Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women who Created Her, by Melanie Rehak
In 1929 Nancy Drew burst forth from the mind of Edward Stratemeyer like Athena from Zeus. Unlike Athena, however, Nancy wasn't yet fully formed. She hadn't even gained her proper name yet – Edward originally dubbed her Stella Strong. It took two women, Harriet Stratemeyer and Mildred Benson, to take Nancy in hand and create the girl detective that has lasted for 59 years, fifty-six original novels, movies, several knockoff novel series, and a television show.
This is their story.
Harriet Stratemeyer and Mildred Augustine were both women ahead of their times, both in different ways. The former was Edward Stratemeyer's well-to-do daughter, who attended Wellesley and married soon after graduating, becoming the full-time mother of (eventually) four, and did not pick up the pen until her father's death. The latter was small-town girl who got her degree in journalism from the University of Iowa and worked straight through the pregnancy and birth of her only child.
The book is a quick and interesting read. My only disappointment is that it follows a sort of 'this happened, and then this happened' format – the chapters or sections tend to alternate from each woman, so we get Stratemeyer's time in college, and then Augustine's. The story is rather suited to a linear progression, and so doesn't suffer much from this format, but I couldn't help but want a little bit more depth and synergy in the analysis of Mildred and Harriet's lives, and the times in which each woman functioned. Perhaps I just don't read enough biographies, and what I'm hankering for isn't standard practice. Nonetheless, the exploration of Mildred's and Harriet's lives is fascinating, and doesn't sweep beneath the rug the challenges they faced as women trying to work in a world that didn't particularly want them there – Mildred, in particular, was truly heroic given the challenges she faced.
One of the really fascinating things (for me, at least), were the inner workings of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, that leviathan of an organization that also created the Hardy Boys and the Bobbsey Twins, amongst others. Edward, and after his death Harriet, ran the syndicate. Every author who wrote for them signed a contract stating that they would not reveal what books or what series they wrote – they could say only that they did write for the syndicate. A stable of authors with long-standing relationships with the syndicate often worked on a number of series at once, receiving the title and a plot synopsis several pages long in the mail, then turning it into a novel and sending back the manuscript. Early on in their career, Stratemeyer would heavily edit the completed manuscripts, sending letters back to the authors telling them what he'd had to alter so that they could keep it in mind for the next volume. It's one of the only examples I can think of (other than several religious texts and explicit team efforts from authors) which truly be considered to be 'written' by more than one person. Stratemeyer provided the seed and the polish of the novel, while the writers he hired provided the meat. It was just the sort of relationship that would be nearly impossible to systematize and expand on – it depended so much on the vision and efforts of a single person, and the willing participation of those who collaborated with him.1 It is a minor miracle that Harriet Stratemeyer was able not only to pick up the reins of the syndicate after his death, but also to continue to do what he did.2
The book also tries to put book also tries to put Nancy Drew in the context of the feminist movement – what was going on politically in the lives of women during the various stages of Nancy's evolution, and what Nancy meant to those women as time went by. It was less successful at this, because while Nancy Drew ended up being something of a feminist icon, and to stand in for many feminist concepts, it's not because she was intended to be written that way. Both women didn't self-identify as feminist, and in many cases Mildred's rougher, more forewardly written Nancy was edited down to be less forthright or certain of herself. The books actually became more conservative over the years. George, one of Nancy's chums, initially explained her name by way of the fact that her father had always wanted a son – but got so tired of waiting that the next daughter he and his wife had was given the name a son would have had. By one of the later books in the series, George is written as admitting that her name is merely a nickname – short for Georgia.
But what's fascinating is, even given all that, Nancy Drew still grew to be one of the symbols of the feminist movement. She was resourceful, and never panicked (except perhaps for a brief moment of internal turmoil, quickly set aside) and always acted forthrightly and with good intentions. And she did it alone. Ned Nickerson, her romantic interest for the books, rarely had more than a supporting role – that is, if he appeared at all (Mildred was apparently given the opportunity to use him as filler for one book, and chose not to). The Stratemeyer syndicate had married off some of its female characters in the past, and readership plummeted as a result. So one of the explicit rules given to all the Nancy Drew writers through the years was that Nancy would never get seriously paired off with Ned, and certainly would never marry him. A structural decision based on sales may have been one of the things key to helping turn Nancy into a feminist icon.3
1. Except, now that I think of it, in the case of RPG and television series novelizations, which function on similar parameters. In my understanding of them, authors are given much freer rein in determining the plots of the books they will write, but stylistically they must remain within certain limits, and there are definitive limits on what they can do with the characters and worldbuilding. Like sitcoms, all the characters must be returned to the places they started at in the beginning of the novel. Nancy Drews worked the same way, with the characters undergoing very little alteration from book to book.
2. I wonder if anyone's ever looked into stylistic changes between the Nancy Drews (or any of the Stratemeyer Syndicate books, for that matter) between Edward's and Harriet's reigns? This is slightly addressed in Girl Sleuth, but I'm thinking of a more meatier and systematic analysis here.
3. I also think it's worth pointing out that this is a sign of the exact position women were in at that time in the U.S. – they could be written as independent actors, but the traditional male dominance in relationships hadn't yet seriously begun to shift into an equality-based viewpoint. Thus, female characters were no longer written as wilting flowers always in need of a man – but nor could they retain high levels of independence and will when coupled off.