Posted by: janesandell | July 7, 2009

Helen Dore Boylston

A couple of weeks ago I was reading an article in a professional journal written by someone I know in the world of publishing.  It was generally very interesting but one thing jumped out at me: the name of Helen Dore Boylston.  I already knew that the writer of the article and I have similar tastes in children’s books (We once sat together at a conference dinner bemusing our fellow diners with our in-depth discussion of the Chalet School, Anne of Green Gables and Cherry Ames.) but I didn’t know that we were both collectors of the Sue Barton series.

Spookily, I had just finished re-reading Sue Barton and was about to move on to Helen Dore Boylston’s other series about Carol Page, an aspiring actress.  The article hadn’t mentioned those books so I emailed my friend to ask if she knew them.  On finding that she didn’t, I decided to take the first one, published in the UK as Carol Goes on the Stage, to the award ceremony of the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals where I knew we’d meet.  I did and Alyx is now off on a quest to find copies of the books for herself.  I might even be inspired to find better copies for myself.  I’d really like to get hold of the original American editions.

Talking about the books has caused me to think about them again.  They were originally published in the US between 1936 and 1952.  I had read all of the Sue Barton titles by the time I was twelve in 1980.  At that time they had been re-issued in paperback by Knight (I think!) and they were easily available to borrow from the library in Lossiemouth or to buy.  It never occurred to me that the books were 40 years old at that point.  And that must be one of the reasons they remained in print and popular for so long: they don’t date.  There are some references that give their age away (an old man who had seen Florence Nightingale, Sue meeting Lillian Wald, founder of the Henry Street Settlement) but a child would have to be paying a lot of attention to pick these up.  The only one of the Carol series I read as a child was Carol Comes to Broadway, the third title.  I found it confusing because I’d missed so much of the history but I loved it.  I was always aware, however, that the setting wasn’t modern as there are fleeting references to the Second World War.  Like Sue Barton, though, Carol Page appeared to me a fairly modern heroine.

Even re-reading the books as an adult, I still don’t find them very dated.  I know a little bit more about medicine now so I realise that things have moved on; and the manners and etiquette in the books are more formal than they are in my experience (unfortunately) but, that apart, they could certainly have been written in my lifetime.  Except, maybe, for one thing: the romance.

Reading the books as a child, Sue’s relationship with Bill seemed quite believable (although I wonder what I really made of the life of a group of adults as a ten-year-old…) and, as a teenager, I was prepared to accept Carol and Mike’s.  Of course, reading either series as an adult, these relationships clearly date the books.  As far as I can remember, Carol and Mike don’t so much as kiss even though they’re engaged by the end of the series!  I think Sue and Bill might have been slightly more daring.

However, I think that in spite of this, Helen Dore Boylston does something that few other authors of the period managed: she creates believable male characters.  Compare Bill Barry with the male doctors Elinor Brent-Dyer introduces for her heroines to marry.  If you have ever read the Chalet School books as an adult you’ll know that Jem Russell, Jack Maynard, Gottfried Mensch and even the non-doctor Dick Bettany are simply stereotypical collections of fine upstanding characteristics.  Bill is, of course, a brilliant surgeon, handsome, funny and trustworthy.  But he’s also short-tempered, a bit chauvinistic and can be hurt, vulnerable and depressed.  In terms of publishing, Jo Bettany and Jack Maynard get married in the same year (1940) as Sue and Bill finally do the same.

I was going to say: and I know which hero I’d choose.  But, actually, I’d go for Mike.  Michael Horodinsky is tall, dark but certainly not handsome; he’s rude, insecure and a bit of a genius in the theatre; he has an inferiority complex the size of New England and a bagful of prejudices mixed with total honesty and trustworthiness.  And it’s not only Carol who is surprised that he wants to marry her.  Helen Dore Boylston creates a genuinely scratchy relationship between the two of them and it’s really only in the course of the third book that they become at all close and, even then, there’s no hint of romance.  But there’s mutual respect and understanding of each other’s character and background.  Mike matures and develops as a person as well as a producer throughout the series and I’m with Carol’s mother who tells her that she is a very lucky girl to have Mike fall in love with her!

I wish that Helen Dore Boylston had written more books and I especially wish that she’d taken Carol’s life further.  And it seems that I’m not their only fan.  Trawling the Internet recently, I discovered that a small American publisher (Image Cascade Publishing) has put out new editions of the Sue Barton series.  Maybe Carol and Mike will be introduced to new readers sometime soon.

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Responses

  1. I agree with you that Bill Barry is a more fully developed character than Jem Russell or Jack Maynard, but I think you short-change Brent-Dyer’s depiction of them. Both have tempers – think of Jem’s reaction to being hit by a pellet from a catapult, or the swearing-match between Jack and the man who ditches his minibus. And Jack emerges as a sensitive and caring figure when he deals with Melanie Lucas’s disobedience, and when he helps Mary-Lou to understand the ‘problem’ girl, Joan Baker. For really two-dimensional male characters, commend me to Elsie J Oxenham!

    • Well, maybe I was a bit sweeping but I still think that Bill Barry comes off the page much more than any of EBD’s male characters. I completely agree with you about Elsie Oxenham, though. You’ll understand that none of my comments and feelings stop me reading any of these books, however!

  2. I have loved Helen Dore Boylston’s books for years! I read them while in Jr. High and about 10 years ago managed to track down the entire Carol series. My younger sisters (aged 15 & 16) have now discovered them as well. I only just discovered that there is a 7th Sue Barton book that I have never read! I think my sisters maybe getting the entire re-published Sue series for Christmas–then I can read the last one!

    And I have to say that between Mike and Bill I think Mike is my favorite!

  3. I read Boylston’s series in the 1970s in German – where they changed Sue’s name to “Susanne Barden”, go figure. I keep my tattered old copies and I’m just re-reading them, trying to convince my daughters to give them a try. I still love them. Kit was always my favorite character. I always imagined her looking and talking a bit like Katherine Hepburn.

    • I like Kit, too, and I think your comment about Katharine Hepburn is exactly right.

  4. I was so pleased to stumble across your site! It is lovely to read these great comments regarding the works of Helen Dore Boylston. The Sue Barton books continue to be very well received and now readers are able to enjoy the Carol Page books as well. We do hope that you enjoy them.

    Joy Canfield, Image Cascade Publishing

  5. Thanks so much to Jane for posting such a long and thoughtful commentary on Helen Dore Boylston. Helen grew up in Portsmouth, NH, not far from where I live. She was a close friend of Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder of “Little House” authorship.

    A couple of comments: although the historical references do not in my mind date the books, the reference to Lillian Wald is inaccurate according to the timeline stated here, that Bill and Sue get married after 1940. That’s because Wald died in 1930 and therefore that would have made Sue a Visiting Nurse for over ten years, when in fact, she left after a short year or so. That’s prominent in the book because she is under the misimpression that she must not leave prior to giving two years of service in repayment for her training at Henry Street.

    However, the rarity of such a mention in a girls series books more than overcomes this historical inaccuracy, in my opinion. I am still reading about Lillian Wald and Henry Street today, as a result of this early exposure to Wald’s high ideals. Wald was one of the founders of the American NAACP and the portrait of black people in Visiting Nurse is uniformly positive and rare for its day.

    The books were published by Little, Brown in Boston, a very highly regarded publisher. Helen’s literary talent thus was recognized at the time. Her books are of a higher caliber than most girls series books of the day, although I am an inveterate Nancy Drew fan, I hasten to add. I think Helen could well have written very fine adult fiction.

    Lila: my great grandfather’s family was “Barden.” I didn’t know until your post that that was German for “Barton—” as I think I read into what you said? That’s an interesting comparison of Kit to Katharine Hepburn.

    When I was in high school, we had to pick a state and write a report. Although I grew up in the American midwest, I chose New Hampshire, because I wanted to learn more about Sue’s home state. It was amazing that later we bought a vacation home in the White Mountains. I believe now that our town there, North Conway, was the setting for Springdale. My favorite cover in the series, therefore, is the first edition of Sue Barton Rural Nurse, a hand touching her hat, in a snowstorm. Mount Washington is clearly in the background. Some of the rural poverty described in the book remains in this area of the United States today.

    I’ve also come to believe, with somewhat less ability to put facts together, that the setting for Sue’s training was Massachusetts General Hospital, where Helen trained and eventually was a nurse-supervisor. (A job she found very tame after serving in World War I.) I don’t think the location of the hospital is named in the first two books, but it is almost unmistakably Boston.

    Helen Dore Boylston died in the 1980’s in a nursing home in Trumbull, Connecticut. The story of how she came there must be interesting indeed. There is considerable information about her in the biography of Rose Wilder Lane, “The Ghost in the Little House,” by William Holtz. There is also a rare picture of the tomboyish, athletic-appearing Helen. Finally, Helen wrote a fanatastic book about her nursing service in France in World War I, with the word “Sisters” in the title. That was the name nurses used in that part of France in the war. It’s a fantastic book that I managed to get on loan from a private library. She was a very adventurous woman. I wish we had a good biography of her available.

    Thanks so much for all the fascinating comments, and although I’ve been lucky to collect all the originals in the series and some duplicates, I’m so glad Image Cascade is reprinting these high quality books.

    Susan

  6. My deepest apologies—Lillian Wald died in 1940, not 1930, therefore, Helen was historically correct in Visiting Nurse when one of the nurses met Ms. Wald.
    Mea culpa,

    Susan

  7. Thank you, Jane; I’ve just started in on my umpteenth reading of the Sue Barton books (I, too, first read them in the late 70s) but had never heard of the Carol Page series. I will look out for them!

  8. from novelguide.com:

    Helen Dore Boylston
    Born 4 April 1895, Portsmouth, New Hampshire; died 30 September 1984

    Daughter of Joseph and Fannie Dore Boylston

    An only child, Helen Dore Boylston attended Portsmouth public schools and trained as a nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital. Two days after graduating, she joined the Harvard medical unit that had been formed to serve with the British Army. After the war, she missed the comradeship, intense effort, and mutual dependence of people upon one another when under pressure, and joined the Red Cross to work in Poland and Albania. This work, often in isolation and with little apparent effect, wasn’t satisfying. Returning to the U.S., Boylston taught nose and throat anaesthesia at Massachusetts General for two years. During this time Rose Wilder Lane read Boylston’s wartime diary and arranged for it to be published in the Atlantic Monthly.

    In the diary, Boylston wonders if the narrower, traditionally feminine world would have contented her if there had been no war: “I might even have married, as the final Great Adventure—which now seems to me a terrifying and impossible thing to do.” Coming into a small inheritance, she spent several years living in Europe. When her money was lost in the Depression, she returned again to nursing but, in the meantime, began trying to earn a living by writing.

  9. Helen Dore Boylston Is Dead;Authorof’SueBarton’Series
    New York Times: Published: October 5, 1984

    Helen Dore Boylston, author of the ”Sue Barton” nurse series that has been popular for several generations of young readers, died on Sept. 30 at St. Joseph’s Manor, a nursing home in Trumbull, Conn. She was 89 years old.

    Miss Boylston drew upon her own experiences to create the ”Sue Barton” books, as well as a biography of Clara Barton, the Civil War nurse and founder of the American Red Cross. Miss Boylston, who was born in Portsmouth, N.H., graduated as a nurse from Massachusetts General Hospital in 1917 and that year joined the British Army in France. She wrote ”Sister: A Journal,” published in 1920 by Atlantic Monthly Press.

    In 1926, she traveled with a friend from France to Albania. An account of her motor journey, ”Travels With Zenobia,” was recently reissued by the University of Missouri Press.

    The seven ”Sue Barton” books were published between 1936 and 1953 and sold millions of cloth copies in this country and in European translations. New American Library is reissuing the books in paperback.

    Miss Boylston leaves no known relatives

  10. Thank you for this blogpost! 2 and a half years after you posted it I’ve been reminiscing about my Sue Barton addiction as a pre-teen (in the 80s), as I found my old collection in a box recently. I remembered being delighted to find a Carol Page in the school library, but never found any others so I was googling Helen Dore Boylston wondering if they are available now. This gives me hope! I see Image Cascade have them all on their website, are they available to buy anywhere in the UK, I wonder?

  11. For what it is worth, I too wondered about Helen Dore Boyston and her life, and have been doing a bit of research on her life and career. If anyone cares to look, you can find the results starting here.
    https://authorsreallives.wordpress.com/2015/01/03/helen-dore-boylston-1895-1984/


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