Thursday, December 22, 2011

Aunt Jane's Nieces

So, I've been talking about collecting the Aunt Jane's Nieces series in vintage editions. But what about the stories?

Just to recap, the Aunt Jane's Nieces series was one of the best selling series for Reilly & Britton, later Reilly & Lee. L. Frank Baum penned them under the pseudonym Edith Van Dyne. Presumably, it was thought girls would be more likely to read books by a woman.

Pseudonyms allowed Baum to vary in his output. His real name was used mainly for his fantasies, Laura Bancroft got to do lighter fantasy tales, Captain Hugh Fitzgerald got to do adventure stories for boys, while a variety of pseudonyms (and one case of anonymity) produced some excellent adult novels. Suzanne Metcalf and Edith Van Dyne told tales of lives of regular Americans, though they would often feature "rags to riches" plots.

And we see such an example in Aunt Jane's Nieces. The first book appeared in 1906 and was followed by nine sequels.

The books follow Patricia "Patsy" Doyle, Elizabeth "Beth" DeGraf, and Louise Merrick, three cousins who became fast friends in the first book.

In the first book, old Jane Merrick is feeling ill and realizes she doesn't have much longer to live, but she has no heir. So, she decides her three nieces, who she has never met before, will visit and she will choose one of them to be her beneficiary.

The nieces are of three different classes. The Doyles working class, while the DeGrafs are middle class. The Merricks are uppercrust folk, though none of them really have any significant amount of money. Aunt Jane, however, is rich.

Beth and Louise arrive at the country estate of Elmhurst to coax Aunt Jane into making them their heir. Patsy frankly refuses. If Aunt Jane never wanted a relationship in life, there's no real point in leaving her job for a time to wait for the old woman to die. However, Jane re-extends her invitation to Patsy, and she eventually accepts, though she has no intention of getting Jane's money.

The three nieces meet Kenneth Forbes, the nephew of the Jane's fiancee Thomas Bradley, who died and left his money to her. Silas Watson, Jane's lawyer, thinks Kenneth has the right to the fortune, but Jane refuses. During the visit at Elmhurst, Jane's brother John arrives and stays with them, and the nieces become friends with John and Kenneth.

Eventually, Patsy's independent spirit wins Jane over, but Patsy still refuses to become the beneficiary. So Jane makes a will according to Patsy's wishes, but later makes a new one naming the girl her heir anyway. Shortly after, Jane dies and her last will is revealed. However, a twist arises when it is revealed that Thomas Bradley also had a previously unknown last will and testament. Jane was indeed bequeathed Elmhurst and the money, but only as long as she lived. In the event of her death, everything was to go to Thomas' sister or her heirs, meaning Kenneth.

Patsy is glad she isn't the heir, but Beth and Louise go home distraught. Uncle John says he has nowhere to go, so Patsy invites him to stay with her, meager though her home is. After a short time of living with Uncle John, Patsy and her father (the Major) are let go from their jobs. They are also evicted from their apartment and are given their own apartment building to run. Major Doyle is given the job of auditor of accounts at a bank.

Patsy's father eventually discovers that there is a very rich man named John Merrick. He thinks it's a coincidence, but eventually mysterious ties appear between Uncle John and John Merrick. Finally, he demands an explanation from Uncle John who admits to being the same John Merrick. He wasn't poor, everyone just assumed so and he never objected to their assumptions. He also gives the other nieces' families a hundred thousand each to help sustain them. He asks to retain his residence with Patsy and the Major, which they both willingly give him.

While everyone gets a happy ending, it feels a bit too nice. And really, I didn't like Louise and Beth at first. I didn't mention their rivalry, despite their eventual friendship. Early on, if you're reading the books with knowledge of a series, you might think, "These are main characters in the series? They're horrible people!" But Beth and Louise eventually win over the reader. They're not bad girls, they just really need help.

So, how do Aunt Jane's Nieces develop as a series? Let's see. I'm reading Aunt Jane's Nieces Abroad right now, so I'll let you know what I think of that one.


Glenn Ingersoll said...

I'm reading the series on an iPad. Because they are listed in alphabetical order in the batch I downloaded I read one out of order. Oops. I'm on Aunt Jane's Nieces at Work. I didn't dislike any of the girls in the first book I think because they were put in such an uncomfortable position by such a wretched old woman. The girls certainly had reason to be suspicious - not just of their bitter old aunt but of each other who they knew not at all. I thought the book quite good until the long lost will so conveniently surfaced. Then it was eye-rolling time.

Jared said...

"What a twist!"

L. Frank Baum did it ... not first. But before a lot of oft-cited examples.

Nathan said...

Wasn't John Merrick the Elephant Man's name?