A couple of weeks ago I was reading an article in a professional journal written by someone I know in the world of publishing. It was generally very interesting but one thing jumped out at me: the name of Helen Dore Boylston. I already knew that the writer of the article and I have similar tastes in children’s books (We once sat together at a conference dinner bemusing our fellow diners with our in-depth discussion of the Chalet School, Anne of Green Gables and Cherry Ames.) but I didn’t know that we were both collectors of the Sue Barton series.
Spookily, I had just finished re-reading Sue Barton and was about to move on to Helen Dore Boylston’s other series about Carol Page, an aspiring actress. The article hadn’t mentioned those books so I emailed my friend to ask if she knew them. On finding that she didn’t, I decided to take the first one, published in the UK as Carol Goes on the Stage, to the award ceremony of the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals where I knew we’d meet. I did and Alyx is now off on a quest to find copies of the books for herself. I might even be inspired to find better copies for myself. I’d really like to get hold of the original American editions.
Talking about the books has caused me to think about them again. They were originally published in the US between 1936 and 1952. I had read all of the Sue Barton titles by the time I was twelve in 1980. At that time they had been re-issued in paperback by Knight (I think!) and they were easily available to borrow from the library in Lossiemouth or to buy. It never occurred to me that the books were 40 years old at that point. And that must be one of the reasons they remained in print and popular for so long: they don’t date. There are some references that give their age away (an old man who had seen Florence Nightingale, Sue meeting Lillian Wald, founder of the Henry Street Settlement) but a child would have to be paying a lot of attention to pick these up. The only one of the Carol series I read as a child was Carol Comes to Broadway, the third title. I found it confusing because I’d missed so much of the history but I loved it. I was always aware, however, that the setting wasn’t modern as there are fleeting references to the Second World War. Like Sue Barton, though, Carol Page appeared to me a fairly modern heroine.
Even re-reading the books as an adult, I still don’t find them very dated. I know a little bit more about medicine now so I realise that things have moved on; and the manners and etiquette in the books are more formal than they are in my experience (unfortunately) but, that apart, they could certainly have been written in my lifetime. Except, maybe, for one thing: the romance.
Reading the books as a child, Sue’s relationship with Bill seemed quite believable (although I wonder what I really made of the life of a group of adults as a ten-year-old…) and, as a teenager, I was prepared to accept Carol and Mike’s. Of course, reading either series as an adult, these relationships clearly date the books. As far as I can remember, Carol and Mike don’t so much as kiss even though they’re engaged by the end of the series! I think Sue and Bill might have been slightly more daring.
However, I think that in spite of this, Helen Dore Boylston does something that few other authors of the period managed: she creates believable male characters. Compare Bill Barry with the male doctors Elinor Brent-Dyer introduces for her heroines to marry. If you have ever read the Chalet School books as an adult you’ll know that Jem Russell, Jack Maynard, Gottfried Mensch and even the non-doctor Dick Bettany are simply stereotypical collections of fine upstanding characteristics. Bill is, of course, a brilliant surgeon, handsome, funny and trustworthy. But he’s also short-tempered, a bit chauvinistic and can be hurt, vulnerable and depressed. In terms of publishing, Jo Bettany and Jack Maynard get married in the same year (1940) as Sue and Bill finally do the same.
I was going to say: and I know which hero I’d choose. But, actually, I’d go for Mike. Michael Horodinsky is tall, dark but certainly not handsome; he’s rude, insecure and a bit of a genius in the theatre; he has an inferiority complex the size of New England and a bagful of prejudices mixed with total honesty and trustworthiness. And it’s not only Carol who is surprised that he wants to marry her. Helen Dore Boylston creates a genuinely scratchy relationship between the two of them and it’s really only in the course of the third book that they become at all close and, even then, there’s no hint of romance. But there’s mutual respect and understanding of each other’s character and background. Mike matures and develops as a person as well as a producer throughout the series and I’m with Carol’s mother who tells her that she is a very lucky girl to have Mike fall in love with her!
I wish that Helen Dore Boylston had written more books and I especially wish that she’d taken Carol’s life further. And it seems that I’m not their only fan. Trawling the Internet recently, I discovered that a small American publisher (Image Cascade Publishing) has put out new editions of the Sue Barton series. Maybe Carol and Mike will be introduced to new readers sometime soon.