The Girl’s Own Book by Lydia Maria Child, 1834.

This is an early Victorian era book for girls (first published shortly before the beginning of the Victorian era in 1837 and reprinted during the era), giving instructions for games, activities, and handicrafts. I bought my copy, a reproduction of the original, at a historical museum in Indiana while I was visiting relatives, but it’s also available through Amazon (including a Kindle edition) and for free online through Internet Archive (multiple copies). Different editions of the book have slightly different arrangements of the content.

Usually, I put the information about where to find the book at the end of the end of the review, and I give historical details after the plot summary in order to cut down on spoilers. However, in this case, I’m going to do it the other way around because it will help you to understand more about what this book is and what it’s not. I know you’re interested in the activities in the book, but first, you’re going to get a brief history lesson.

To really understand the goals of this book, it helps to understand who the author was.

About the Author

The author, Lydia Maria Child has a fascinating history. She was an American author, teacher, and journalist from Massachusetts. She was also an abolitionist and an advocate for women’s rights and the rights of Native Americans, disapproving of the concept of white supremacy and the United States’ policy of westward expansion. She wanted to expand the rights of women, but she believed that the end of slavery would have to come first, and her husband supported these beliefs as well. Child said that she didn’t believe in all-female societies. She believed that men and women should work together in equal partnership. Her beliefs about both women’s rights and slavery caused controversy in her time, but she was also a popular author, writing both fiction and nonfiction during the 1820s through the 1850s. Oddly, the one piece of her writing which is most familiar to modern people is a Thanksgiving poem which was later made into a song: Over the River and Through the Wood (1844, originally titled The New-England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day). (Note: In the song, they’re going to grandmother’s house, but in the original poem, it said they were going to grandfather’s house. Now you know!)

The Girl’s Own vs. The Boy’s Own

As you might have guessed, there was a Boy’s Own before there was a Girl’s Own. Actually both of these phrases, or variations on them, have been used for different types of publications, particularly during the 19th century. However, I want to explain that The Girl’s Own Book and the earlier The Boy’s Own Book: A Complete Encyclopedia of all the Diversions, Athletic, Scientific, and Recreative, of Boyhood and Youth by William Clarke (published in England in 1828 and in the US in 1829) were both older and not connected to later children’s magazines with similar titles like Boy’s Own Magazine (19855 to 1890), The Boy’s Own Paper (1879 to 1967). Both The Girl’s Own Book and The Boy’s Own Book were reprinted during the 19th century and helped to inspire later books and magazines for children with similar themes. (Later, I’m going to be covering some of the children’s activity books and how-to guides that came after these books for some comparison. I’m not going into much detail on The Boy’s Own Book yet because I haven’t gotten hold of a copy to do it.)

The full title of The Boy’s Own Book: A Complete Encyclopedia of all the Diversions, Athletic, Scientific, and Recreative, of Boyhood and Youth explains basically what the book was about. It was a guide to boys’ sports, games, and activities to provide boys with wholesome fun and entertainment and some useful skills. The Girl’s Own Book basically does the same thing for girls. As the title suggests, it has more of a feminine focus than The Boy’s Own Book, but remember that the author believed in the equality of men and women and the expansion of women’s rights and education. What I’m trying to explain is that, even though this book was first published just before the beginning of the Victorian era and read and reprinted during the era, it’s not all about tea parties, proper dress and manners, and sewing stitches or the stuffy parts of Victorian society that modern people often think of. (Although there are sewing stitches in this book. That was pretty much a given.)

The author believed in exercise and healthy outdoor activities as well as practical indoor activities. There are quiet indoor activities, which would be necessary, given that the author lived in a place where it snows in the winter, and everyone would need to find ways to entertain themselves and keep busy indoors, but the book is not confined solely to that. In the preface to the book, Lydia Child describes how she tried to include a wide variety of activities and notes that, by trying to provide a selection that would appeal to a wide audience, she knows that she will not please everyone, but she explains her goals in doing so:

“Some will say there is too large a proportion of games; others will smile at the directions for sewing and knitting; some may complain that the frequent recommendation of active exercises will tend to make their children rude and disorderly; others will think too much is said about gracefulness and elegance; some will call the conundrums old, others will say they are silly, and others, that they should have been entirely excluded. I knew I could not avoid numerous criticisms, and therefore, I did not write with the fear of them before my eyes.
In this land of precarious fortunes, every girl should know how to be useful; amid the universal dissemination of knowledge, every mind should seek to improve itself to the utmost; and in this land of equality, as much time should be devoted to elegant accomplishments, refined taste, and gracefulness of manner, as can possibly be spared from holier and more important duties. In this country, it is peculiarly necessary that daughters should be so educated as to enable them to fulfill the duties of a humble station, or to dignify and adorn the highest. This is the reason why I have mingled a little of every thing in the Girl’s Own Book.”

In other words, people often have different priorities about they want to spend their time and what they think is best for children. It was as true back then as it is today. Lydia Child tried to provide a variety of activities for a well-balanced approach (which I think sounds like a good idea), but she knew that there was always the chance that people would disapprove of at least some of what she recommended because of their own tastes and priorities. It also says something about Lydia Child’s priorities that, even while wanting greater equality for women, she still prizes gracefulness and elegance and wants to girls to maintain good manners, finer feelings, and a sense of femininity in their activities. However, she is not so narrow in her views of grace and femininity that she would excluded outdoor games and exercises for girls. Again, she tries to maintain a balance, although her balance isn’t quite the same as the modern view because tastes have changed over time.

As you read through the book, it becomes obvious that Lydia Child had city girls in mind as well as girls who lived in the countryside. During the 19th century, because of increasing industrialization, more people were moving to towns and cities for new employment opportunities. With these growing urban environments, parents were concerned that their children engage in wholesome pastimes and healthy exercise, learn useful skills, and have some knowledge of outdoor skills and nature, no matter where they lived. These concerns are reflected in this book and would continue to be reflected in later children’s activity books of the 19th century and into the 20th century. Although, some of the health and exercise advice is overly cautious compared to today’s standards.

So what about modern children? Would any of these activities appeal to modern girls and their families? In some cases, I think so. I think that the section that would be the most interesting to children, is the very first section, which is about games. There are many Victorian parlor games that are still played today, although some of them are played in different variations. Actually, I’ve been surprised at how many Victorian talking games or guessing games have become popular games to play on long car trips.

Other parts of the book contain outdated information and would probably be more of interest to adults who are interested in historical attitudes and habits of the Victorian era. In spite of Mrs. Child’s apparent egalitarian attitudes and anti-slavery attitude, there are a couple of parts of this book that are racially problematic, and I’ve made notes regarding them. I wouldn’t call them shocking, but I would say that some there is a short story near the end of the book that I found particularly distasteful and inappropriate for modern children.

I think that probably the best use of this book with children would be to select certain games or exercises for them to try and use some of the information in the book to explain what it was like to grow up in the 19th century.

Contents of the Book

The table of contents for my copy of the book (as in others I’ve seen) is organized more like an index than a table of contents. I mean that the activities are sorted alphabetically, not in the order in which they actually appear in the book, although the page numbers are given, so you can find them. However, as you read through the book, the contents are actually organized into sections which are not mentioned in the table of contents. Oddly, there are occasional bits and pieces inside different sections or between them that don’t seem to belong, probably because the author just couldn’t find a better place to put them. Some sections end with a poem related to the subject of the section. There are some illustrations, but they are small, and I wish that there were more of them to better explain some of the concepts in the book.

It would take too long to describe everything in this book in detail, so I’m just going to give some examples of the contents of each section. The lists below are not complete lists, just examples of what you’ll find in each section.

Games

This section in my book begins immediately after two songs are provided – Hot Cross Buns and Little Nancy. Some of the online copies I’ve seen go straight to the games without the songs. Again, this isn’t the complete list of games because there are just too many to describe, but these are some examples. This is a very long section, and there are many other games besides what I describe here. There are both outdoor games and indoor games.

The Butterfly and the Flowers – A short play to perform.

How Do You Like It? When Do You Like It? And Where Will You Put It? – A guessing game. I covered a variation of this game on my Historical Games site, in the Victorian section. (Yes, I know this is a game that could easily have a lot of innuendo because of the phrasing, depending on the mentality of the players, but this is intended to be a completely innocent game for children. How you play is up to you.)

Mr. Red-Cap – This game is basically the same as Who, Sir? Me, Sir?, except that version uses numbers in place of the names of the players, and in Mr. Red-Cap, all of the players call themselves by color of cap, like Mr. Red-Cap, Mr. Blue-Cap, etc.

Cries of Paris – The players pretend to be street peddlers in Paris, crying out their wares to sell. The author suggests that this can be used to practice French lessons for children learning the language. One player calls out to the peddlers, asking each in turn for something related to their wares (like a type of fruit from a fruit seller, a type of flower from a flower seller, or a type of fish from a fish seller). When a peddler’s name is called, they have to give the appropriate cry for their wares, then tell the first player that they don’t have whatever the player requested, and then name another player for that person to ask. If anyone forgets to cry their wares or if the asking player gets confused and asks someone for something that isn’t related to their profession or repeats the same request twice, that player has to perform a forfeit (a common feature of Victorian parlor games, something like the dares from a game of Truth or Dare).

The Musical Oracle, or Magic Music – One person leaves the room, and the other players decide on something that player should do when she comes back in. When the player comes back into the room, one of the other players begins playing some music on the piano, as the absent player tries to guess what the other players want her to do, the piano player tries to give the absent player hints by playing faster or louder when the person is close to guessing what to do and more softly when they’re guessing wrong.

The Puzzle Word – Similar to Twenty Questions.

Buz! – Now a classic car game for modern children. The players take turns counting up from one, but they have to replace every seven and every number that is a multiple of seven with “buz!”

Thus Says the Grand Mufti! – Similar to Simon Says.

I Spy! – This game is not the same as the modern I Spy car game, where you have to spot something that starts with a certain letter. The rules for 19th century I Spy are basically the same as modern Hide-and-Seek.

Hide and Go Seek! – Nope, this isn’t the same as I Spy or modern Hide-and-Seek. It’s actually more like Hunt the Thimble. One person leaves the room while the others hide some small object, like a thimble or handkerchief. Then, the player who left the room comes back in and starts looking for the object, while the others use a system of “hot” and “cold” to give hints to where it is.

Blind Man’s Buff – As the book notes, this game really is ancient. It’s been played for literally thousands of years, in one form or another. The rules are simple. One person is blindfolded and tries to grab hold of the other players, who dodge around the blindfolded person. If the blindfolded person grabs someone, she has to guess who she’s caught. If she guesses correctly, that person and the blindfolded person change places. If she guesses wrong, she has to let the person go and try again.

Shadow Buff – I included this one partly so I could include the following quote from the instructions: “This is the best kind to play in winter’s evenings. It is so quiet and safe that it disturbs no one: and good little girls will never play noisy games, without first ascertaining whether it will be pleasant to parents and friends. Thinking of the wishes and feelings of others, even in the most trifling things constitutes true politeness; and those who are habitually polite at home, will be so when they are abroad without any effort.” I think I can hear some snide remarks and snickers from modern people off in the distance. I don’t really mind this sentiment (except for the misplaced commas, which I copied as they appeared in the book). Personally, I think a lot of life’s stupidest problems and pettiest arguments could be avoided entirely by a little forethought for others’ feelings and a little direct communication (like actually asking somebody if they’re okay with something instead of just guessing or assuming they are), and these things do become habit the more you do them.

But, getting back to the actual game, all you need to play it is a white cloth (like a curtain, sheet, or table cloth) and a light source. Hang the white cloth up like a screen and have one person sit facing it. The light source is behind this person, and so are the other players (although I’ve heard of other versions where you can arrange this differently.) The other players have to walk between the seated person and the light source so that their shadows are cast on the white cloth. The seated person, without turning around to look at the other players, has to guess whose shadow is being cast on the cloth. The other players can make this harder by putting on hats or shawls or making cloth turbans for themselves or walking in strange ways in order to confuse the guesser.

French and English – This is basically tug-of-war without the rope. Divide the players in half and have the leaders of each team hold hands in the middle, over a line marked on the ground. The object is to pull the opposing team over the line. Games of London Bridge or Oranges and Lemons often end with a similar tug-of-war.

Lydia Child says, “This game being merely a trial of strength, may be thought unsuitable to little girls; but I know that families of brothers and sisters are very fond of it.”

Instructive Games

These are specifically games that are meant to teach something.

Geographical Game – This basically describes a map-based jigsaw puzzle, although the book doesn’t use that term. They paste a map onto wood and then cut it into pieces. This section also offers variations on the concept, like making little holes in the map boards in which you can put pegs with the names of cities in order to help children learn the locations of important cities.

The rest of this section describes games with different educational themes in which the movement of counters is controlled by a numbered teetotum (spinning top). From the description, I think that these are themed board games like the Game of Goose (which did exist), but I wish that there were pictures in this section to help explain.

Games of Memory

These are not meant to be educational games. In fact, Lydia Child goes on a rant about how memorizing words without understanding the sense behind them means nothing. Remember that Mrs. Child was also a teacher. She states, “I have known little girls who could remember anything you gave them to learn; but who in fact knew nothing. I have seen scholars who knew every word of their lessons, but did not know what the words meant.” I have to admit that I remember from my own student days that some students would just memorize things for the tests and promptly forget them afterward because they never really understood any of it and didn’t really care; it was just a required class, not one that they actually wanted to take. Lydia Child isn’t wrong.

As for the memory games here, most are about repeating phrases that are just nonsense or a rhyme that are part of the game, like The House That Jack Built. There are also some tongue twisters. Interestingly, she also includes similar games in French, which could be used to practice French lessons.

Forfeits

As I explained, this is a common feature of 19th century games, where someone has to perform a funny stunt, kind of like the dares in Truth or Dare, if they lose or make a mistake during a game. This section gives some particular examples of forfeits, similar to the ones I have listed on my Historical Games site.

Active Exercises

Lydia Child believed in healthy exercise for girls, but with some reservations. People back then were more cautious and protective of girls in terms of physical exercise. Again, I can’t list everything under this section because it would be too long, so this is a sample.

Swinging – This is one of the sections which sounds overly cautious by today’s standards. Making sure that the ropes are strong and that the seat is secured well is good advice when setting up a swing, but there is also a warning against racing on the swings, trying to swing higher than other girls (“a very foolish ambition”). I can see the sense that kids might fall off when swinging too high, but the warnings that I got as a child were against jumping off the swings in mid-air, which this book doesn’t even consider.

Jumping Rope – Mrs. Child believes that jumping rope is healthy as long as it is not carried to excess. She says that she has known girls to burst blood vessels after jumping an excessively high number of times (in the hundreds) because they challenged each other and kept gong even though they were really too tired. I’ve never seen that happen myself, but I suppose it’s possible. I came from a generation that was more likely to go inside and collapse in front of the tv when we got tired, but people could do many strange things when that wasn’t an option. In general, I would say, if you’re getting really tired while doing anything, and you can tell that you’re reaching your limits, it’s time to stop. Don’t just keep going to see what happens.

La Grace – This is an activity that I’ve often seen girls doing at living history museums. They use pairs of sticks to toss and catch a small hoop decorated with ribbons. As the book notes, this game is also called The Graces or The Flying Circle.

Snow-Balling – Lydia Child doesn’t really describe this activity very much, so I suppose it’s pretty self-explanatory: making snow balls. Mrs. Child says, “I like this exercise, because it is played in the open air. Endurance of cold is a very good thing: it makes the constitution hardy. But, rudeness and violence must never be allowed in this, or any other game: little girls should never forget that they are miniature ladies.”

Bow and Arrow – Mrs. Child says that archery is popular in England and that she hopes that more Americans adopt the hobby. “Of all things in the world, health is the most important. I fear our little girls do not take sufficient exercise in the open air.”

Calisthenics – “This hard name is given to a gentler sort of gymnastics suited to girls. The exercises have been very generally introduced into the schools in England, and are getting into favour in this country. Many people think them dangerous, because they confound them with the ruder and more daring gymnastics of boys …” These are simple exercises, like arm circles and toe touches. There are also a number of exercises to be done with a baton and instructions for using a horizontal bar (swinging from it by the hands and even letting go and catching it again) and a triangle (a bar suspended by strings attached to each end).

Dancing – “Many people object to dancing, because they consider it a waste of time; but I believe it is only wrong when too much time is given to it, to the neglect of more important duties. Children must have exercise; and dancing is healthy, innocent, and elegant.”

Baskets

This is exactly what it sounds like, how to make different types of baskets. The baskets are made with a variety of materials besides the typical straw baskets, including beads strung on wire, moss and, in a kind of odd science experiment, alum crystals coating a basket made of wire or willow.

Tacked on at the end of the basket-making section is a short section called “Witchcraft with Cards.” This has nothing to do with the occult or with baskets in any way. It’s more of a prank or magic trick, demonstrating how to arrange all of the cards in a deck of 52 cards so that you can memorize the order of all of them by using a mnemonic phrase and amaze your friends.

Ornaments

How to make decorative objects and how to decorate ordinary objects, like how to make regular glass tumblers look more like decorative china, how to make fancy paper or cardboard fans, how to cut paper in lace patterns, and how to decorate scrap boxes (boxes pasted with cut out pictures, like the one that Samantha makes in the American Girls book Samantha’s Surprise).

Puzzles, Riddles, Charades

This section contains riddles, both in English and French, and puzzles like rebuses, logogriphs, and anagrams and explains how to solve them. The answers to them are provided in a different section.

I had a moment of worry when I noticed that a couple of riddles mentioned Jews because I was afraid that they might turn out to be anti-Semitic jokes, but when I checked the answers, they just turned out to be really corny puns. (Ex. “Why is Mr. Bradford’s brewery like a Jewish tavern?” “Hebrews drink there. (He brews.)” Ha, ha.) Not great, but nothing really insulting or demeaning.

Automata

This section, in the form of a conversation between a girl and her aunt, explains different types of mechanical automata (which is the correct plural of automaton, as it carefully points out) that have been made in countries all over the world.

Needle-Work

This section gives tips for basic sewing and mending (Mrs. Child has some definite criticism for girls who don’t know how to properly assemble a garment and who resist learning) and also explains different types of needle crafts, like embroidery and knitting. There are several suggested beginning sewing projects, like different types of bags and pin cushions. I was amused by the notes on some of the projects, noting which ones Mrs. Child considers too much trouble to be worth the result. In fact, the section about embroidery says, “This is nearly out of fashion; and I am glad it is: for it is a sad waste of time. I call it a waste, because things so much more beautiful can be produced with so much less trouble than used to be bestowed upon tent-stitch, print-stitch, &c.” However, she does go on to discuss a type of embroidery that she does recommend and gives tips for working embroidery.

I think that the entire needlework section would have benefited from more detailed instructions and more pictures, but I also had the feeling that Mrs. Child assumed that the girls reading this would have been familiar with at least the basics of the concepts involved and/or would have their mothers to help guide them through any projects they decided to try. Therefore, much of this section is devoted to providing inspiration and advice for choosing projects to undertake and admonitions against bad working habits.

Bees

This section gives information about bees, describing how they live in colonies with a queen, except for certain types of solitary bees, and what their hives are like. It also describes what the stings of bees look like under a microscope, how bees do not sting unless threatened and die after stinging, and how to treat a bee sting. There is no activity associated with this section. It’s just interesting information.

Silk Worms

Like the section about bees, this section provides factual information. It describes the lives of silk worms and how people in China harvest the silk. I don’t know enough about it myself to know how accurate the information is, but the section ends with a commentary about Chinese children working in the silk trade: “The Chinese children are much employed in the manufactories (sic) of silk. Indeed, they are brought up always to be busy about something or other. A gentleman just returned from Canton, told me he never saw the children at play there; that they all look like little old men and women, whose minds were mighty full of business. I should like to send them a book of games — shouldn’t you? I think ‘all work and no play, makes Jack a dull boy.'”

This passage reminds me of Mrs. Mortimer’s Countries of the World Described series, which is full of the hearsay of travelers, a bit gossipy but with less of a condescending tone than Mrs. Mortimer. I don’t doubt the existence of child labor in China at this point in history, although sending a book of games is a rather simplistic approach to the problem, sounding rather naive. The US was using child labor at this time, too, and in the later photography of Lewis Hine (who was born 40 years after this book was written), which explored and exposed the conditions of working children, it does appear that child labor prematurely ages children. There were laws restricting the use of child labor in the US during the 1830s, when this book was written, but these laws didn’t stop the practice entirely, and they were not always enforced, partly because public opinion actually supported child labor, especially for children from poor families. Rural children regularly worked on their families’ farms, so rural families saw nothing wrong with children in other communities also working (although under very different conditions), and poor families did depend on the help of their children to make ends meet. This situation would continue to exist in the US for decades after this book was written, but it’s worth noting that some people were already becoming concerned about the problem.

On Keeping Animals

Mrs. Child advises only keeping domesticated animals, such as dogs and cats as pets. Children of this time sometimes tried to trap and keep small wild animals, like birds and squirrels, as pets (and I’ve read other guides which give advice for doing this), but Mrs. Child recommends against this, saying that wild animals are unhappy as pets. Mrs. Child tells girls who have wild pets to set them free because they will be happier and thrive better in their natural environment. She also recommends consulting an experienced person about how to properly feed animals because animals can die from eating the wrong foods.

Gardening

Mrs. Child recommends gardening as a good, healthy hobby and advises girls to do all or most of the work of their garden themselves so that they can truly call it their own. She says that girls should know the names of all of the plants in their garden and offers tips for caring for flowers.

May Morning

This section explains the history of the May Day holiday and gives tips for celebrating. This holiday used to be more popular in the US during the 19th century and early 20th century, and it was celebrated in schools. Mrs. Child remembers receiving flowers and verses of poetry from students on May Day, which she enjoyed. I’ve also seen old photographs of schools in my home town with students gathered around a May pole. Some US communities still hold May Day celebrations, but the celebrations are not as wide spread, and in other areas, it’s largely forgotten.

Miscellaneous

This section has short pieces if fiction, included two very short moral tales that were translated from Spanish to English, a poem about a kitten, a longer story about the adventures of an orphan girl called Mary Howard, and a fairy tale style story.

The Mary Howard story is one of those stories that features island “savages.” In spite of Mrs. Child’s otherwise progressive views for her time, this story has uncomfortable racial attitudes. Young Mary Howard’s wicked uncle tries to pay a sailor to drown her so that he can steal her money, but the sailor finds that he can’t bring himself to do it and instead takes care of her for a few years in New Zealand, where they live among “savages”, who treat her kindly, but the sailor worries about her future and the chief’s desire to marry Mary, even though she is still a young child. (Racist stories are often very concerned with dark-skinned “savages” wanting to marry blue-eyed white girls of varying ages.) Eventually, the sailor manages to help Mary connect to people who really love her in England, and she grows up to be a beautiful and accomplished young lady, unlearning the “rude habits” that she had acquired among the “savages.” I’m kind of surprised at finding this story in the book because it doesn’t seem like it would fit well with Mrs. Child’s otherwise progressive views for her time, but then again, maybe her views weren’t fully progressive in all areas or she simply thought that this would be something that would appeal to her audience because these elements were common features of popular literature of the time. It’s hard to say, but I thought modern readers should know about this story, so they can skip it or be prepared to encounter it or talk about it with their children.

I wasn’t entirely happy with the fairy tale, either. It’s called The Palace of Beauty. There are two princesses, Rose and Marion. Rose is beautiful, well-behaved, and praised by everyone. Marion is ugly (“dwarfish, dark-skinned, and deformed”) and bitter about all the praise that Rose receives. Her bitterness and jealousy cause her to misbehave and treat Rose badly. However, one day, she hears that Rose wandered into a magical fairy castle as a very young child and that the fairy queen dipped her in a special fountain, and that’s the secret of Rose’s beauty. Desperate to improve her situation, Marion seeks out the fairy castle herself. When Marion finds the fairy queen, she asks her for help to become as beautiful as Rose. The queen agrees, provided that Marion performs certain tasks. First, Marion must speak kindly to her sister for a week. Then, she must treat her sister as she would want to be treated herself (The Golden Rule) for a month. Then, Marion must refrain from entertaining wicked or envious thoughts for three months. The tasks are not easy for Marion, but she perseveres, growing pleased at the improved relationship between herself and her sister and pleased at finally receiving praise from others for her behavior as the note the changes she makes. When Marion has trouble maintaining good thoughts, she asks Rose for advice, and Rose says that reading the Bible and praying helps her, so Marion does that. The final test is for Marion to be good for an entire year just for the sake of being good, not in anticipation of the reward she expects to receive from doing it. This is the hardest task of all because Marion has wanted to be beautiful for so long, but finally, she succeeds. The reward is to realize that she no longer needs the magical fountain at all because her good character has made her into the beautiful person she really wanted to be.

I appreciate the moral of the story, which is that a good character and kind behavior can make a person a truly beautiful person. I’ve already reviewed a 20th century story, The Plain Princess, with similar themes. However, between the two, I prefer The Plain Princess because it was more clear in that story that the princess’s apparent “plainness” was based solely on her spoiled demeanor and uncaring behavior, and in this story, it’s not as obvious. The Plain Princess was merely a bit plain and frowning, not described as “dwarfish, dark-skinned, and deformed”, as Marion is. I don’t think that a person can become actually “deformed” due to a bitter personality, and the more I think about it, the more I’d like to see some accountability and lessons learned for the people around Rose and Marion for slighting Marion due to her “deformity” and “dark skin.” They’re really part of the problem. I think anybody would be a little bitter if they’d spent their whole lives being treated like a second-class citizen for just not being as pretty as someone else, and Rose has really had it easy her entire life for always being the favored one. Remember that Rose had help from the fairy queen when she was very small and has been heaped with admiration and praise her entire life, so she hasn’t really gone through the same trials of circumstance and character that Marion has. Rose is treated like a superior person who already has all the answers, but she hasn’t lived Marion’s life or endured the same struggles with self-identity; she’s just very privileged and had it easy from the beginning. The Plain Princess had a different tone. Nobody in that story was really ugly, and none of the changes in the princess herself were so unbelievably radical as a person suddenly becoming not deformed. Equating beauty and goodness is always a bit problematic because those qualities really don’t relate to one another in real life, and there are many examples of beautiful people with terrible characters and cruel, unethical behavior, partly because these beautiful people have acquired a sense of entitlement, thanks in part to the early favoritism they have experienced because of their looks. (Check out some of the people involved in the college cheating scandal and listen to the way some reporters described the clothes that some of these people wore to court to answer their fraud charges and then tell me that you don’t see the connection. Should guilt be determined or sentencing influenced on what was worn and who wore it better, and does any of that change or make up for what these people actually did?) The only time that I think this comparison can really work is if the conditions of “beauty” in the story are specifically named as being qualities associated with good behavior, like a kind smile and a nose that points down instead of up at the world, like in The Plain Princess. A story that tries to make skin color and/or unfortunate physical deformity into a moral issue just doesn’t do it for me.

Maxims for Health and Gracefulness

Mrs. Child is all about health and developing good, healthy habits. This section has tips and advice for maintaining good health, like getting up early, washing your face, brushing teeth twice a day, maintaining good posture, and keeping hair neat. She recommends giving children clothing that allows them to move easily, and says:

“Walking and other out-of-door exercises, cannot be too much recommended to young people. Even skating, driving hoop, and other boyish sports, maybe practised to great advantage by little girls, provided they can be pursued within the inclosure (sic) of a garden, or court; in the street, they would of course be highly improper. It is true, such games are rather violent, and sometimes noisy; but they tend to form a vigorous constitution; and girls who are habitually lady-like, will never allow themselves to be rude and vulgar, even in play.”

Mrs. Child is still somewhat progressive in her views of what types of athletics are appropriate for girls, but still within certain limits considered lady-like and appropriate for the time.

The oddest advice in this section is to keep children’s hair shorter until they are about nine or ten years old, and the reasoning seems to be based on an old wives’ tale, although Mrs. Child oddly tries to debunk a different old wives’ tale at the same time: “Physicians have agreed that it is better to keep the hair cut until the child is nine or ten years old. An abundance of hair at an early age, is apt to produce weak eyes, paleness, and head-ache; besides, the idea that hair is made coarse by frequent cutting in childhood, is entirely unfounded.”

The moral maxims at the end of the book have a particularly Christian and Biblical focus, and Mrs. Child ends by praising the German customs of even children giving presents at Christmas because it is an opportunity to encourage children to use their ingenuity to make presents to pleasantly surprise others.

One thought on “The Girl’s Own Book

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