“When this story begins, Elizabeth Ann, who is the heroine of it, was a little girl of nine, who lived with her Great-aunt Harriet in a medium-sized city in a medium-sized state in the middle of this country, and that’s all you need to know about the place, for it’s not the important thing in this story; and anyhow you know all about it because it was probably very much like the place you live in yourself.”
The opening of Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Understood Betsy hooked me in, and I just wanted to keep reading – and when I’d finished I just wanted to go back to the beginning and start all over again. I wish I’d come across it as a child (it is a children’s book, if you haven’t already guessed), but it doesn’t seem to be well-known in the UK, although it may be more popular in America – after all, Canfield Fisher was an American writer. In places it reminded me of The Secret Garden, while the kindly, amused authorial voice is reminiscent of Edith Nesbit, and the description of life in Vermont in the early 20th century is as fascinating and delightful as anything written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I think its a forgotten children’s classic, and it really does deserve to be up there with authors like Edith Nesbit, Frances Hodgson Burnett, LM Montgomery and Laura Ingalls Wilder – if you like them I’m sure you will love this.
Anyway, in addition to Great-aunt Harriet (who is ‘not very rich and not very poor’), Elizabeth Ann’s household also includes her great-aunt’s daughter Aunt Frances, who gives piano lessons to little girls, and Grace, their ‘girl’, who is nearer 50 than 40, suffers badly asthma, and does all the cooking and housework. They are all very small and very thin, even though get plenty to eat, and Elizabeth Ann has a pale face, with frightened, wistful eyes. Delicate and nervous, she’s cared for by timid Aunt Frances, a spinster who has read all the books on child rearing and wants to give Elizabeth Ann every advantage. But much as she loves the child she only succeeds in passing on her own fears and anxieties. She proudly tells everyone that Elizabeth Ann tells her everything, and so she does – but there are signs that she may not be quite as meek and mild as she appears, because when there is nothing significant to tell she makes things up to keep her aunt happy.
Then Great-aunt Harriet falls ill and Elizabeth Ann ends up a thousand miles away, on a farm in Vermont, with her unknown Putney relatives, about whom she has never heard a good word. She is nervous about meeting them because she remembers being told that they showed ‘such lack of sympathy, such perfect indifference to the sacred sensitivities of child-life, such a starving of the child-heart’. But Uncle Henry, Aunt Abigail and Cousin Ann know exactly how to treat a child like Elizabeth Ann – and it’s not by molly coddling her and wrapping her in cotton wool. They are kind, loving, and wise, but too busy to run around after her and pander to whims and frightened fancies. They encourage, but expect her to look after herself and help around the house and farm – and that’s just what she does. The fact that the Putneys are so casual and off-hand in their belief that she can do things gives her the confidence to do them.
They call her Betsy, a new name for her new life, and she learns to dress and undress herself, and to do her own her hair (tied back at the nape of the neck with a ribbon, a style she has always admired). She makes butter, apple sauce and maple syrup, lays the table, and learns to sew. For the first time she plays and laughs with other children and forms friendships. And she starts to think for herself, to solve problems, to notice what is happening in the world around her, and to care for others – a kitten, the family dog, a smaller child who needs a friend. She fills out, growing strong and sturdy, acquires a suntan, and loses the nightmares and delicate digestion that have always plagued her. There’s a heart-stopping moment when Aunt Frances writes to say she is coming to take Elizabeth Ann home, but this is a kind of fairy tale so, naturally, there is a happy ending (and, as I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for a happy ending, and this is such a happy, transformative story).
I suspect that the book very much reflects Canfield Fisher’s own views on child rearing and education, but she doesn’t preach. I knew she was a supporter of the methods pioneered by Maria Montessori, which involved the development of a child’s physical, social, emotional and cognitive well-being. But until I looked it up I had no idea how new this must have been in 1916 when Understood Betsy was published (the book is also set in that year). So I was surprised to find the small village school so child-centred, with each child assessed in each subject so work can be set according to their needs – Betsy, as we must now call her, is in the seventh grade for reading, the third for spelling, and the second for arithmetic. And the work carried out in school is part and parcel of Betsy’s growth at the farm. I wondered if it was a device used by the author, or if small village schools really did work like that.
There’s some nice domestic detail, especially the descriptions of rooms and furniture, and I was intrigued to find Aunt Frances is collected from the station in surrey which, it turns out, is more than a song in a musical – it’s actually a doorless four-wheeled carriage. And there’s a splendid account of Aunt Frances ‘looking ever so dressed up and citified, with a fluffy ostrich feather boa and kid gloves and a white veil over her face and a big blue one floating from her gay flowered velvet hat’. What was that all about? Why two veils? Was one of them the kind of thing that women wore to protect their faces when they wen motoring? And, as befits the occasion, Betsy puts on her new wine-coloured cashmere that Cousin Ann had made her, with a soft white collar of delicate old embroidery that Aunt Abigail had given her out of one of the trunks in the attic. I’d imagined Betsy and the other girls clad in frills, with a white petticoat over the top, but on her first night at the farm we’re told that the kitten plays with the necktie on her ‘middy’ blouse, which is more like a loose sailor top, worn hanging over a skirt.
This is my final book for the Virago Group’s February monthly read over at LibraryThing, which has been focussing on the work of Dorothy Canfield Fisher. It’s not a Virago book, but she is a Virago author, and I read it on the Kindle.