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Nancy Drew and Her Rivals: No Contest (Part II)

password to larkspur laneWhat seem to me to be the telling differences between Nancy and her cohorts fall, very roughly, into two categories. The first is autonomy; the second is a steady, profound, but largely covert and, I think, largely inadvertent feminism.

Harriet Adams’s imitators didn’t miss the point about autonomy — which was, after all, plain as a pikestaff in every Nancy Drew story — but neither did they get it right. They were quite willing to lop off a parent — only Judy Bolton has a full set, and she soon outgrows their authority; but, unlike Adams, they never freed their heroines entirely from adult authority. Some saddled them with single parents who worried or set limits. Some showed them against school backgrounds or allowed them to be ruled occasionally by housekeepers, employers, or officials. Mildred Wirt echoed Adams’s fulsome assertion of her heroine’s freedom, but her story constantly contradicts her, as Penny meets at every turn some adult afflicted with a normal sense of responsibility toward her youth and inexperience.

Dorothy Dixon is an exception to some of this, as she is to most generalizations; adults hardly figure in her stories, and school is never mentioned. She has the requisite single parent, a bank president father, very rich and very rarely an active part of her life. He is readily squashed. When he objects to the idea of her confronting the smugglers who tried to machine gun her plane, she says, “‘Daddy, don’t be redic,’” in a tone “tolerantly amused,” and he immediately subsides. If she wants some little thing — her own plane, for example — she wheedles, and he grants her wish, remarking fatuously how she has him wound around her little finger.

This, of course, misses the mark as badly as Mrs. Tracey’s ineffectual hand-wringing over Kay’s pea-brained quests, and not only because wheedling seems wildly out of keeping with Dorothy’s character. The point about Nancy Drew’s freedom is not just, or even mainly, its completeness; it is its dignity. Nancy’s independence is not a gift coaxed from dim or fond adults. Autonomy is her right, won by her responsible and intelligent management of practically everything, and it is never seriously questioned. The enviable ease with which she exercises her total independence of adult authority is as impressive as the independence itself. In a typical passage Nancy, fresh from some adventure involving a rainstorm, has begun a conversation with her father when Hannah intervenes with maternal solicitude: “‘You run up and take off those damp clothes at once, and take a hot bath before you catch cold!’” Nancy meets this modest demand with an aplomb born of certainty: “‘I’m not wet, but thank you for the advice!’ Nancy laughed, ‘I’m just as cozy here as can be.’” And that’s all there is to it: no argument, no defiance, no resentment, just a flat, good-natured, absolute refusal.

Even the obligatory discussions with Carson Drew about Nancy’s sleuthing plans are more occasions for Carson Drew to express a loving concern for her welfare than his cue to lay down the law about risks she must not take. Again, the emotional level of these exchanges is low: “‘Oh Dad, I’ll be alright,’” is usually sufficient to reassure Carson Drew. If not, he gives her a gun for protection, otherwise trusting her “good judgement” to keep her safe.

At sixteen. Nancy suffers from none of the irritating, arbitrary limitations that normally surround the young. She behaves like an adult in all matters of consequence; even more important for her readers, I suspect, she is treated like an adult. The occasional exceptions to this, mostly in early books and mostly by uncomprehending policemen, offer an opportunity for comeuppance scenes in which the doubters are reduced to confusion when they discover who it is they have scorned, while Nancy retains “the composure of a queen.” Crooks, of course, fall into the error of thinking that they are dealing with a “mere girl,” but Nancy’s flashing eye and crushing dignity soon alert them to their mistake: “Nancy’s eyes narrowed. [The villain] hesitated. Something warned him that he was not dealing with a girl who could be bluffed.”

In short. Nancy transcends youth, moving through life with assurance and without struggle. Though she courts adventure and faces threats, she never has to contend with the humiliations, self-doubt, and uncertainties common to her age; she never has to plead, bluster, or fight for her independence. She is always right — the hallmark of adulthood to a child — always effective. Only villains, dumb policemen, and nouveau riche ever oppose or dislike her. All socially acceptable people, rich or poor, powerful or suitably grateful, admire her and accept her autonomy.

The feminist aspects of Nancy Drew’s allure are more complicated than those of her autonomy. In fact, feminism, as we usually use the term, often seems hardly to apply, yet the strongest messages in Nancy Drew are feminist — and absolutely central to the phenomenal appeal of the stories. I am not in a position to say how conscious or, at least, how crusading a feminist Harriet Adams was. But if she had set out to convey a strong feminist message through her books, presumably the Dana girls would have expressed it, too — and they don’t. Though these heroines are successful sleuths, they are also subject to the routine condescension girls encountered in the 1930s books, even those written expressly for girls. Nancy Drew never is. It is as though the character Edward Stratemeyer created carried with her a certain internal logic to which Adams responded; responded indeed, to the point of heightening the effects and curbing lapses in the original. All the early Adams stories intensify, in small but significant ways, the characterization Stratemeyer began.

Stratemeyer, for example, called Nancy “unusually pretty.” Adams favors “attractive,” generally, and often leaves it at that; when she enlarges on the subject, however, she suggests the real source of beauty: “though [Nancy] could not be termed beautiful, her face was more interesting than that of either of her companions.” Stratemeyer also established Nancy as “unusually capable” at sixteen, saluting her “habit of thinking things through to their logical conclusion.” Nevertheless, he often referred to her ideas as “intuitions” and tended to attribute both her abilities (“probably inherited from her father”) and the respect she commanded to Carson Drew. Adams, on the other hand, emphasized skills and thinking more than “intuition” and usually took pains to describe Nancy’s competence as a result of self-training: “she had developed an amazing ability to fight her own battles in the world”; “[she had] trained her powers of observation”; “Good fortune attended her largely because of her own efforts.” Adams consistently stresses intention over happenstance. When George exclaims, “‘Oh, Nancy, I believe you’ve stumbled upon a real clue,’” Bess corrects her promptly: “‘She didn’t exactly stumble . . . She reasoned it all out.’” A cold-eyed reader might see the long arm of chance in every chapter, but Adams rarely admits it is there.

Stratemeyer’s grasp of the legend he was — all unwittingly — fashioning was not always as sure as that of Adams. It is startling to find even a brief excursion into pathos in a Nancy Drew mystery, but the first book has one: locked in a closet by a crook, “at first, Nancy was too frightened to think logically. She beat frantically upon the door with her fists . . . At last, exhausted . . . she fell down upon the floor, a dejected, crushed little figure.” It is a moment Adams never reproduced. She allows Nancy her fears, even flashes of panic in various tight spots, but she never asks her reader to see Nancy Drew as pitiful. The persona that developed over the first ten years of the series had to do with triumph, not sympathy.

Nancy’s universal competence is the most evident of the themes in the series which might be called feminist. The appeal for girl readers is beyond question; it would have spoken to them at any time, but the message was doubtless especially welcome in an era when such a characterization of a girl had so little company. The feminist current runs stronger than that, however.

Crusader or not, Harriet Adams took Stratemeyer’s promising beginning and built on it until Nancy Drew was a model of strength and achievement which must have stirred every one of her readers at some level. Steadily, with emphasis but not stridency, Adams used her heroine to counter every stereotype of “feminine” weakness, including such standard fictional attributes as frivolity, vanity, squeamishness, and irrationality, quite as much as dependence and incompetence. More quietly yet, and more remarkably, still without disturbing the conventional surface of the stories or blundering beyond acceptability, Adams dropped into her narratives scene after scene of sex role reversal.

From the beginning Adams was at pains to establish Nancy’s seriousness, a quality granted freely to boys and men in fiction but rarely to young girls. “The news reel . . . held Nancy’s attention for a time, but as soon as a comedy was flashed on the screen, she lost interest.” A film on New York society bores her. George and Bess, always representatives of the norm, enjoy such fare and often fritter their time away in light pursuits. Characteristically, when the three girls are en route to Arizona by train, George and Bess play bridge with other travelers, while Nancy retires to the observation car to read up on the West. A full-fledged participant in the working — which is to say adult — world. Nancy is restless when not engaged in sleuthing; by the end of a vacation, she finds the “steady routine of fun . . . slightly monotonous.” George and Bess, of course, bemoan the end of their holidays.

Nancy’s qualities are constantly set off by those of less serious minded friends. As befits her vocation as a professional and in contrast to others of her age and sex. Nancy is disciplined, self-controlled, and prudent. Fond as she is of Helen Corning, her close friend in several early books. Nancy doesn’t tell her much about the mystery she is investigating because Helen is a “natural bom gossip . . . it would be impossible for her to keep the matter to herself.” Even when verbally assaulted by a low class woman, Nancy can remember her purpose and control her response: “‘Nancy, how could you keep your temper?’” exclaims Bess. To which Nancy replies, “‘What good would getting angry have done? . . . I found a clue by keeping the reins tight on my temper.’”

Serious, competent, disciplined, and determined. Nancy already stands well apart from the usual characterizations of girls in formula fiction. But to observe her in action as she goes about her self-appointed business of sleuthing is to recognize how completely she has traded in the standard feminine role for an equally standard masculine part, not just in her initiative and courage but in other ways as well, particularly vis-à-vis her closest “chums” — and Ned.

Even when not detecting, Nancy takes on roles normally awarded only to males. At Shadow Ranch, though all the girls except Bess join in the roundup, only Nancy is allowed to “cutout,” and she does it with her usual style: “Nancy rode fearlessly into the herd . . . if she was uneasy, she did not show it, working deliberately and with cool calculation.” Later, when four girls go into the mountains, Nancy takes along a revolver, with which she competently shoots a lynx. Later still, when the girls are badly lost, Nancy recognizes the part she must play. “Sensing that the morale of the group was about to break, Nancy knew she must assume definite leadership. Though her own courage was at low ebb, she must not disclose by word or action that she feared the worst.” Finally, in one of the many confrontation scenes, Nancy actually socks the villain: “her fist landed squarely under Zang’s chin . . . he . . . sagged to the floor.” This last was perhaps a little extreme for Mrs. Adams; I don’t find many instances of direct physical assault on villains, even by the redoubtable Nancy Drew.

But the role reversal is more interesting in the one-to-one exchanges between Nancy and friends. It is easy to miss because the parts played really have nothing to do with sex and everything to do with character. Given Nancy Drew’s confident, assertive personality, her behavior follows quite naturally and in no way comes through as masculine.

In Larkspur Lane Nancy is accompanied on her increasingly dangerous investigations by Helen Corning, who is cast in the highly recognizable female supporting role: admiring, anxious, respectful, and inconsequential. “She did not venture to question her chum, whose face was set in determined lines. ‘Nancy, you are so brave and capable,’ Helen sighed. Nancy made no reply.” And again: “Helen wisely left Nancy to her own thoughts, waiting meekly in the car.” And yet again: “Nancy was so engrossed in her plans that she did not answer [Helen’s questions], so Helen resigned herself to silence.”

The duet continues as Nancy proposes to leave Helen over her protests: “‘I’m afraid, and I don’t want you to go alone . . . ’ [Helen] sobbed.” Nancy reassures, but Helen goes on worrying and objecting until Nancy loses patience: “‘Oh, do brace up,’” she says sharply. “Helen could not refrain from weeping a little.” Once Nancy has the intended rescue in hand, she tells Helen to go while she stays to see things through. Again Helen protests, anxiously, but Nancy is adamant. “‘I — I — ’ began Helen, but Nancy leaned in and choked her off with a kiss. ‘Please hurry,’ she urged.”

None of this would be at all remarkable were a male protagonist in Nancy’s place. The counterpoint of courage against fear, protest against impatient reassurance, is all very familiar, as is the meek silence in the presence of a deeply preoccupied hero — when the hero is masculine. Women, on the other hand, are usually expected to be attentive and responsive to others at all times; no one hesitates to interrupt a woman, since her occupations are judged neither important nor demanding enough to require real concentration. Nancy Drew, filling the role of hero, is also transcending her sex.

As for Ned, I think that Mrs. Adams was not very interested in him, any more than many male authors are interested in the women they supply as appendages to their male heroes. Ned is necessary only because Nancy Drew must not lack any advantage a girl of her age might want; he is really just an attribute, like her golden hair and general popularity with her peers.

He gets short shrift, poor lad, from Adams, who never cares enough to make him anything but bland, obliging, and boring, as he does from Nancy who keeps him well down on her list of priorities. In Larkspur Lane Nancy remarks to Helen that she had called Ned and told him “something” of her plan. “He didn’t agree with [it] at all, yet what can he do about changing it?” she says offhandedly. He offers to go with her as she explores, but she puts him off: “You may be of greater help in the reserve line of attack, as they say in the army.”

Role reversal hits a high point in The Haunted Bridge, with Nancy vigorously sleuthing and organizing while Ned plays the dull, ancillary roles normally filled by girls. When an old man must be nursed in a cabin well away from the action, Nancy assigns Ned to do it. “‘I don’t seem to be of much use at anything else,’ Ned muttered . . . [Nancy] gave the boy a warm smile and bade him take good care of the patient.” After several days, she relents enough to offer him a night out. They are going to a dance at the resort hotel, but Nancy’s mind, as usual, is on more serious things than dances or Ned. When he presents himself and asks how she likes his new suit, her reaction is absent-minded: “‘You look handsome in it,’ Nancy praised, without noting in detail what he wore.”

And, of course, she does precious little dancing. She and Ned spend most of the time in the garden, “concealed” in some bush, waiting for a suspect to appear. She is not altogether heartless. Seeing Ned “glance wistfully toward the lighted ballroom,” Nancy says, kindly, “‘Won’t you go inside and dance?’” But Ned says he would rather stay with her; he knows his place, after all: “You tell me what to do and I’ll obey orders with no questions asked.”

The level of this kind of thing fluctuates from book to book. Ned is sometimes given a part to play in a last-minute rescue; Nancy is sometimes more complimentary toward him. But the balance of power is never altered in any real sense; it is always Nancy who thinks, directs, and acts. Her attitude toward Ned is amiable but preoccupied: as late as 1948 she forgets a longstanding date with him. Ned is, basically, ornamental.

Naked and in full view, sex role reversal would have been radical stuff for 1930s series books — for any children’s book, for that matter. But, of course, in Nancy Drew, it never was bare and open; it was thoroughly veiled by layers of conventional propriety. Except for her taste for sleuthing, Nancy sends few outward signals that she is not bound by every standard, even stuffy, social expectation. Her language is ever formal and correct; she eschews slang, even of the mildest sort; approves of people of “good family” and good taste; and disapproves of those whose clothes or voices are loud or whose furniture is gaudy. For all her accomplishments, she is modest, as becomes a young maiden, always “flushing” at the praise so frequently heaped on her, always giving credit to others for the help she hardly needed. Not the faintest hint of masculinity emanates from Nancy. She never looks “slim and boyish in jodhpurs” as Dorothy Dixon does; she wears “frocks,” “sports dresses,” and an “exquisitely furred coat.” She shops — quite a lot, actually — and thinks about what clothes she’ll take to the Emerson dance. Chum George may “scoff at anything feminine,” but Nancy doesn’t. Her behavior is exemplary, her opinions unexceptional, and her acceptance in society is complete. A reader of Nancy Drew was unlikely to feel herself in the presence of radicalism.

What Harriet Adams achieved in Nancy Drew was, apparently, as accidental as it was monumental. “If I made Nancy liberated, I was unconscious of the fact,” Mrs. Adams said in 1980. It is an ungenerous statement, but entirely believable. Adams’s portraits of other women and of society in general seem ample evidence that she was neither a feminist nor any other kind of social radical. Yet Nancy Drew is the very embodiment of every girl’s deepest yearning. As an image which combines the fundamental impulse of feminism with utter conventionality, she represents a wish which may be as unrecognized by the reader as it was by the author, but a wish that is nevertheless felt at some level by every woman faced with the disadvantages of her sex.

It has always puzzled me that Freud found it so difficult to know what women want. A woman of his own time could have told him:

“The woman who wants to be a man — what is it that she really wants? . . . She wants to be what she may be and ought to be, a fully developed human being . . . not to be a male. It is man who keeps insisting on the distinction of sex — woman would willingly forget it.” [Annie L. Mearkle, “The Woman Who Wants to be a Man” Midland Monthly 9, (1898), p. 176.]

Harriet Adams could have told him, too, though not in such clear abstractions. But the answer was there to read in every Nancy Drew book — and in the sales figures they generated.

Women, and girls who are beginning to look toward being women, want what Nancy has. They want to be women and people; they don’t want to have to choose between the two as though they were incompatible. They want to be taken seriously, given credit for what they accomplish; they want to be who they are with no more arbitrary restraints and preconceived expectations than men must contend with. They want to take part in the world directly, not to be pushed to the periphery, always and ever assigned a supporting role.

And they want all this without having to put themselves outside the normal rules of acceptance in society. They want to be accepted as women without struggle or disapproval or isolation at the same time they function as people. Nancy Drew’s allure derives directly from these wants; she is the idealized expression of these yearnings as they translate to formula fiction.

In formula fiction, realism is irrelevant, and complexity is a mistake; the difficulties of change, the process, conflict, and nuances of social reality are not acknowledged. Nancy Drew is hardly fully developed as either fiction or reality, but she is unmistakably the image, however abstract, of a young woman who is able to forget the “distinction of sex” — at least so far as that distinction is rewritten as limitation. As a girl who suffers none of the social drawbacks of her sex, who functions as only men are normally permitted to function in her society without losing the least part of her acceptability as a woman. Nancy Drew is herself the dominant message of Adams’s series.

Adams’s genius, even if it was unconscious, was to wrap her dazzling creation in a cloak of such thick conventionality that neither author nor readers were ever obliged to look directly at its light. But the glow that escaped the muffling sufficed, and it gave the Nancy Drew mysteries a radiance her imitators never had.

From the July/August 1987 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. The first part of this article appeared in the May/June 1987 Horn Book; read it here.

About Anne Scott MacLeod

Anne Scott MacLeod is a professor at the University of Maryland and the author of American Childhood: Essays on Children’s Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (University of Georgia Press).

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