Some people never want to think about their teenage years again; others find that those years are worth revisiting.
Julie Pfeiffer, professor of English and chair of the Department of English and Creative Writing at Hollins, certainly believes the latter. Her first book, Transforming Girls: The Work of Nineteenth-Century Adolescence, keeps literary representations of adolescent girlhood at its center. Set to be released October 15 by University Press of Mississippi, Transforming Girls analyzes a variety of since-forgotten mid-nineteenth-century bestsellers that were aimed at adolescent girls in the United States and Germany.
“There’s a critical assumption in the United States that adolescent fiction didn’t develop until the 1970s. Yet, there are all these books written in the mid-1800s that are explicitly about adolescent girls and that talk about adolescence as a time of difficult transition,” Pfeiffer said of the historical context surrounding her book. “I realized that, in fact, there were nineteenth-century American girls’ books about adolescence and we had just forgotten about them.”
Pfeiffer’s discovery of these popular American girls’ novels was preceded by an interest in nineteenth-century German girls’ literature that developed during her sabbatical as a Fulbright Senior Scholar at Johann-Wolfgang University in Frankfurt, Germany. “I initially thought that German girls’ books were different from American ones because American girls’ books are family stories or they’re about younger girls, while these German books were about adolescents. I thought I might write a book about the contrast between American and German girls’ books until I actually started reading best-selling American girls’ books from the 1800s and noticed their similarities.
“The German tradition of adolescent fiction for girls — called the Backfisch novel — helps us frame our understanding of the earliest novels for girls in English,” Pfeiffer explained. “People forget what a strong German presence there was in the U.S. in the nineteenth century. There were German printing presses, and German books were translated into English and vice-versa. A cross-cultural exchange happened that was oriented around the idea that there is such a thing as adolescent girlhood, and these books treated female adolescence as a creative, transformative space, whereas we currently view adolescence as a time of alienation and angst.”
“The teenage girls in these nineteenth-century books tend to be awkward. They’re kind of a mess, and they’re loved despite that. The girls feel embarrassed, but the adult women around them acknowledge that becoming a woman is not an inevitable, natural process, but a construction that’s hard work. These female role models provide girls with a supportive environment where it’s okay to make mistakes. Today we expect the ideal teenage girl to be charming, and if she’s not, that’s a problem that needs to be solved.”
Female community is particularly important to the books Pfeiffer writes about in Transforming Girls. “One of my chapters is called ‘The Romance of Othermothering’ and it talks about how mothering happens outside of heterosexual marriage in these books. The characters are often mothered by single aunts or teachers, and the girls are mothering each other as peers who take care of each other. There’s a sense of completion that happens in these novels when a girl learns how to nurture other girls and women.”
Though there are positive messages about adolescence in nineteenth-century girls’ literature, Pfeiffer acknowledges that these books still have a complicated relationship with contemporary audiences, especially considering that their young protagonists are expected to focus on finding husbands as soon as possible.
“Transforming Girls really developed from a question I started asking maybe twenty years ago, which was: Why do I read, teach, and study these classic girls’ books that are so clearly sexist and also reinforce white privilege?” she said. “I say in my book that I don’t necessarily recommend giving these books to teenagers. I write instead about using the positive aspects of these novels to imagine a different vision of adolescence and reframe our ideas about how to support teenagers.”
Pfeiffer ultimately hopes that her scholarship encourages people to think about how they were shaped by the books they read when they were young. “I do believe that the things we read when we’re young, before we have structures for intellectual critique in place, can become deeply internalized. We absorb certain ideologies and maybe spend the rest of our lives sorting out which of those ideologies we actually wanted to absorb and which we didn’t,” she said. “I think part of the importance of studying children’s literature is thinking about the kind of conversations we want to have with children who are reading.”
One possible conversation strikes Pfeiffer in particular: “Taking on the womanly identity your culture expects of you is a kind of invisible labor, and these girls’ books make that labor visible. Now we have the opportunity to think about what we’re choosing to do and what we’re not — and maybe redefine the grumpy adolescent girl as someone who’s actually working really hard to make herself into a new person.”
Pfeiffer will give an in-person lecture (open to the campus community) based on her book on Thursday, October 21, at 7:30 p.m. EST in the Green Drawing Room, Main Building. Titled “Transforming Girls: How We Make Girls into Women,” the lecture will be open to the public via Zoom. The passcode is 403576.
Author Marin Harrington is a graduate assistant in Hollins’ marketing and communications department. She is pursuing her M.F.A. in creative writing at the university.