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Disciplining Girls

Understanding the Origins of the Classic Orphan Girl Story

Joe Sutliff Sanders

Publication Year: 2011

At the heart of some of the most beloved children’s novels is a passionate discussion about discipline, love, and the changing role of girls in the twentieth century. Joe Sutliff Sanders traces this debate as it began in the sentimental tales of the mid-nineteenth century and continued in the classic orphan girl novels of Louisa May Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett, L. M. Montgomery, and other writers still popular today. Domestic novels published between 1850 and 1880 argued that a kind of discipline that emphasized love was the most effective and moral form. These were the first best sellers in American fiction, and by reimagining discipline as a technique of the heart—rather than of the whip—they ensured their protagonists a secure, if limited, claim on power. This same ideal was adapted by women authors in the early twentieth century, who transformed the sentimental motifs of domestic novels into the orphan girl story made popular in such novels as Anne of Green Gables and Pollyanna. Through close readings of nine of the most influential orphan girl novels, Sanders provides a seamless historical narrative of American children’s literature and gender from 1850 until 1923. He follows his insightful literary analysis with chapters on sympathy and motherhood, two themes central to both American and children’s literature, and concludes with a discussion of contemporary ideas about discipline, abuse, and gender. Disciplining Girls writes an important chapter in the history of American, women’s, and children’s literature, enriching previous work about the history of discipline in America.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. ix-xii

In the pages that follow, I attempt to write with intellectual detachment about sentimentality. For a few paragraphs, however, I have no choice but to speak with genuine sentimentality about the people who infused this intellectual exercise with such joy. I have been fortunate to have had excellent mentoring since leaving graduate school. At Kansas State University, Anne K. Phillips, Dan Hoyt, Phil Nel, Karin ...

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Introduction: Gender, Sentiment, Individualism, Discipline

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pp. 1-23

Disciplining someone effectively is a subtle process. On the one hand, successful discipline requires documentable results: the disciplined person stops one behavior (drinking, lying, stealing, speaking) or starts another (exercising, listening, sharing, studying). These outcomes of discipline are observable. Yet on the other, the power that underwrites discipline is at its fullest when it cannot be ...

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1. The Wide, Wide World and the Rules of Sentimental Engagement

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pp. 24-42

The history of affective discipline in the classic orphan girl novel begins long before there was a clear market for children’s literature whose goal was to delight rather than instruct young readers. Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World, published in 1850, crystallized many of the central tenets of discipline in the popular sentimental style, not coincidentally going on to become the first best seller in ...

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2. The Hidden Hand and Momentary Individualism

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pp. 43-52

If The Wide, Wide World has become the example par excellence of sentimentalism, E.D.E.N. Southworth’s The Hidden Hand is a much more difficult orphan girl novel to classify. It was first published in serial form in 1859, thus appearing within the same decade as The Wide, Wide World. But it was also republished in serial form twice more over the subsequent decades before finally being published ...

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3. Eight Cousins and What Girls Are Made For

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pp. 53-64

If women in sentimental-era novels could manipulate men, if Ellen Montgomery could place her father’s authority where she wished or nudge her future husband back into the role she preferred, the logical conclusion was that they sometimes ought to manipulate men. Similarly, when Craven Le Noir blackened the name of Capitola, she and her adoptive father might have disagreed about the best ...

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4. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and the Threat of Affective Discipline

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pp. 65-77

Although the orphan girl novel came to popularity in the nineteenth century, it was during the opening decades of the twentieth century that orphan girl novels proliferated. Taking a page from Eight Cousins, girls’ fiction of the new century invested its protagonists with more disciplinary agency, simultaneously pushing for more distinct subjectivity for girls involved in the affectionate relationships ...

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5. A Little Princess and the Accidental Power of Stories

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pp. 78-88

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm was the first of the classic orphan girl novels to suggest the affective power of storytelling in the hands of disciplining girls, but Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1905 novel, A Little Princess, was more dedicated to exploring the power of storytelling than any other book in the genre. The great popularity of Rebecca touched off a revival of the sentimental orphan girl story, ...

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6. Anne of Green Gables and the Return of Affective Discipline

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pp. 89-96

With all the changes Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and A Little Princess make to the formula of affective discipline, it might seem that L. M. Montgomery’s first orphan girl novel, 1908’s Anne of Green Gables, is something of an anachronism. In the previous orphan girl novels of the new century, the genre pulled itself away from public and conscious affective discipline as well as from most of the other ...

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7. The Secret Garden and the Rajah’s Master

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pp. 97-105

Classic orphan girl novels regularly reflected the broader culture’s ideas about loving discipline and the shifting subjectivity it engendered. At various points in their history, such books demonstrated a preference for shaping spirits rather than bodies, a tendency to invest citizens with rights that could be owned like tangible commodities, and even a concern that affective discipline might work ...

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8. Pollyanna and Anxious Individualism

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pp. 106-119

Because The Secret Garden and novels like it descend from the sentimental novel, they traditionally keep the mother out of the crosshairs of affective discipline. After all, the sentimental novel detailed the empire of the mother, and she guided rather than absorbed disciplinary intimacy. But, as The Secret Garden demonstrates, the mother can be stripped of her body just as can the father, ...

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9. Emily of New Moon and the Private Girl

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pp. 120-142

The last of the novels clearly in the sentimental orphan girl tradition that I examine is Emily of New Moon, published in 1923 by L. M. Montgomery, who had already achieved international fame as the author of Anne of Green Gables. Written at the end of the genre’s long history, Emily relentlessly examines the trends of the earlier novels. Whereas early girls’ novels such as Eight Cousins ...

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10. Spinning Sympathy

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pp. 143-161

When Katy Carr, of Susan Coolidge’s 1873 novel What Katy Did, awakes on Christmas morning in her invalid’s bed, she is delighted to discover three important gifts. From her cousin Helen, who is also an invalid, there is “a little silver bell.” Tied up nearby is “a beautiful book . . . “The Wide Wide World’ ” (203). These gifts and others adorn the third gift, a new chair from her father and the ...

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11. Girls’ Novels and the End of Mothering

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pp. 162-179

When postsentimental orphan girl stories used mother figures as antagonists in plots about girls achieving a more robust subjectivity, they performed a stunning revision of the sentimental model of discipline they had inherited from nineteenth-century sentimental novels. That mothers could be antagonists at all was a fundamental shift: in the mode from which this girls’ fiction borrowed its ...

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Conclusion: Affection, Manipulation, Pleasure, Abuse

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pp. 180-194

Although standard readings of the history of affective discipline in the United States stop with the close of sentimentalism, women writers of the next several decades continued to fictionalize and test new strategies of discipline through love. They did so in novels that borrowed a narrative formula about orphan girls, revising such key terms of sentimental suasion as sympathy, individualism, and ...


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pp. 195-206


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pp. 207-216


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pp. 217-225

E-ISBN-13: 9781421403779
E-ISBN-10: 1421403773
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421403182
Print-ISBN-10: 1421403188

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 794700353
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Disciplining Girls

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Subject Headings

  • Children's stories, American -- History and criticism.
  • Children's stories, Canadian -- History and criticism.
  • Orphans in literature.
  • American fiction -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Sentimentality in literature.
  • American fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism
  • Child rearing in literature.
  • Girls in literature.
  • Canadian fiction -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Canadian fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
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