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Aunt Jane's Nieces in Society

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Written by  L. Frank Baum
(as "Edith Van Dyne")
Illustrator  Emile A. Nelson
Published  1910
Publisher  Reilly & Britton

Aunt Jane's Nieces in Society is a juvenile novel for girls, written by L. Frank Baum. It is the fifth of the ten volumes in the Aunt Jane's Nieces series, and continues the story of the three Merrick cousins, Louise Merrick, Patsy Doyle, and Elizabeth De Graf. Like all the books in that series, it appeared under Baum's "Edith Van Dyne" pseudonym.

Summary

John Merrick has a provoking conversation with his sister-in-law, Louise's mother. Mrs. Merrick insists that Uncle John's nieces suffer a disadvantage in being left out of "Fashionable Society." Though Uncle John knows that his sister-in-law is a vain and foolish woman, her criticism hits him in his most vulnerable spot: he cannot stand to think that his beloved nieces are lacking any of the good things in life. John capitalizes on a business contact with Hedrik Von Taer, a fixture of the Four Hundred, the social elite of New York City. The stockbroker asks his daughter Diana Von Taer to sponsor the nieces' social debut; Diana, well aware of John Merrick's millions and his importance to her father's business, agrees, as long as the girls are not "impossible."

Diana calls on the cousins individually; she is struck with Louise's sweetness and classic femininity, Patsy's liveliness, and Beth's beauty (though Diana and Beth dislike each other cordially on first acquaintance). Diana finds the three candidates at least marginally acceptable; she sponsors their debut, and all goes well. The cousins are accepted into the whirl of society, and are soon managing the flower booth at the year's biggest charity ball.

Complications arise with the appearance of Arthur Weldon, the on-again off-again suitor of Louise from previous books. Arthur has been keeping company with Diana Von Taer, but once he sees Louise his passion for her re-awakens — which arouses Diana's jealousy. Diana solicits her cousin Charles Connoldy Mershone, a ne'er-do-well and social black sheep, to court Louise as a way to distract the girl from Arthur.

Diana does not anticipate that Mershone will actually fall in love with Louise — but he does. When Louise rejects him for the upright Arthur, Mershone goes to the extreme of abducting her and keeping her at Diana's country house. Louise's relations call in the police and hire private detectives, including Quintus Fogerty, "The best man in all New York." Mershone, however, is clever enough to avoid quick detection.

Louise is initially shocked and disoriented by her abduction; but after five days she recovers enough to stage an escape. During an "old fashioned snowstorm" she climbs out a window and down a trellis. She is eventually overcome by the storm, but is rescued by a passing farm couple. Arthur Weldon discovers Louise at the farmer's house, where they are joyfully re-united.

Louise's family decides not to prosecute the now-repentant Mershone, to avoid a newspaper scandal and to eschew the "doubtful satisfaction" of revenge. The story concludes with the very fashionable wedding of Arthur Weldon and Louise Merrick.

Background

The social theme

The novel "develops a favorite theme of Baum's, the emptiness and artificiality of fashionable life."[1] Throughout his literary canon, but most notably in the Oz books and the Aunt Jane's Nieces series, Baum stresses the basic values of simplicity and naturalness as opposed to "sophistication."[2]

Characters in this novel express pronounced skepticism about the pretension of high society. Patsy argues that "all decent folks" are members of society — and when another character calls this "communism," Patsy replies, "Perhaps so." Patsy continues,

"...certain classes have leagued together and excluded themselves from their fellows, admitting only those of their own ilk. The people didn't put them on their pedestals — they put themselves there. Yet the people bow down and worship these social gods and seem glad to have them."

Patsy is not the only skeptic: Beth's initial attitude is so negative that Louise calls her a "rank socialist." In the end, though, even Beth has modified her attitude toward the social world:

"Society," announced Beth, complacently, "is an excellent thing in the abstract. It has its black sheep, of course; but I think no more than any other class of humanity."
"Dear me!" cried Uncle John; "you once denounced society."
"That," said she, "was before I knew anything at all about it."

The detective

Baum introduces the character of the private detective Quintus Fogerty in this book — a character who re-appears in a later volume in the series, Aunt Jane's Nieces on Vacation. Fogerty serves the "purpose of extricating the girls when necessary"[3] from plot difficulties. Baum's use of this "real world" character has been seen as a sign that the genial milieu of his gentler characters, the cousins and their family, cannot accommodate the darker elements of American society.[4]

References

  1. Katharine M. Rogers, L. Frank Baum, Creator of Oz: A Biography, New York, St. Martin's Press, 2002; p. 154.
  2. Fred Erisman, "L. Frank Baum and the Progressive Dilemma," American Quarterly, Vol. 20 No. 3 (Autumn 1968), pp. 616-23.
  3. Raylyn Moore, Wonderful Wizard, Marvelous Land, Bowling Green, OH, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1974; p. 213.
  4. Erisman, pp. 621-2.

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