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

Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy (1895)

He sounded the clacker till his arm ached, and at length his heart grew sympathetic with the birds’ thwarted desires. They seemed, like himself, to be living in a world which did not want them…They took upon them more and more the aspect of gentle friends and pensioners—the only friends he could claim as being the least degree interested in him, for his aunt had often told him that she was not. “Poor little dears! You shall have some dinner—Eat, then, my dear little birdies, and make a good meal.” A magic thread of fellow-feeling united his own life with theirs. Puny and sorry as those lives were, they much resembled his own.

Jude Hawley is a heart-breaking character. As the titular protagonist he has been trying to fulfill a dream since his youth, but is thwarted at every turn by a personal moral code that forces him to do the right thing while watching his dream fade until its fulfillment is impossible. That this is also a novel about love and living out an unconventional relationship, it incurred such nasty criticism against Hardy, he abandoned fiction writing after his next novel, The Well-Beloved.

When the novel opens we meet young Jude who has just been left with an elderly aunt, because his parents have given him up. She does not hide her disdain at having to take him in. The pain of feeling unwanted will affect Jude for the rest of his life as he extends the sensitivity to his own pain to that of others forcing him into decisions that will ruin the onward focus of his life. Even now, at the beginning of his life, this sensitivity expands to the animal kingdom, in this case the birds he is tasked with “clackering” out of a farmer’s fields so they don’t eat his grain. Feeling their hunger he lets them eat and upon discovery is severely beaten.

Walking one day he goes on the top of a roof and notices the lights of a city in the distance. A mystical vision takes hold of him.

He had heard that breezes traveled at the rate of ten miles per hour, and the fact now came into his mind. He parted his lips as he faced the north-east, and drew in the wind as if it were a sweet liquor,“You,” he said, addressing the breeze caressingly, “were in Christminster city between one and two hours ago, floating along the streets, pulling round the weather-cocks,…and now you are here, breathed by me—you, the very same.

Suddenly there came along this wind something towards him—a message from the place—from some soul residing there, it seemed. Surely it was the sound of bells, the voice of the city, faint and musical, calling to him, “We are happy here!”

Christminster becomes the goal out of his miserable life as a chance meeting with a stranger tells him what the university town has to offer. Jude decides to study theology and begins a years-long study. For the rest of his childhood and throughout adolescence and young adulthood, he spends hours in the evenings laboring through Greek, Latin and the Church Fathers.

Jude grows into a decent, but naive young man, who is taken advantage of by women for whom marriage is the only endgame in this rural town. First, is Arabella, who raises and slaughters pigs and fakes a pregnancy thereby forcing his better nature into marrying her. Even after she tells him there is no child he continues in the relationship foregoing his studies to concentrate on the marriage, but there is no love here and Arabella leaves him without divorcing him, which will cause problems later.

Jude has been told of a cousin, Sue, living in the vicinity and when he discovers her, though he doesn’t speak to her at first, falls in love. Once he reveals himself he finds her views on marriage and relationships very out of the ordinary. She does not want to marry, wanting instead to live with him as a married couple. However, she succumbs to the stability offered by an older, professionally stable man leaving Jude heartbroken.

Jude’s life becomes more and more complicated and his dreams of studying at Christminster fade as Sue leaves her husband and goes back to Jude where the years pass and three children are born. Then Arabella resurfaces asking Jude to take her young son so she can go back to work. Jude takes on all these responsibilities willingly, but there is finally the realization that all his studying is for naught; life throws cogs into his every wheel and the vision of a life in Christminster will never become a reality.

There is no way to brighten up this picture and the ending is most pathetic and sad. However, this novel portrays a good man, whose moral code is based on kindness and sensitivity no matter how cruel the manipulation and lies of others. One of the best books I read last year, though it was painful, I highly recommend this journey with Jude.

A note on Jude and Sue’s relationship—living together as husband and wife, but not actually married—was so controversial at the time that the criticism Hardy received ended his novel-writing career. In fact, the criticism came to the US even before the book was published here, emphasizing disgust at the relationship, instead of recognizing the major ark of Jude’s story as a moral man of failed dreams. The book was even burned by a few bishops. Jude the Obscure gradually found sympathetic readers, but the damage was done and Hardy soon turned full time to writing poetry, for which he is also well-known.

After Sue leaves her husband, he says to a friend,

“Yes….I would have died for her; but I wouldn’t be cruel to her in the name of the law. She is, as I understand, going to join her lover. What they are going to do I cannot say. Whatever it may be she has my full consent to.” Says the friend, “Some men would have stopped at an agreement to separate.”
I’ve gone into all that, and don’t wish to argue it. I was, and am, the most old-fashioned man in the world on the question of marriage—in fact I had never thought critically about its ethics at all. But certain facts stared me in the face, and I couldn’t go against them.”

Sue on marriage:

Fewer women like marriage than you suppose, only they enter into it for the dignity it is assumed to confer, and the social advantages it gains them sometimes—a dignity and an advantage that I am quite willing to do without.

…I feel just the same about it now as I have done all along. I have the same dread lest an iron contract should extinguish your tenderness for me, and mine for you, as it did between our unfortunate parents…I think I should begin to be afraid of you, Jude, the moment you had contracted to cherish me under a Government stamp, and I was licensed to be loved on the premises by you—Ugh, how horrible and sordid! Although, as you are, free, I trust you more than any other man in the world.

Title: Jude the Obscure
Author: Thomas Hardy
Publisher: Barnes and Noble
Date: 1895, 1912
Device: Trade paperback
Pages: 418

Challenges: Mount TBR