Maud Hart Lovelace’s books were old-fashioned even when they started coming out in 1940. In ten novels, Lovelace followed turn-of-the-century best friends Betsy Ray and Tacy Kelly from age 5 to their respective weddings. Think Serena and Blair of Gossip Girl with lower hemlines and smaller budgets. And, okay, no Lady Gaga cameos or gay men or fornication. But otherwise the same!
Certainly the pressures Betsy and her friends faced were as emotionally mind-boggling to them as the ones facing young women today. Author Meg Cabot first read Lovelace’s books while writing The Princess Diaries. In an age when teenagers openly discuss blow jobs, she found Betsy’s concerns about, say, holding hands with boys oddly empowering. Plenty of girls today “are freaked out about sex,” Cabot says. “These books allow them to slip back into a world where it wasn’t expected.”
Cabot, novelist and columnist Anna Quindlen, and crime writer Laura Lippman have each written a foreword to one of the three reissues from HarperCollins (the reissues comprise the last six Betsy-Tacy books). They are among the fans who essentially demanded that Lovelace’s later books be reprinted (the first four have been in continuous production since publication). As Quindlen points out, the mores of the two girls may be antediluvian, but their goals are modern. Betsy, along with Little Women’s Jo and Anne of Green Gables, showed Quindlen that a woman could make her living as a writer. “These are female-empowerment books,” she says. “The linchpin of Betsy’s life is her friendship with her friends Tacy and Tib. Her relationship with her boyfriend and eventual husband, Joe Willard, is between equals. I think the best of the books is Betsy in Spite of Herself, because it gives such a vivid picture of the ways young women are tempted to mold themselves in some uncomfortable image and likeness.”
If anything, technology has only increased the popularity of the books. The blogosphere includes three Betsy-Tacy Facebook groups and the national Betsy-Tacy Society; Sadie Stein, on Jezebel.com, called Betsy-Tacy “the best series of all time;” and all three reissues are currently in the top 35 on Amazon’s 20th Century Literatures and Fiction list. Relatability is clearly not a problem. “When Meg [Cabot] spoke at the Betsy-Tacy convention this summer,” says HarperCollins V.P. Jennifer Hart, “she said that if Betsy was alive today, she would probably be blogging, writing something inappropriate, and getting into trouble.”