The Poor Little Rich Girl, Eleanor Gates (1912) Classics Club Spin #29

I’m seven today,” Gwendolyn went on, “So I am going to walk. I haven’t walked for a whole, whole week. ” “You can lean back in the car,” said Nurse Jane, “and pretend you’re a grand little Queen!” “I don’t WANT to be a Queen. I want to WALK.” “Rich little girls don’t hike along the streets like common poor little girls.” “I don’t WANT to be a rich little girl…I don’t want to be shut up in the car this afternoon…” The Nurse gave a gasp of smothered rage, “Do you want me to send for a great black bear?”

This is a tough little read. Published in 1912 and considered a children’s classic I am hard pressed to understand why anyone would give or read this to a child. A common enough trope-the rich child who has all the material comforts, except attention from her parents and no agency over daily life-yet, the book is one long horror story of psychological abuse and emotional neglect of this precocious, compassionate 7 year-old girl.

Stuck all day in her nursery, Gwendolyn imagines herself a princess imprisoned in a tower. The wealthy neighborhood houses provide hours of creative mind-play in which she sees the faces through windows and imagines these strangers as her companions on sea bound journeys or, in another scenario, a loving safe home where her parents are always with her and she is “blissfully free of those whose chief design it was to thwart and terrify her-Miss Royle, Jane, [and] Thomas,” who are her governess, her nurse and the house footman, respectively.

Gwendolyn’s father is always at work and her mother is society-obsessed leaving the child in the care of these servants who take every advantage to abandon their duties toward the her, exploiting her childhood innocence and empathy to those in the world of whom she sees through her nursery windows. Gwendolyn longs to play with other children, to play outside, to walk and experience the world. Her wishes become fears as each servant in turn tells her she can’t go to visit her father as there are bears in the street, she can’t take a walk as there are kidnappers hiding to snatch little rich girls. The worst is when they threaten to call the doctor if she misbehaves, because she has memories of the awful tasting medicine she’s had in the past, awful enough that it is a big fear against calling the doctor when she gets sick which, later in the book, will have devastating consequences.

There is some comic relief, though. One of Gwendolyn’s endearing qualities is that she takes everything said to her literally. The use of everyday sayings, colloquialisms and idioms perplex her as she tries to figure out which foot is the best to put forward when visiting her parents in the dining room, or fearing that bee in her mother’s bonnet and how it got there. She is scolded over and over for being silly when asking about the little bird that tells things to people or why her German teacher is called Miss French.

A tragedy occurs when Gwendolyn becomes feverish after a day of crying because she wants to see her parents. She is so anxious and mentally confused that Nurse Jane calls the doctor for something to calm her. Jane gives her a spoonful of the medication, but becomes distracted when Gwendolyn takes it and doesn’t believe her when she says she swallowed it. So Jane makes her take another spoonful. This pushes Gwendolyn into an hallucinogenic overdose in which she meets all the fears the servants have scared her with: bears, doctors, policemen. But also in a way that helps her get over these fears as she finds resolution in this dream-like adventure.

She recovers and the neglect and abuse are revealed to her parents, but I was very glad to reach the end of the book.

Am I too sensitive? This book bothered me so much with the abuse going on for half of it without relief, that if the Classics Club Spin gods hadn’t chosen this book for me, I believe I would have dnfed it.

Now Gwendolyn,” whispered Jane, leaning down, “put your best foot forward.” “But Jane, which IS my best foot?” “Hush your rubbishy questions….” Gwendolyn glanced down at her daintily slippered feet. With so little time for reflecting, she could not decide which one she should put forward. Both looked equally well.

In each of the houses across the wide river she often established a pretend home. Her father was with her always; her mother, too—But her household was always blissfully free of those whose chief design it was to thwart and terrify her—Miss Royle, Jane, Thomas; her teachers; also, policemen, doctors and bears.

I tell you that if you run about on the street, like poor children do, you’ll be grabbed by a band of kidnappers.” “Are kidnappers worse than doctors?” “Worse than doctors! Heaps worse.” “Worse than—than bears?” “Kidnappers carry knives—big curved knives.” “Worse than a—a p’liceman?” “Yes, the kidnappers would take you and shut you up in a nasty cellar where there was rats and mice and things and”—Gwendolyn’s mouth began to quiver.

Title: The Poor Little Rich Girl
Author: Eleanor Gates
Publisher: Duffield & Company
Date: 1912
Device: Hardcover
Pages: 244

Challenges: The Classics Club, Mount TBR

11 thoughts on “The Poor Little Rich Girl, Eleanor Gates (1912) Classics Club Spin #29

  1. I’m thinking of other mistreated children in literature: several in Dickens, but also Jane Eyre, Sarah Crew, and Dido Twite (whom Joan Aiken nearly killed off, but fan mail changed her mind). Mark Twain satirized this trope in “The story of the good little boy” and “The story of the bad little boy.” And I can’t resist a reference to Edward Gorey’s “The Beastly Baby”. See also Oscar Wilde’s reaction to the death of Little Nell.

    Anyway, Laurie, thanks for the warning!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Yikes! I was thinking maybe I ought to read it, now that I know it’s an actual book, but it sounds horrible. Who thinks it’s a good idea to tell a child that bears are going to eat her?? No wonder we don’t see it around nowadays. Thank goodness.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have never heard of this! I mean, I’ve heard the expression, but I didn’t know there was a book with that title. It does sound absolutely awful. I think that we’ve gotten more sensitive to what is actually traumatizing, in many ways people in the past found the most horrific things totally normal, or funny or harmless. Of course that still goes on but I hope we’re starting to wake up more now.


    1. Not only was it a book, the year after publication, Gates wrote the play and it was on Broadway. I will excuse you if you don’t want to read it next year for ‘Reading the Theater!’ After the play it became box office hits as films. I just can’t imagine…

      While I want to say it could not be written now for the reasons you give, which I would hope, I think there is an element that enjoys this kind childhood trauma story. We live in difficult times.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I would read it just to track the development of that cultural phenomenon, how we have dealt in literature with trauma. There are so many examples, actually, and it’s a field that is changing, along with the field of understanding and treating trauma itself. I think in the past there were not effective ways to deal with trauma, thus that reaction of normalizing and distancing it. Now, thankfully, there better ways, and lately we have had an outpouring of memoirs in which people describe their painful childhoods but also how they came to hope and healing. If only the little rich girl could write one of those!

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I think in the past the affects of childhood traumatic experiences weren’t always taken seriously as something that could continue into adulthood. The “that happened a long time ago, so you should be over it’ school, which is totally ineffective. Gwendolyn had her parents to support her once they found out what she was experiencing and in that she is lucky.

          Liked by 1 person

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