The cover (paper over boards) of Three Vassar Girls Abroad

Watch out for the one on the right

While I was doing research for a seminar paper a few weeks ago, I came across an 1880s girls’ fiction series that depicts the adventures of “three Vassar girls” as they explore the intellectual delights of Europe, South America, and beyond. I’ve only just begun the first book, Three Vassar Girls Abroad, and it’s just the sort of thing I’d have hoovered up when I was nine or ten: meandering, detailed, plotless, and shamelessly packed with vicarious experience. It’s not a book suited to modern pacing or, presumably, modern children; it’s meant to be read with cookies in bed by lamplight or on a blanket on the grass in a park with a basket of apples and cheese.

I did my undergrad degree at Vassar and have always been attached to its history as a women’s college, so I was sucked in by the title (and the beautiful cover art), but the text itself is worth a look if you’re remotely interested in Victorian children’s fiction. I’ve been cackling throughout at gems like this bit of dialogue, which appears after one of the girls is pestered by a Frenchman:

“I think you managed him very nicely. I suppose he thought all American girls were like Daisy Miller, and had never heard the proverb, — There are two kinds of girls, girls who flirt, and girls who go to Vassar College.”

Indeed.

The most striking thing about the book so far is the matter-of-fact attitude it brings to its central assumption, which is that it’s perfectly appropriate for a trio of unmarried young women to traipse around Europe solely for their own amusement and edification, rather than to catch the eye of a potential husband or to put a Continental polish on their womanly achievements. Their inconstant chaperone annoys them not because she’s interfering with flirtations, but because she’s frivolous and tends to distract them from the good stuff, which includes art, architecture, and scenery as well as a bit of fashion. The notion that such young women existed wasn’t new in the 1880s, but I’m not familiar with many other period depictions of well educated girls getting to do exactly as they please on an international tour.

The books—there are eleven—were written by Elizabeth Williams Champney (another bio and a photo) and published between 1883 and 1892, and they’re all available in full, illustrated text at Google Books.