Brains, beauties, athletes, and butterflies.

A display case from the College Girl Fiction exhibit

By Keely Savoie

It was once inconceivable: girls and young women pursuing higher education away from home, where they lived in dorms with one another, apart from their families.

But after Mary Lyon founded Mount Holyoke Seminary in 1837 as the first of the Seven Sisters schools, higher education for women gained a foothold in American culture. Soon after, a new literary genre was spawned: “college girl fiction.”

“In the early twentieth century, it was suddenly possible for more women to go to college, so it became common enough that you could actually write books about it—and young girls would buy them,” explained Leslie Fields, head of Archives and Special Collections at Mount Holyoke.

Four display cases containing the College Girl Fiction exhibit will be in Dwight Hall through February 15. Each case, individually curated by a different student assistant in Archives and Special Collections, depicts an aspect of the popular imaginings of the lives of college women living away from home.

“We wanted this exhibit to introduce people to the amazing rare books collection we have here,” said Fields. “These materials are so interesting. More people should know about them.”

Liz Knoll ’16, focuses on a single book, Doris, A Mount Holyoke Girl. The 1913 book is a first-person narrative of a fictional student who attended Mount Holyoke College from 1846 to 1847. In addition to the book, the exhibit case contains photographs depicting scenes that would have been familiar to Doris, along with contemporaneous textbooks and mementos of the era, including a lock of hair and a silver spoon.

Stock “type” characters like athletes, beauties, intellectuals, and flirts, populate the case curated by Brittnee Worthy ’17. Worthy chose works depicting students at Smith, Bryn Mawr, and Radcliffe colleges, along with a fictional institution, to examine how the characters interact with one another, and build lifelong relationships.

“I especially enjoy the books that were written by a variety of alums—you get a better perspective than you would get through just one narrator,” said Worthy.

Jane Allen, a basketball-playing protagonist, claims her own case. Meaghan Sullivan ’17 focused on the five-book series that follows the protagonist throughout her college career. One cover shows a proud, strong, and confident Jane marching toward the viewer in front of a bullhorn with flowing streamers.

“I found this cover so incredible. She looks so confident, and the graphic design really speaks to the different way she was portrayed through the series,” Sullivan said.

Basketball was a major sport at Mount Holyoke in the early 1900s, and photographs in the case show teams, which were divided by class year. In one photograph, a player cradles the team’s mascot, a Kewpie doll dressed as a green griffin.

“It is interesting to me that the competition between classes resulted in more camaraderie and friendship,” remarked Sullivan.

Of course no college girl fiction collection would be complete without the crown jewel of mid-20th-century literature, the pulp fiction novel, which gets its name from the cheap paper used for mass production.

In her case of curated college girl pulp fiction, Emily Isakson ’19 displays a number of “scandalous” books, including one titled Unforbidden Fruit. They focus on highly fictionalized accounts of rebellious characters that are put through plotlines designed to keep the reader coming back for more. The most recent book in the display, Commencement, from 2009, is a more circumspect and realistic view of college life written by a recent graduate of Smith College.

Together, the four exhibits showcase just a selection of the vast trove of “college girl fiction” housed in the Archives and Special Collections. Fields hopes the display will entice those who see it to come in for more.

“College girl fiction is a large part of our juvenile fiction collection in Special Collections. I have always loved the fact that there are all these books about college girls,” said Fields. “It provides huge research opportunities for interested students, and the collection is fascinating and fun on its own merits.”

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