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Aunt Jane's Nieces

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Written by  L. Frank Baum
(as "Edith Van Dyne")
Illustrator  Emile A. Nelson
Published  1906
Publisher  Reilly & Britton

Aunt Jane's Nieces is the title of a 1906 juvenile novel for girls that L. Frank Baum wrote under the pseudonym "Edith Van Dyne." The book was a popular hit, and was followed by a series of nine more, published between 1907 and 1918; the title of the first book served as the title for the series as a whole.

Inception

The book and the series were designed to appeal to the same audience as Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Little Men. This was expressly stipulated in Baum's contract with publisher Reilly & Britton, which stated:

Baum shall deliver to the Reilly & Britton Co. on or before March 1, 1906 the manuscript of a book for young girls on the style of the Louisa M. Alcott stories, but not so good, the authorship to be ascribed to "Ida May McFarland" or to "Ethel Lynne" or some other mythological female.

At this point in his career, Baum was deliberately attempting to broaden his scope beyond the readers of children's books. Annabel, another novel for girls, was also published in 1906; and Baum's first books for juvenile boys and for adult readers also appeared in this period.

Summary

Jane Merrick is a wealthy, elderly, difficult invalid woman who is preparing for her approaching death. With no children of her own, she calls for her three teenaged nieces to visit her, so she can decide who will inherit Elmhurst, her palatial estate. They are Louise Merrick, Patsy Doyle, and Elizabeth De Graf, the children of Jane's younger brother and sisters.

Each of the three cousins is of a different type. Louise is a would-be society girl; she and her mother have decided to devote their limited funds on a three-year quest for a wealthy husband for the girl. Beth is a small-town beauty, given to brooding and sullenness. Patsy is a temperamental redhead who resents Aunt Jan'e past neglect and determines to have nothing to do with the old woman's money — though Aunt Jane eventually sends her lawyer to fetch the girl.

Each of the cousins has some justification in resenting their aunt's past indifference; but each could use the woman's money. The three girls display their contrasting temperaments: Louise, sweet but manipulative; Beth, her bluntness tinged with bitterness; and Patsy, forthright and gifted with a natural integrity. In the days before Aunt Jane's death, the family is also visited by the long-lost Uncle John, Jane's older brother; he dresses shabbily, and is presumed to be down and out. His sister gives him a place to stay.

Through a cleverly legalistic plot that involves contrasting valid and invalid wills, Baum works a reversal of fortune. After Jane's death, it turns out that she has no estate to leave to anyone. Elmhurst passes to its rightful owner, Kenneth Forbes. Uncle John, in contrast, proves to be an eccentric millionaire. He solves the three girls' material wants, and becomes a patron to the extended clan. He is closest to Patsy, however, and goes to live with her and her widowed father.

The series

The inaugural novel lays out the scheme for the books that followed: Uncle John uses his wealth to reward the cousins with foreign travel and many rich and varied experiences at home. There are adventures and accidents, a kidnapping and rescue, and a romance and marriage for Louise. The final novel in the series, Aunt Jane's Nieces in the Red Cross, was originally published in 1915, when the United States was still neutral in World War I; the nieces treat the wounded on both sides, and express the hope that the War will soon be over. The publisher issued a revised edition in 1918, with a darker treatment of the subject.

  1. Aunt Jane's Nieces, 1906
  2. Aunt Jane's Nieces Abroad, 1907
  3. Aunt Jane's Nieces at Millville, 1908
  4. Aunt Jane's Nieces at Work, 1909
  5. Aunt Jane's Nieces in Society, 1910
  6. Aunt Jane's Nieces and Uncle John, 1911
  7. Aunt Jane's Nieces on Vacation, 1912
  8. Aunt Jane's Nieces on the Ranch, 1913
  9. Aunt Jane's Nieces Out West, 1914
  10. Aunt Jane's Nieces in the Red Cross, 1915, 1918.

In their original editions, each book had a cover illustration and a frontispiece. The first eight volumes in the series were illustrated by Emile A. Nelson, the ninth by James McCracken, and the tenth by Norman P. Hall.

The Edith Van Dyne pen name was employed for other Baum projects — the two Flying Girl books of 1911–12, and the Mary Louise series that started in 1916.

Popular success

In their era, the Aunt Jane's Nieces books were a hit with their target audience. In 1911 the six titles then in print sold 22,569 copies, and in the next few years they outsold the Oz books. The Aunt Jane's Nieces books were popular as grammar-school graduation gifts for girls. After the 1920s they were largely forgotten. By the turn of the twenty-first century, though, the trend of re-evaluation and re-publication of the Baum canon reached the series: nine of the ten books were reprinted between 2005 and 2007.

References

  • Angelica Shirley Carpenter and Jean Shirley. L. Frank Baum: Royal Historian of Oz. Minneapolis, MN, Lerner Publications, 1992.
  • Katharine M. Rogers. L. Frank Baum, Creator of Oz: A Biography. New York, St. Martin's Press, 2002.

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