I was first introduced to Sara Jeannette Duncan by Barb of Leaves & Pages. Reading her review of An American Girl in London, I had a familiar feeling of "I want this book - right now." I was frustrated to find no copies available, even through inter-library loan. As I mentioned before, I downloaded an e-version, but on my Nook it was too garbled to read. When I discovered last week that the text was unscrambled and easily readable on my new phone and tablet, I moved this book to the top of my reading list.
I had forgotten the details of Barb's post, but from the title alone I was expecting a story about an American girl discovering London, perhaps a late-Victorian take on 84, Charing Cross Road, or Amy's travels in Little Women. Knowing that Sara Jeannette Duncan was Canadian, I was half-expecting a Canadian heroine, so I was a little surprised when the narrator introduced herself as Mamie Wick, of Chicago, writing in 1890 (the book was published a year later). Mamie explains her reasons for writing in the first chapter, addressing her potential British readers:
I have noticed that you are pleased, over here, to bestow rather more attention upon the American Girl than upon any other kind of American that we produce. You have taken the trouble to form opinions about her - I have heard quantities of them. Her behaviour and her bringing-up, her idioms and her 'accent' - above all her 'accent' - have made themes for you, and you have been good enough to discuss them - Mr. James, in your midst, correcting and modifying your impressions - with a good deal of animation, for you. I observe that she is almost the only frivolous subject that ever gets into your newspapers . . .I liked Mamie from the start, and I looked forward to her adventures, and to seeing London through her eyes. Initially she was to travel with her parents, but her father (a United States Congressman with an eye on a Senate seat) was detained on business. Instead, her parents agreed that she should go on alone, which also surprised me a little. I don't know how usual that would really have been in 1890. But then her author set off on a round-the-world trip herself as a young woman, traveling with a friend. And at least the Wicks had relatives in London, her father's aunt Mrs. Portheris, on whom Mamie could call.
Privately, I should think that the number of us that come over here every summer to see the Tower of London and the National Gallery, and visit Stratford-upon-Avon, to say nothing of those who marry and stay in England, would have made you familiar with the kind of young women we are long ago; and to me it is very curious that you should go on talking about us . . . But it has occurred to me that, since so much is to be said about the American Girl, it might be permissible for her to say some it herself.
Sailing from New York, Mamie at first found herself somewhat isolated among the ship's company, with even her dinner companions ignoring her. But finally the English lady sitting next to her at meals began to talk to her, eventually drawing in the gentleman on the other side, and a shipboard friendship developed. Mamie would meet both of them again in London, and she would come to share a flat with the lady when her aunt proved less than welcoming. Her two new friends took her on outings around the city, to see the sights and to attend the parties and the theatre. With them and others that she met, she traveled outside London, to the Boat Races, Ascot, and a military review.
Along the way, Mamie was quick to correct what she saw as the misconceptions about American girls, and she was equally quick to note the foibles that she saw in British society - perhaps her Canadian author seeing both sides from the middle. Mamie was never rude about it, keeping many of her observations for her book. At the same time she recognized that as a young woman from the midwestern United States, she had much to learn from the history and culture of Great Britain. She did not have the chip on her shoulder, the need to trumpet American superiority, which Louisa May Alcott's heroines for example often have (I wonder again if this is because her author was Canadian). But she wasn't just a country mouse or a rube, lost in the big city, either. She knew that she didn't know everything, and she was open to learning and guidance. I liked her mix of confidence and inexperience. I think she could actually have coped perfectly well on her own, though she wouldn't have had the entrée into society that her new friends gave her.
In one area, though, Mamie was more than a little naive. In the first chapter, we learn that her father made his fortune in Chicago, manufacturing baking powder. It was obviously a substantial fortune, funding his political career and even a Senate race. Mamie was sent off apparently with a blank check, or at least permission to draw on her father's bankers in London as needed. She spent freely, though not extravagantly. So while she might not be a "dollar princess" like Consuelo Vanderbilt, she was clearly a well-off, unmarried young American woman. And judging by the charming period illustrations, she was a Gibson-girl type - though she seems to be a blonde in some of them, and a brunette in others (but that may be from her hats). Her money and her appearance created expectations in the people that she met. Mamie took the attentions of the young men for granted, seeing them simply as friends, when it is clear to the reader that they had other intentions. Had she been traveling with her mother or a chaperone, things would have gone differently.
This book was great fun, and I did enjoy Mamie's adventures and her descriptions of late-Victorian London. As I was reading, I kept thinking how much I'd like to have a copy of this, so much that I finally resigned myself to the idea of a print-on-demand version (I generally loathe their format and sometimes careless editing). Instead, I was surprised and delighted to find a reasonably-priced copy on ABE - the 1891 edition, no less. I'll be very happy to have this on my real as well as digital shelves.