Polly and Eleanor

April 14, 2019

So, I don’t know if the whole Polly and Eleanor series is going to happen for me, this time around. It’s partly that I’ve been reading too slowly and I’ve lost momentum, and partly that my attention is on other things. But also Polly and Eleanor is, you know, not very good–and in frustrating ways.

Polly and Eleanor picks up exactly where Polly of Pebbly Pit left off, in the aftermath of the girls’ discovery of a gold mine. Lillian Elizabeth Roy does some interesting and unexpected stuff with the mine. You get the expected stuff–defending the mine from claim jumpers, escaping a rockfall–but Roy also engages with less adventure-story, more practical problems. How will they be accessing the mine? It will take special equipment, which costs money? where is the money coming from? Can they sell natural resources from the Brewster’s property, or is Mr. Brewster’s desire to keep Polly at home going to complicate that? (Yes.) The answer is equally complicated, and involves a possible inheritance dispute, shady businessmen, the patent on a gem-cutting machine, and an investment from Eleanor’s rich businessman dad.

There’s a lot of talking about all that stuff, and in the end I felt like very little had actually happened. You know Polly is going to leave Pebbly Pit and go to school to become an interior decorator, because that’s how this kind of book works. Roy’s job is, I guess, to make it happen entertainingly, and there are moments when she does, but not enough of them, and the adventure and comic relief breaks aren’t good enough to leaven the main plot.

Girls’ books from the 1920s often feel to me like they’re struggling to bridge a gap between the past and the future. There’s a shift between…I don’t know. The Hildegarde or Patty Fairfield mode and the Nancy Drew mode. The Ruth Fielding series, even though it’s not particularly well-written, does this gracefully. The Polly Brewster series, less so. Roy pits Polly and Mrs. Brewster against Mr. Brewster in a battle for Polly’s right to follow her dreams the way her brother is allowed to do as a matter of course, and they win. Anne Stewart doesn’t want to get engaged to John Brewster while she’s her family’s primary breadwinner, but she capitulates. The servants’ played-for-comic-relief relationship feels very anti-female desire and ambition. And–oh yeah–there’s this whole thing where Tom Latimer, and adult man, is crushing on 14-year-old Polly and trying to get her alone so he can be romantic–with Eleanor’s encouragement. Yes, I know times were different, but there’s a very specific sexualization of young teenage girls that you see in girls’ books from the twenties, and I really don’t enjoy it.

There’s good stuff, too: I like Mrs. Brewster a lot, and I love the way Polly occasionally feels the need to call Eleanor out on her bullshit. Eleanor’s good intentions and lax upbringing put her in the occasional ends-justify-the-means situation. It’s a clever bit of characterization. But it’s not enough to make me sit through more of the rest. Does anyone remember whether the New York books are lighter on the unfunny comic relief and heavier on the girls’ friendship?



  1. I reread the New York book a few weeks ago, and looked over the table of contents to refresh my memory. The author’s “comic relief” generally relies on there being a group of characters to serve as the target. I don’t remember any in the New York book.

    I like how the author draws her image of ’20s New York city and how the transplanted girls deal with it.

    In the Abroad book that follows, we have the Alexander family, or at least the wife, as the target of attempted comedy. At least the author lets the dad and daughter (Dodo, really?) show themselves to have some character.

  2. The next book is the one where they move into a converted stable (but they have unlimited resources, so… I’m not sure how to phrase it, but there isn’t as much sport to it as there is in situations where there are real constraints? Also gentrification.).

    I don’t remember if there’s character development or relationship/interaction in that one, though, nor do I remember if there are Comedic Effect characters. I do remember getting kind of irritated a couple of times at the Only Right Way to Learn the Decorative Arts, though (period! classification! etc.).

    (and yes, the 14-year-olds with fully adult men: creepy. It has become less normal; it has never been fair to the females involved.)

  3. I really really need to start re-reading some of these– even the not-so-good ones can be fun!

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