Things that make me go Buh?

While talking about children’s books today, Elinor M.Brent-Dyer’s Rivals of the Chalet School came up in conversation. Specifically, this bit:

Cornelia Flower, another American child, jumped to her feet. ‘Let’s swear a feud against them,’ she said.

‘Mademoiselle said we weren’t to,’ objected Margia.

‘Well, call ourselves the Ku-Klux-Klan, and then it isn’t a feud,’ put in Evadne. ‘It’s fighting for our rights—and things.’

Margia knew perfectly well that it would mean a feud only under another name, but she easily stifled the voice of her conscience, and nodded. ‘It seems an idea. What can we do? What did the American Ku-Klux-Klan do?’

No one was very sure, not even Evadne and Cornelia. Then the former was seized with a brilliant notion.

‘Joey Bettany has some of those awful “Elsie books.” Let’s borrow them—they’re American all right, so they’re sure to say something about them. Then we’ll know where we are.’…

…Cyrilla went back to the form-room where the meeting was, and delivered the precious volumes over to Margia, who dealt them round as far as they would go, and ordained that those left out must look over with someone. For a time there was no sound to be heard but the turning of leaves. Then, suddenly, Giovanna Donati uttered a cry of joy. ‘Here it is, Margia! See!’

Down went the other books and there was a unanimous rush to where she sat, and black, brown, red, and fair heads clustered together over the pages. Yes; there it was.

Margia commandeered the book, and waved them all to their seats. ‘Sit down, an’ I’ll read it to you. Then we’ll know.’

They sat down, and she read aloud industriously for half an hour, after which she passed on the office to someone else, as she was growing hoarse.

The account of the doings of that far-famed ‘Klan’ as given in Elsie’s Motherhood thrilled them all, though they sometimes stumbled over the long words used and were bothered by the very elaborate style of the book.

‘Cut all that,’ commanded Margia when the reader came to any ‘preachy’ bits. ‘Get on to the fun.’…

…After Kaffee und Kuchen, they returned to their amusement, and by the time the bell rang for their amusement, and by the time the bell rang for them to go upstairs and change for the evening, they knew all they wanted about the original Ku-Klux-Klan.

‘Only we can’t go round beating people or sticking up coffins against their back-doors,’ said Margia regretfully.

I’d always assumed that this was just one of those random and bizarre bits of acceptable racism one comes across in old-ish children’s books (Rivals was published in 1929). But since the Elsie book in question is available online (here) I went to check and found that it is actually quite condemnatory of the Klan. Consider this, for example:

“So the Ku Klux outrages have begun in our neighborhood,” remarked Mr. Horace Dinsmore, and went on to denounce their proceedings in unmeasured terms. The faces of several of his auditors flushed angrily. Enna shot a fierce glance at him, muttering “scalawag,” half under her breath, while his old father said testily, “Horace, you speak too strongly. I haven’t a doubt the rascals deserved all they got. I’m told one of them at least, had insulted some lady, Mrs. Foster, I believe, and that the others had been robbing hen-roosts and smoke-houses.”

“That may perhaps be so, but at all events every man has a right to a fair trial,” replied his son, “and so long as there is no difficulty in bringing such matters before the civil courts, there is no excuse for Lynch law, which is apt to visit its penalties upon the innocent as well as the guilty.”

At this, George Boyd, who, as the nephew of the elder Mrs. Carrington and a member of the Ashlands household, had been invited with the others, spoke warmly in defence of the organization, asserting that its main object was to defend the helpless, particularly in guarding against the danger of an insurrection of the blacks.

“There is not the slightest fear of that,” remarked Mr. Travilla, “there may be some few turbulent spirits among them, but as a class they are quiet and inoffensive.”

“Begging your pardon, sir,” said Boyd, “I find them quite the reverse;–demanding their wages directly they are due, and not satisfied with what one chooses to give. And that reminds me that you, sir, and Mr. Horace Dinsmore, and that carpet-bagger of Fairview are entirely too

liberal in the wages you pay.”

“That is altogether our own affair, sir,” returned Mr. Dinsmore, haughtily. “No man or set of men shall dictate to me as to how I spend my money. What do you say, Travilla?”

“I take the same position; shall submit to no such infringement of my liberty to do as I will with my own.”

Martha Finley’s racism is mostly of the “pity the poor ignorant black people” variety than the Klan sort. Elsie’s Motherhood is written in 1876 and even then the author seems to have suspected that writing about the Klan, in whatever fashion, might be rather fraught. Hence the placatory foreword.

The published reports of the Congressional Committee of Investigation were resorted to as the most reliable source of information, diligently examined, and care taken not to go beyond the facts there given as regards the proceedings of the Klan, the clemency and paternal acts of the Government, or the kindly, fraternal feelings and deeds of the people of the North toward their impoverished and suffering brethren of the South.

These things have become matters of history: vice and crime should be condemned wherever found; and naught has been set down in malice; for the author has a warm love for the South as part and parcel of the dear land of her birth.

May this child of her brain give pain to none, but prove pleasant and profitable to all who peruse its pages, and especially helpful to young parents, M. F.

So I have to wonder how closely the Chalet girls (and EBD herself) were reading, for them to assume that none of this is in any way problematic. Maybe all the long speeches condemning the Klan were dismissed as ‘preachy’ and left unread. I don’t know. I’m entirely baffled.

4 Comments to “Things that make me go Buh?”

  1. I have felt for some time now that Spark wrote ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ hopped up on Chalet School books.

    [NB: Not at all conflating fascism with UNBELIEVABLY CRAZY-ASS racism, but surely you see the similarities in characterisation.]

  2. …and now crossover fic must be written.

    It’s a…definite possibility? A terrifying one!

  3. Wow! Your blog is Amazing!!

  4. Wow, thank you for bringing this to light.

    My read on the first one you quoted is that it isn’t meant to be supportive of the Klan so much as “Oh those wacky kids, seeing only the fun of the Klan! Of course they shouldn’t really terrorize anyone!”, which… isn’t really better.

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