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Holiday Book Bonanza ’09:
Noralee Frankel

It has become a holiday tradition on the OUPblog to ask our favorite people about their favorite books.  This year we asked authors to participate (OUP authors and non-OUP authors).  For the next two weeks we will be posting their responses which reflect a wide variety of tastes and interests, in fiction, non-fiction and children’s books.  Check back daily for new books to add to your 2010 reading lists.  If that isn’t enough to keep you busy next year check out all the great books we have discovered during past holiday seasons: 2006, 2007, 2008 (US), and 2008 (UK).

Noralee Frankel is the Assistant Director, Women, Minorities, and Teaching at the American Historical Association.  Her new book, Stripping Gypsy: The Life of Gypsy Rose Lee, is the biography of a woman who was constantly torn about her choices as a beautiful and intelligent woman immersed in the burlesque world.

Strong, smart, independent women provide the thread that ties my favorite adult and children’s book: Gaudy Night by mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers and Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace. Gaudy Night is one of a collection of mystery novels about detective Lord Peter Wimsey and Emily of Deep Valley is one of the Betsy, Tacy, Tib, children’s books about girls growing up at the beginning of the 20th century in a small Minnesota town.

For Emily, high school graduation in 1912 represents a peak experience with her commencement speech on Jane Addams and parties with her popular cousin’s friends. Emily enjoyed high school where she was a star debater even though she was quiet and shy in social settings. Unable to go to college so she can care for her eighty one year old grandfather, orphaned Emily mopes for months. Finally she decides to become an adult, symbolically abandoning her braids and putting up her hair. She begins to socialize with friends a few years older, takes dancing lessons and resumes piano lessons. She spends pleasant evenings with her grandfather while reading to him from an Abraham Lincoln biography. With several local female teachers, she forms a group to study Robert Browning’s poetry.

After hearing two first generation Syrian young boys teased as “Dagoes,” she organizes a club for them with two boys from families with deep Minnesotan roots. The club propels her to explore the culture of Syria Town, which although part of the Deep Valley had always been ignored by most of the residents. After teaching English to several Syrian women in her grandfather’s home, she pleads with the school board to ask for federal money to open a night school for the immigrant population. Using her debating skills, she wins over the board. All her activity with the Syrians catches the eye of the new high school teacher and football coach who came to Deep Valley to work on his MA in sociology by studying the Syrian community.

While college is a world that Emily does not enter, for mystery writer Harriet Vane (in Gaudy Night), it is the world she at first reluctantly reenters in the 1930’s. Attending a reunion dinner (a gaudy) at Shrewsbury, a British woman’s college, Harriet discovers a poison-pen writer. After a series of unpleasant incidents including a bonfire of caps and gowns, the head of the college asks Harriet to investigate. Harriet uses the pretext of aiding one of the dons to explain why she remains at the college. Miss Lydgate needs help recreating sections of her book on English literature to be published by Oxford University Press after the poison pen destroys part of the manuscript. Harriet also begins her own scholarly study of the ghostly tale writer, Sheridan Le Fanu.

The poison pen targets female dons and the best student scholars with notes accusing them of sexual misconduct and with vicious pornographic drawings of scholars humiliating a figure in academic attire. Harriet finds a vile dummy of a woman in cap and gown with butter knife stuck in it and discovers that the new library wing has been trashed. Clearly the perpetrator hopes to gain unfavorable publicity for Shrewsbury. After the poison pen’s notes help drive a student to attempt suicide, a desperate Harriet calls upon Lord Peter Wimsey the blue blood detective passionately in love with her. He ultimately solves the mystery based on Vane’s precise collection of evidence and a little sleuthing of his own.

Even though both women at the end of the books are engaged to marry men who respect their intelligence, men are peripheral to the stories. A community of women is central to both stories. They provide emotional support and intellectual stimulation for Emily through the Browning club and for Harriet at Shrewsbury College.

While testy with each other during the poison pen’s reign of terror, the professors stay loyal to the college and to each other. As they debate the role of women within society and in marriage, they discuss truth and morality with intelligence and conviction. Emily pursues some of the same topics, such as woman’s suffrage, with the Browning Club. The club teaches Emily she can intellectually grow without college.

Lovelace and Sayers create believable and engrossing worlds with which I had no familiarity. I empathized with the books protagonists. Like Emily, I was socially awkward and shy in high school and, like Harriet, although not a professor, I respect and have spent time with numerous female academics. My favorite scene in Gaudy Night occurs when Miss Lydgate pleads with Harriet to recheck a footnote as Harriet dashes to take Miss Lydgate’s long overdue book to the press. Harriet ignores her, knowing if the manuscript is returned to her, Lydgate will begin tinkering with other sections. Lydgate needed to learn that as someone wisely pointed out and most non-fiction writers will attest: books are not finished they are abandoned.

In Emily of Deep Valley, I cheered when the newly confident Emily rejects the self centered Don when he makes a pass at her. On debating trips, Don sought Emily out for conversation but when at high school ignored her for more popular girls. Intelligent girls are avenged. Best of all, both heroines possess the attributes that I most admired in Gypsy Rose Lee: brains and tenacity and those admired traits in the two characters probably drew me to Gypsy Rose Lee and the desire to tell her story.

Noralee Frankel, author, Stripping Gypsy: The Life of Gypsy Rose Lee.

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