Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield ~ 1916. This edition: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964. Illustrated by Catherine Barnes. Hardcover. 213 pages.
My rating: 7.5/10
This is a charming juvenile novel written by Dorothy Canfield Fisher after she had become deeply interested in Maria Montessori’s innovative theories of child rearing and education while on a visit to Italy. The Montessori Method stressed self determination and self regulation in all aspects of a child’s life, and operated under the assumption that if given access to a suitable space with appropriate materials, tools, toys and books, a child would develop a high degree of self motivation and a natural sense of order.
Since Dorothy Canfield was already very involved in women’s rights and educational reform, the Montessori philosophy meshed well with her other interests, and Understood Betsy, which can be read simply as an amusing story, can also be interpreted as an enthusiastic promotion of allowing a child to self-educate and self-regulate, while under a benevolent hands-off adult mentorship.
Little Elizabeth Ann is orphaned at the tender age of six months, and is eagerly adopted by an aunt and great-aunt, Frances and Harriet. Younger Aunt Frances in particular becomes completely wrapped up in mothering the child, lavishing all of her vast reserves of unused adoration on Elizabeth Ann’s tiny person.
As soon as the baby came there to live, Aunt Frances stopped reading novels and magazines, and re-read one book after another which told her how to bring up children. And she joined a Mothers’ Club which met once a week. And she took a correspondence course in mothercraft from a school in Chicago which teaches that business by mail. So you can see that by the time Elizabeth Ann was nine years old Aunt Frances must have known all that anybody can know about how to bring up children. And Elizabeth Ann got the benefit of it all.
She and her Aunt Frances were simply inseparable. Aunt Frances shared in all Elizabeth Ann’s doings and even in all her thoughts. She was especially anxious to share all the little girl’s thoughts, because she felt that the trouble with most children is that they are not understood, and she was determined that she would thoroughly understand Elizabeth Ann down to the bottom of her little mind. Aunt Frances (down in the bottom of her own mind) thought that her mother had never really understood her, and she meant to do better by Elizabeth Ann. She also loved the little girl with all her heart, and longed, above everything in the world, to protect her from all harm and to keep her happy and strong. and well.
Aunt Frances is well meaning, but her technique is more than questionable.
Aunt Frances was afraid of a great many things herself, and she knew how to sympathize with timidity. She was always quick to reassure the little girl with all her might and main whenever there was anything to fear. When they were out walking (Aunt Frances took her out for a walk up one block and down another every single day, no matter how tired the music lessons had made her), the aunt’s eyes were always on the alert to avoid anything which might frighten Elizabeth Ann. If a big dog trotted by, Aunt Frances always said, hastily: “There, there, dear! That’s a nice doggie, I’m sure. I don’t believe he ever bites little girls. … mercy! Elizabeth Ann, don’t go near him! … Here, darling, just get on the other side of Aunt Frances if he scares you so” (by that time Elizabeth Ann was always pretty well scared), “and perhaps we’d better just turn this corner and walk in the other direction.” If by any chance the dog went in that direction too, Aunt Frances became a prodigy of valiant protection, putting the shivering little girl behind her, threatening the animal with her umbrella, and saying in a trembling voice, “Go away, sir! Go away!”
Or if it thundered and lightened, Aunt Frances always dropped everything she might be doing and held Elizabeth Ann tightly in her arms until it was all over. And at night—Elizabeth Ann did not sleep very well—when the little girl woke up screaming with a bad dream, it was always dear Aunt Frances who came to her bedside, a warm wrapper over her nightgown so that she need not hurry back to her own room, a candle lighting up her tired, kind face. She always took the little girl into her thin arms and held her close against her thin breast. “Tell Aunt Frances all about your naughty dream, darling,” she would murmur, “so’s to get it off your mind!”
She had read in her books that you can tell a great deal about children’s inner lives by analyzing their dreams…
Well, as you can see from this lengthy excerpt, Aunt Frances is well on her way to creating something of a monster, if timid, terrified, hapless Elizabeth Ann could be labelled with such a horrific term. But things are about to change.
Aunt Harriet takes ill; Aunt Frances must accompany her to a warm climate; there will be no time to spare for or a place to keep Elizabeth Ann. So off in haste she is sent to another branch of the family, efficiently turned away – so much fuss, having to suddenly take on an extra child! – and helter-skelter put on a train to remote Vermont, to be cared for by the country family connections at Putney Farm.
Now Elizabeth Ann is well aware that Aunts Harriet and Frances have always held the Putney relations in deep scorn – such common folk, with no understanding for children – and to think that they had originally wanted to adopt her!
But they (Aunt Harriet and Aunt Frances) thought that they chiefly desired to save dear Edward’s child from the other kin, especially from the Putney cousins, who had written down from their Vermont farm that they would be glad to take the little girl into their family. But “anything but the Putneys!” said Aunt Harriet, a great many times. They were related only by marriage to her, and she had her own opinion of them as a stiffnecked, cold-hearted, undemonstrative, and hard set of New Englanders. “I boarded near them one summer when you were a baby, Frances, and I shall never forget the way they were treating some children visiting there! … Oh, no, I don’t mean they abused them or beat them … but such lack of sympathy, such perfect indifference to the sacred sensitiveness of child-life, such a starving of the child-heart … No, I shall never forget it! They had chores to do … as though they had been hired men!”
Aunt Harriet never meant to say any of this when Elizabeth Ann could hear, but the little girl’s ears were as sharp as little girls’ ears always are, and long before she was nine she knew all about the opinion Aunt Harriet had of the Putneys. She did not know, to be sure, what “chores” were, but she took it confidently from Aunt Harriet’s voice that they were something very, very dreadful.
Elizabeth Ann is about to find out what chores are all about.
Needless to say her transformation from wimpy Elizabeth Ann to sturdy, competent Betsy begins at once. She’s not even at the farmhouse yet before Uncle Henry takes her in hand, by giving her the reins of the team and letting her worry out the techniques of guiding the steady farm horses along the quiet road. I need not go into details, only to say that immediately upon arrival at the farm the child learns to dress herself, comb her own hair, cook, milk a cow, and become wonderfully useful to have about, rather than a “charge”. And there are kittens and maple sugaring time and tug-of-wars at her tiny one-room school, best friends and a trip to the fair all of the usual rural delights to go along with the endless round of chores which make up farm life. And then Aunt Frances shows up to collect her former charge…
A sweetly old-fashioned sort of tale, with the lessons very evident but very easy to swallow. Dorothy Canfield treats her readers as if they too are sensible souls, and complicit in the process of salvaging Betsy from her disastrous first nine years of life, while never outright condemning the well-meaning Frances.
There is a lot of quiet humour in this short tale, and it is not at all a chore for an adult to read. In fact, it is a very nice read-aloud, suitable for the younger set, I would think ages up to 9 or 10 or so. (Older children might find it a mite too mild, and the tone just a bit too old-fashioned.) Betsy is a likeable heroine and as we follow her story we rejoice in her happy transformation.
Readers of Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s much more complex and serious adult novels may enjoy this quick side trip into childhood; a visit as crisply refreshing as its nostalgic Vermont country setting.
And here it is at Gutenberg, though it is very easy to find in book form, too, being almost continuously in print for the hundred or so years since its first publication.
Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield
The Putney clan – Uncle Henry, Aunt Abigail and Cousin Ann – with Betsy, illustration by Ada C. Williamson, from the Gutenberg transcription.
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