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  • Empowering the Child:Rediscovering Dorothy Canfield's Made-to-Order Stories
  • Suzanne Rahn (bio)

For an instant Betsy gazed into those clear eyes and then . . . why, gracious goodness! That was herself she was looking at! How very, very different she looked from the last time she had seen herself in a big mirror! She remembered it well—out shopping with Aunt Frances in a department store, she had caught sight of a pale little girl, with a thin neck, and spindling legs half-hidden in the folds of Aunt Frances's skirts. But she didn't look even like the sister of this browned, muscular, upstanding child who held Molly's hand so firmly.

Understood Betsy (204-5)

It's not hard to see where Understood Betsy came from. In 1911, two years after the birth of her first child, Sally, the successful American novelist Dorothy Canfield visited Maria Montessori's school in Rome.1 She was impressed, particularly by the mature and self-reliant behavior of the children. In 1912 she published A Montessori Mother, an account of her visit and an introduction to Montessori principles. Then, in 1913, the year of her second child Jimmy's birth, her Montessori Manual explained how these principles might be applied in American families. Next came a series of articles in To-day's Magazine, expanded in book form as Mothers and Children (1914). Designed for a wide audience, the articles stirred up a small storm of controversy by arguing that unquestioning obedience was not the chief (or even a desirable) goal of child-rearing (see Fisher 114-6). Canfield refused to back down, and went on to publish Self-Reliance: A Practical and Informal Discussion of Methods of Teaching Self-Reliance, Initiative and Responsibility to Modern Children in 1916.

In the meantime, she was beginning to incorporate Montessori principles into her fiction as well. Sylvia's childhood in The Bent Twig (1915), a novel for adults, is a Montessori ideal brought to life (Washington 70). Sylvia and her sister are allowed to participate in adult activities and [End Page 109] discussions, and mother, father, and children all do the housework together. Later, grown up, Sylvia is able to think and act responsibly despite the pressures of society, thanks to a lifelong habit of independent thought and judgment.

A logical next step for Canfield was to address the children themselves. Understood Betsy was serialized in St. Nicholas in 1916 and published the following year. Nancy Romalov has shown in "Progressive Education" that a 1915 visit to Park School in Buffalo played an important part in its creation; this "most modern of schools" strongly resembled an old-fashioned country home in which children were given real, meaningful work to do. Here Canfield found a way to connect the Montessorian "educational future" to her own treasured Vermont heritage. Thus Betsy could grow from a sickly, fearful child to a sturdy, self-reliant one not by attending a special Montessori school, but simply by moving from an up-to-date home and school in the city to an old-fashioned home and one-room country school in Vermont.

In 1916, with Betsy just completed, Canfield and her two children sailed to France, where her husband John had joined the Ambulance Service and was now at the front (Washington 87-88). Her war years, a time of anguish, intense activity, and personal change, effectively ended Canfield's "Montessori period." Her continuing espousal of Montessori principles is clear, however, in such later works as The Home-Maker (1924), a novel for adults, and Fables for Parents (1937), a collection of short stories. She remained one of the few novelists in any period to write deeply and thoughtfully of the experience of parenthood and of good and bad child-rearing.

Understood Betsy has recently enjoyed something of a revival, with new editions in hardcover and paperback.2 But few critics are even aware of the existence of Dorothy Canfield's very different second book for children, Made-to-Order Stories (1925).

In a letter to her publisher, Alfred Harcourt, Canfield described how these stories first came to be told and written down:

(F)or years now, ever since...


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pp. 109-130
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