The Girl Villain Who Grew

The Redemption of Leslie

(The Girl Villain Who Grew)


Pauline Lester’s Marjorie Dean series



Taken as a group, most Girl Villains are an unimaginative bunch. They are motivated by plain inborn meanness and stupidity, and they never learn from their mistakes.

But not all of them are Lettie Briggs. In Leslie Cairns, we have a Girl Villain who grows so human over a series that she ends up taking over an entire book.

Marjorie Dean is the 1920s heroine of what is actually three related miniseries of books. In the "High School" volumes, Marjorie's opponents are the usual teenage connivers, to be overcome by the heroine's superior honor, ethics, intelligence, and charm. In the "College" series we meet Leslie, who, in the early days, is as cardboard as the heroine, and who comes to an unhappy end, from a college point of view. Each of these eight volumes deals with the events of one school year.

But in the "Post Graduate" series — all five volumes of which take place within two years — things change considerably.



Marjorie Dean is beautiful, intelligent, honorable, loyal, and invincibly Always Right. (She is also the only child of a mildly peculiar family, and has some odd ideas about love and marriage, which may be why Marjorie Dean's Romance has so little romance in it.) She is so heroic, in fact, that she would get downright boring if it weren't for the lively dialog author Pauline Lester supplies. Like Anne Shirley, once she has overcome all opposition there's not much left to write about her.



Leslie is not beautiful. She is, in fact, described as an "ugly beauty," a straight translation of the French term jolie laide, meaning someone who is attractive in an unusual way.  Her habitual frowns and sneers tend to cancel out the "beauty" part of this description ("had good humor radiated her peculiarly rugged features, she would have been that rarity, an ugly beauty." — Marjorie Dean, College Junior) She has more money (in her own right) than any teenage girl should have, and dresses well, making the most of her very personal style. She is intelligent, good at sports, and can be very amusing even when she's not being sarcastic. And, unlike many Girl Villains, she isn't malicious; mischief for mischief's sake doesn't attract her. It's power Leslie wants.

Her mother died when she was young, leaving her to be brought up by servants — and her father, whom she idolizes. Peter Cairns, "The Hawk of Wall Street," is a no-holds-barred financier, and Leslie's dream in life is to join her father's firm as a partner.



When we meet Leslie, she is the sophomore leader of a "coterie of millionaire's purse-proud daughters," who have formed a snobbish sorority at Hamilton College. She and Marjorie take an instant dislike to each other, partly rooted in the attitude one of the "Sans" expresses as, "I don't believe I've ever met anyone from a [meaningful pause] public high school, before."

Hamilton, which is supposed to harbor "more millionaire's daughters than any other school," is spoken of a sister to Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Smith, and Vassar. It also has a large and well-funded scholarship program and hosts a sizeable number of girls working their way through college. These are usually referred to as "off campus students" because the — decidedly luxurious — on-campus housing is expensive.

This first year, Marjorie's involvement with Leslie mostly centers around the Sans harassment of a scholarship student, and Marjorie's defense of her.

This is the basketball year. Leslie chooses sports as an area in which to practice her father's management skills (lend them money, then use it as a leash, if straightforward bullying won't work) and political strategies (fix the selection of the freshman team to favor your admirers, if your own followers are proving restive under your leadership.)

Her leadership of the Sans, in fact, is onerous. They incessantly squabble among themselves, they pursue their own advantage instead of the group's, and many of them have their own political agendas.

Marjorie and her friends (who form a club/sorority known as The Travellers) are united as the Sans are not, and of course they win out.



It's traditional in girls' books that the junior year is the year the heroine makes one mistake after another. This is Leslie's junior year.

When the housemother of their residence is instrumental in defeating one of Leslie's stratagems, she turns her political skills to undermining the housemother's influence. By bribery and blackmail, she establishes a hold over the college president's secretary and through her fosters a misunderstanding between him and his old friend the housemother.

Driving her car recklessly by the campus, Leslie accidentally hits and injures the scholarship student over whom she and Marjorie had clashed. When neither Marjorie nor Katherine report her as the hit and run driver, she offers a cash settlement, which is refused. (It is understood by both sides to be a bribe for silence.)

We aren't done with basketball yet. In a last attempt to control the sports program, Leslie hires a coach to teach "her" team dirty tricks.

And when that fails as well, she organizes a classic "hazing" experience for Marjorie, whom she sees as responsible for the failure. Hazing is explicitly forbidden by Hamilton College, and is grounds for expulsion, but Leslie is getting desperate as her grip on the Sans and her influence on-campus wane.



The blunders of her junior year behind her, by Christmas Leslie is anxious for graduation. She plans to graduate with honors for her father's sake, and go on to join his firm. "My father is the only person on earth I really have any respect for," she says. She is thoroughly disgusted with the Sans, and she knows she made some serious mistakes last year. "She felt no regret for her misdeeds. She was merely in fear lest they might be brought to light."

And, two months before graduation, they are. The dissension among Leslie's sycophants has finally reached the point where one of them turns the others in for Marjorie's hazing. All seventeen members of the Sans are expelled from college.

Marjorie has spent her Junior year working for better housing for the off-campus students.



We aren't told whether Peter Cairns is annoyed because his daughter did something stupid, or whether he is upset that she did something stupid and was caught. In any case, he is very, very put out. He can't cut off her allowance (she is of age, and her money is her own) but he can forbid her the house, hire her a chaperone, and tell her to cut all ties to Hamilton.

Leslie has unfinished business at Hamilton, and has no intention of walking away. She comes to a working arrangement with the chaperone, heads for Hamilton, and buys a piece of land the Travellers want to buy for a dormitory for the off-campus students. When Marjorie is given an adjoining tract instead (so the money they have raised can go for construction), Leslie resolves to build a commercial garage on her land, the success of which will prove to her father that she is a shrewd businesswoman and will buy her way back to him.



Although she's graduated, Marjorie is back on campus to oversee the dormitory project and to write a biography of the college's founder. Leslie never really left. But a third force is about to enter the contest.



Doris Monroe is more beautiful than Marjorie, and more selfish than Leslie. Having spent most of her life in Europe, and not being happy with her father's choice of an American women's college, she admires Leslie for her adventurous spirit. (Her father is an explorer).

She differs from both the older girls: she isn't interested in either power or welfare schemes, she knows very little about girls her own age but a great deal about human nature, she has more money than Marjorie but less than Leslie. She won't be bullied or bribed, she doesn't gossip, and she values truthfulness.

Leslie sees her as a useful tool and treats her "as her father might have treated a business subordinate who was his social equal." She gives Doris a car, money, and clothes, both to show her off and to try and establish a hold over her. And, since she blames Marjorie for the estrangement from her father, she encourages Doris' distaste for the Travellers.



It's worth mentioning that the cover of this volume shows only Leslie.

She tries to disrupt the bus service that has been established for the off-campus students until their new housing is finished, hoping to undermine Marjorie's power base with that group. She fails, of course.

Doris starts getting to know other girls, discovers she enjoys their company (and admiration) and wins the campus Beauty Contest, which Marjorie also won in her day.



As Doris finds her place on campus, she begins to feel vaguely sorry for Leslie, who appears to have no other friends. Sympathy doesn't mean she is willing to be controlled, however, and the two have a major disagreement between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Turning down overtures from Marjorie's friends, Doris goes to New York City with Leslie over the holiday and enjoys it a great deal, until Peter discovers they are there without the chaperone. Leslie finds herself defending the long-suffering Mrs. Gaylord — the first time she has ever argued on behalf of anyone but herself. Leslie promptly turns Doris over to the chaperone, and gets on with her real motive for spending some time in the city.

Having trouble getting workers for her garage project, and since she still thinks it was Marjorie who turned her in over the hazing, Leslie thinks it will serve her "rival" right to have her construction crew "stolen." She cons Peter's office manager into providing her father's schedule, then goes up to the family mansion (where she has, of course, been forbidden to go), opens his safe, and gets names and addresses of some of his dirty tricks specialists.

Not surprisingly, labor relations consume much of the winter for both heroine and villain. Because of Marjorie's contacts in the local Italian community (the construction workers are largely Italian), more work is accomplished on the dorm than on the garage. This does not improve Leslie's mood.

Even worse, when Peter finds out about her garage project, he fires her manager (his own dirty tricks specialist, remember), stops the construction, and reads his daughter a stiff lecture on how to do business properly.



Leslie tries, briefly, to follow her father's instructions, and looks up what old (non-Hamilton) friends she has. Unfortunately, the only one who is still speaking to her can think of nothing but her own upcoming wedding.

Remembering that Doris, although plain-spoken about her faults, does like her for herself, Leslie takes a quick trip up to Hamilton as soon as Peter leaves the country. The visit coincides with a college masquerade party, which the lonely Leslie decides to crash and leave before the unmasking. Realizing that Leslie has no ulterior motive this time, Doris helps her, hoping to give her isolated friend some normal social contact.

Leslie finds herself grateful, thinking "that if, like Doris, she had been half as careful in whom she trusted and to what risks she lent herself … she might have escaped disgrace."

By ill chance, her disguise is penetrated by two people — the current holder of her old position of "nasty sophomore at the head of the campus snobs" and Marjorie. Without disclosing her own identity, Marjorie helps Leslie escape before the unmasking, and disaster is averted.

When Doris tells her the identity of her rescuer, Leslie's worldview suffers a profound shift. If Marjorie could pass up such an opportunity for revenge, she could not have been the person who informed on her to the President two years ago. She goes to Marjorie and apologizes, asking her and the Travellers to stand by Doris if any trouble results from the escapade.

While she is still in this chastened frame of mind, her father shows up, threatening her with business college. When she tells him she was trying to impress him and "Someday when I've put over a good square business enterprise I'll tell you the story" he responds surprisingly with a confession of his own; watching her has shown him what sort of example he has set. "You have taught me a lesson ... My code ... has been that of a hawk. I have revised it … I'd rather not have learned it from your mistake. But it's been learned now."

And then, finally, he explains why her shenanigans at Hamilton have hit such a sore spot: he is the black-sheep son of a local family, has recently bought the family estate from his brother, and had hoped to retire there. Furthermore, the land she paid so much for actually belonged to the family estate.

Now that they understand each other, he gives her back the garage property to try again, stipulating that she must find "an original purpose" for it that would benefit the college.

When they leave the restaurant, "A half humorous little quirk had taken the place of the ugly droop [of her lips]." Things will never be the same again for Leslie.



Leslie has discovered a new goal — she wants to repeat her disastrous senior year in college and graduate properly. "There's nothing I'd leave undone to make up for the disappointment I caused [Peter]," she says, and she asks Marjorie for help.

This is not an easy sales job, but Marjorie ingeniously points out to the college president that, given her reputation, being a student again would in fact be very difficult for Leslie and could almost be construed as a punishment! They both know it won't be easy, but Marjorie (who is still in town, writing that biography) eases it somewhat by inviting Leslie into the Travellers.

In her free time, Leslie takes to distributing groceries and needful items at random through the poorer section of town. The author obviously intends this to be mildly comical (Leslie hasn't yet figured out how to tackle the problem of poverty and charity), but she is also working on a scheme to build a factory in town that will provide a living wage to its employees.

One lasting legacy of her sorry career has been that Leslie has "learned to read character with surprising accuracy" and when the conniving undergraduates mount a plot to have her barred from college again, she is alert to the first threat, even predicting where it will start. She considers using her old methods (at which she is much better than are the current crop of Girl Villains) to quash the conspiracy but rejects the idea.

Their petition (based on skewed information supplied by the same ex-student who was responsible for the Sans being expelled) is countered by a comic confrontation staged with the help of Doris and the Travellers, in which she tells them "You can neither make nor break me. I am the only one to do either. I know this now. I learned it by failing to accomplish such injustices … as you have lately framed against me." And when the arch-conspirator's father suffers drastic losses on Wall Street, she asks Peter to bail him out.

When Marjorie marries at the end of the book, Leslie is one of the bridesmaids.



Combining her need for a project to benefit the college, and the Traveller's need to finance their dorm, a playhouse has been built on Leslie's land, and she becomes the business manager of the enterprise. In this, her post-graduate year, her reputation at Hamilton still dogs her, and she is determined to overcome it so that her father can retire to the estate in comfort. She tells Marjorie that, to her surprise, she has discovered that she is "home hungry" after the rootless years of hotel living.

She surveys the incoming group of freshmen and decides they need straightening out. One of them, a strange girl with a secret, ends up under her protection. Leslie has never protected the underdog before, and she finds it challenging work.

By the time she has prevented another hazing incident, she has, in effect, experienced the other side of nearly every plot she earlier laid against Marjorie. Now she and Peter can move into his family's estate and there will be no ghosts to haunt them.


© 2001 by Jo Anne Fatherly

This review first appeared in The Whispered Watchword, newsletter of the Phantom Friends.