my biggest criticism. I think it’s about the friendship between Nina, Gertrude Mannering, and Maud Howard. Nina meets the other two at the Howards’ annual children’s party, but she knows — her aunts make sure she knows — that she’s only a “once-a-year,” fun to hang out with if they’re thrown together, but not a part of their social world.

That changes when the three of them catch scarlet fever and are quarantined together for two months. They still live in separate worlds, but now they’ve built a friendship strong enough to stand the separation. There’s a summer in Scotland and a semester at art school together, but mostly Whyte has them living their own lives as if she has no control over whether they drift together or apart. The Story Book Girls had something of that quality, too, but the focus on four sisters and having Mabel’s debut and engagement as the end points provide some natural structure. Nina’s Career is more of a true ensemble, and, while I can identify some of the threads that run through it, sometimes that feels like imposing a structure that Whyte didn’t put there.

Nina’s career is just one of the threads, no more significant than any of the others, except in that it becomes a sort of byword among the girls’ friends and families. Maud’s thread is her love for her family, and that pulls most of the many Howard children into central roles. Gertrude’s is her insecurity, which is interesting enough that Gertrude sometimes has a gravitational pull on the plot — as she does on the people around her.

Gertrude has wealth and social influence, personal and inherited, and she enjoys the advantages they bring her, and is frustrated when she can’t bend the people around her to her will. But the other side of that is that she doesn’t really trust anyone to like her on her own merits, or to like her best. It’s a standard poor little rich girl story, I guess, but from a different angle, and maybe with a little more nuance.

You get to know Maud approximately as well as Gertrude, but — and I guess this is my second complaint, after the structural issues — Nina, not so much. There’s less to her, and, because she’s the title character and the one who introduces us to everyone else, you want more. Gertrude likens Nina to the heroine of a novel, and that’s true in good and bad ways. And she’s not the heroine of this one.

I don’t know whether the problem here is Whyte’s book or my expectations, but either way I don’t really mind. Trying to describe the book pushes me towards the things that were dissatisfying, but the little character moments are Whyte’s strength. When I think about Nina’s Career, I don’t think about what feels poorly balanced or incomplete. I think about:

  • Margaret Howard faking an attitude for Gertrude at the top of the mountain.
  • All the art school girls learning to pour tea like Whistler.
  • Elizabeth Howard’s wish coming true.
  • Maud and her dad.
  • Nina and Gertrude recalling a conversation from the beginning of the book at the end of it.
  • Any time Joyce Howard’s nose is put out of joint.

Etc. And, even though I finished it less than two weeks ago, I think about reading it again.



  1. All the art school girls learning to pour tea like Whistler!!!

    And, I guess, time to add Christina Gowans Whyte to the “snap up if this author is ever spotted at a library book sale” list…

  2. Question: do you know of any other Whyte books besides The Story Book Girls available online in ebook form? I took a quick look, but didn’t find any (none besides that one at Internet Archive).

    • Sadly, no. I’ve done a fair amount of searching but I haven’t come up with anything. I might try to scan or photograph the ones I’ve bought, because it’s super frustrating.

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