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The Vassar Girls Abroad

Author Rita Smith
Air Date 3/28/2003

The Vassar Girls Abroad Transcript

“In every age,” critic Virginia Haviland writes, “current events leave their mark on literature. In the nineteenth century, events contributing to the opening up of the world stimulated a new production of travel books for adults and a simultaneous development in American literature for children – the travelogue storybook.” These story books presented people, scenes and descriptions of foreign countries through fictional adventures of the young protagonists. Many of them focused on groups of boys who traveled together throughout the world, but, as Haviland also noted, “not all the young ladies in fiction of this period remained at home while their brothers set off to see the world.”1 In 1883, Elizabeth Williams Champney introduced three young college girls to the fun of journeying into foreign lands in The Three Vassar Girls Abroad. This book was so popular that 10 others followed in the next decade.

In the books, the three Vassar girls visit England, Russia, the Holy Land, France, Italy, South America, etc., just as their male counterparts did, and they experienced exciting moments, as well. They were in Paris during the Siege in 1870, and they visit Russia when that country was at war with Turkey. There are cases of mistaken identity, searches for hidden treasure, implications of forgery and theft and the challenging search for an American who has absconded to Europe with large sums of money stolen from a New York company.

One feature of the books is an attempt to overcome prejudice. Early in The Three Vassar Girls in England, a character states: “The English people collectively are the most disagreeable on the face of the earth,” but once the group has traveled in England, and experienced the hospitality of their hosts, they realize their mistake and one of them suggests that “all antagonism comes from imperfect knowledge.” There is even an upcoming marriage between an American and a Briton to complete the break down any remaining barriers.

Which also points out another feature of the books. The same group of three girls does not appear in each book, since there is at least one engagement or wedding at the end of every book, thereby making replacement characters necessary. So, although some of the characters have dreams of being great artists and of traveling more, most of them end with the traditional future of married woman. The books have never been praised for their literary merit, and the somewhat melodramatic plots come to conventional endings, but there were many girls in the 1880’s ages 12-16 who welcomed these lively stories of adventure written just for them.

1 Haviland, p. 42.


Haviland, Virginia, “The Travelogue Storybook of the Nineteenth Century,” in The Hewins Lectures, 1947-1962, Siri Andrews, ed. Boston: The Horn Book, Inc., 1963, p. 25-63.

Posted in Literature