Attempting to explain young adult (called in earlier incarnations “youth”) literature is consuming work even for scholars. So when my wife Lea stumbled across a Harper & Brothers youth book, Nan by a rather mysterious author named Lucy C. Lillie, a first edition from the 1880’s, I approached it with both caution and curiosity. And, of course, I added it to my extended 2013 reading list.
Books for youth from the period after the Civil War through the beginning of WWI, follow a practice that scholars refer to as “acculturation.” These books are full of “wise saws and modern instances,” as The Bard would say. and are designed to teach moral lessons (learn one’s Bible lessons and obey the law whether parental or governmental) and inculcate the “proper” social values: one should work hard and hope for success; one should, if one enjoys success (through what Defoe might call “seizing the main chance” for boys and marrying or inheriting that main chance for girls) share that success with those less fortunate; and most especially, one should observe the niceties at all times and mind one’s manners.
The hard to find out about Lucy C. Lillie‘s Nan is just such a set of lessons.
The story is a straightforward one: Nan is the orphaned daughter (the proliferation of orphans in youth literature of this era must certainly have contributed to children’s neurotic concern for the well-being of parents, one suspects) of a wealthy family’s estranged son who, at the book’s beginning is living in “slatternly” conditions with a relative of her mother. Her whereabouts are discovered by a wealthy (and, naturally, childless) aunt who sends an emissary (a genteel but less wealthy – and somewhat envious – older cousin Priscilla) to fetch her from her humble surroundings and lay her in the lap of luxury (within the constraints of Victorian taste, of course). She meets more cousins, including an even more envious younger sister of the aforementioned envious Priscilla who eventually causes her trouble and sorrow, unveils her own kind heart (Nan is one whose prime interest in life is “doing for the less fortunate” – a character trait we are told that more than compensates for her lack of “brilliance” in studies and “accomplishments”), and, after misfortune, ends up heiress to a large fortune.
This may seem oversimplification, but books such as Nan, one realizes, are not so much about “what happens” as they are about “how what happens to a person makes them become good or bad.” For Nan Rolf this means learning that being loyal to a cousin who has both done wrong and done her wrong could cost her happiness (and a bunch of money).
That cousin mentioned above, Laura, Priscilla’s younger sister, literally suffers via illness for wronging our heroine by stealing and then begging Nan not to expose her deed (knowing that Nan will then be blamed) – her health only improves once she confesses her wrongdoing and begins a suitable penance. Nan suffers exile for her misguided promise not to tell what she knows (in a sort of riff against the schoolyard code) and then reclamation once her character flaw is shown to be only mistaken loyalty and not theft.
Once Nan is restored to her Aunt (and her inheritance) she helps Laura to forgive herself by generously forgiving her, reassuring young readers that, as Julian of Norwich reminds us, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
At the end of the novel, Nan’s cousin Priscilla tells her, “…Nan, dear, I think it is going to be your path in life to help other people’s sorrows.” Nan responds, “If I can be good enough – and wise enough.”
Here endeth the lesson. No vampires, wizards, or post-apocalyptic nightmare scenarios are necessary for readers to learn that growing up is tough and that doing the right thing is harder than it might seem.
That might be terribly old fashioned – but it’s also pretty useful stuff for anyone to know at any age in any time period.