Mixed Messages


Maybe Aunt Estelle Was Right

a review of The Honor Girl by Grace Livingston Hill, 1927

The message of this story obviously was meant to be that intelligence and determination can be applied to any problem successfully. Unfortunately, this well-meaning idea is presented with so many overtones of "education doesn't unfit a girl for her place in life" that it makes a modern reader, 70 years later, rather uneasy.

The story line: Five years ago Elsie Harrington's mother died. Leaving Mr. Harrington and his two teenage sons under the care of a housekeeper, Elsie's Aunt Estelle took the ten-year old girl home with her, to be raised with her own two daughters. Now, fresh from the triumphs of her junior year in high school, as leader of her class academically and socially, Elsie announces that she is moving home to take care of her menfolk: the housekeeper has left and they are living in squalor.

Aunt Estelle objects vociferously, but Elsie carries the day. Over the summer vacation and during her senior year, Elsie cleans up the house, hires a new housekeeper, gets the family going to church, enrolls her older brother in college and convinces the younger (who dropped out of high school) that he should aim for college as well.

Not only do her father and brothers adore her, but she gains the attentions of a very successful and well-to-do young engineer (whose spiteful words were one of her spurs when she took on this project.) So what's wrong?

It's easy to cast Aunt Estelle, with her social ambitions, as the villain, but consider: she really has raised Elsie and her own girls as sisters (no Cinderella complex here) and has taught them to cook and keep house as well as to play tennis and the piano. She's not holding out the promise of eligible young men to keep Elsie with her: she is appealing to Elsie's place as a member of a family, even if it isn't her birth family. True, she has always disliked her brother-in-law, but as Elsie and the reader find out, he's not only an alcoholic but a mean drunk. With him and both boys working, there is no reason why they should be living the way they are: even if they can't be expected to pick up after themselves, it is easy to hire another housekeeper (it takes Elsie about a week: she finds cleaning women the first day.)

Estelle simply doesn't see why Elsie should sacrifice her pleasant life to drudge for three men who have no intention of taking care of themselves. And a modern reader tends to agree with her.

There are no cut-and-dried solutions here, which makes the story more true to life but also makes it harder to draw conclusions. Is it just that our ideas of equality have evolved to the point where men are expected to know how to make beds and wash dishes, or is it that we now feel that the damage done to a family by an alcoholic is too deep to be solved by one person? We know nothing of Elsie's ambitions: does she expect to go to college? (Neither of the cousins she's been raised with do.) Or does she feel that tutoring her older brother in college algebra is sufficient use of her (apparently formidable) academic skills?

And if she marries her young engineer, what will her feckless family do then?

© 1998 Jo Anne Fatherly This review first appeared in The Whispered Watchword, the newsletter of The Phantom Friends