Friday, January 29, 2016

Literary Pilgrimage: Betsy-Tacy Connections

Most of my friends know that of all the books ever written in the history of the world, my most beloved are the Betsy-Tacy books of Minnesota author Maud Hart Lovelace. The books take the characters of Betsy and Tacy (based on the author and her real-life best friend), from their initial meeting at Betsy's fifth birthday party through to Betsy's Wedding. Unlike many series that trace the development of a character from early childhood to adulthood, there is no falling off in appeal as Betsy ages. Fans of the ten-book series adore the grown-up Betsy books every bit as much as they enjoy little-girl Betsy, in some cases even more.

The penultimate title is Betsy and the Great World, in which Betsy spends much of a year in Europe on the eve of the First World War: Munich, Venice, Paris, and London. So as I was leading my students on our Enchanted Spaces tour of children's literature sites in London and Paris, I snuck away for my own private moments revisiting Betsy Ray's journey a century ago.

In London Betsy stays in Mrs. Heaton's boarding house on Taviton Street. So I found Taviton Street on my map (note: not app!) and headed out to locate Betsy's London dwelling.
Mrs. Heaton's is "one of  a row of attached houses, all tall and thin with neat door plates, bells, and knockers." I suspect the houses there now are a result of postwar rebuilding, but tall and thin they are.
The house "overlooked a green square," and I walked through that green square. And what a lovely green square it was.

I also made sure to worship at Westminster Abbey as Betsy does: "She attended church every Sunday in Westminster Abbey. 'Why not?' she defended herself at the storied portal. 'That's what it's meant for.' You soaked in more of the dear gray old place, kneeling in the candlelight, than you did walking around with a guidebook." I sought out an Evensong service, glorying in the boys' choir's angelic voices and glad that I was praying there rather than clicking away with my camera after paying the hefty admission fee for tourists; worshippers are admitted free (but any worshipper who whips out a cell phone - which was NOT me - is scolded instantly).

In Paris, Betsy and I both visited Victor Hugo in the Pantheon and the Venus de Milo in the Louvre.
 "'I never dreamed she would be so beautiful,' she said to Miss Wilson. "I never expect to like famous things. But I guess they're famous because they give everybody this wonderful feeling.'"

I was surprised, though, that Betsy doesn't mention seeing the original of the Winged Victory, given her younger self's thrill at a reproduction of it in Deep Valley's Melbourn Hotel, which inspires her story, "Flossie's Accident," about another headless girl who loses her head in a bobsled accident but goes on to have various subsequent tragic and romantic adventures (!).
 Betsy visits the statue of Henri Quatre on the Pont Neuf, making her own literary pilgrimage in the footsteps of her favorite character, Paragot from the 1906 novel The Beloved Vagabond by William John Locke. At a crucial juncture in his life, Paragot asks advice of the statue and gets, from the king's gesturing arm, an answer, that he should go to the Gare de Lyon. Betsy asks Henri Quatre for advice about how she can reconcile with her estranged boyfriend Joe, and gets, indirectly, her own answer, too. (The next title in the series, after all, is Betsy's Wedding.) I so wished I had some crucial life topic on which I could solicit Henri's advice, but I really didn't, so I just returned his wave and said "Au revoir."
Betsy's stay in Paris culminates in "one good bat" when she and her chaperone, Miss Wilson, are taken out for a decadent dinner at the Ritz by the wealthy American author Mrs. Main-Whittaker, whom Betsy met on her ship voyage at the start of the book and encounters in Paris at the American Express office.

On my last day in Paris I took myself on my own "bat" and treated myself to decadent hot chocolate at elegant Angelina's on the Rue de Rivoli, even though, unlike Mrs. Main-Whittaker, I hadn't just "had a check for royalties big enough to float a bond issue."
My friend Dawn had told me this was the best hot chocolate in Paris, and it was indeed delicious. But it was even more delicious as I imagined sipping it in the company of Betsy Ray in the summer of 1914.


  1. Thanks so much! I loved every minute of being there and every minute of writing about it.