Spotlight on Literary Heroines: Nancy Drew

For Women’s History Month this year, I’ve been so excited to write lots for my blog and have been thinking of themes to go with – and then it hit me when I was reading a really interesting book by the Women’s Studies Group. Reading Women. I’ve been wanting to read more and more books by women, particularly non-Western authors, as well as getting through the stack of women’s history books I bought throughout my PhD but got put to one side as I focussed on my research. Alongside this, I thought it’d be fun to reflect on my favourite authors and literary heroines. So that is what this month is dedicated to on History Lizzie – Reading Women. And what better way to start than with the first literary heroine I fell in love with as a child…


I’ve loved Nancy Drew ever since my mum first saw a copy of a Nancy Drew mystery story in a National Trust second-hand book shop and suggested that I might like to read it. It was a natural successor to my avid reading of the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, and she had enjoyed reading Nancy mysteries when she was younger. I said I’d give it a go, and there a lifelong love began. From then on, every time we visited a National Trust property with a second-hand book shop, I was straight in there with my pocket money looking for a Nancy Drew mystery so I could read more about this sixteen/seventeen-year-old who solved mysteries in the town of River Heights, along with her friends Bess and George and boyfriend Ned Nickerson.

The Nancy Drew mystery stories have gone through several iterations – they were first published in 1930, all with the author Carolyn Keene, the pseudonym for a couple of different authors. Most notably, however, Nancy was the work of Mildred Wirt Benson, who wrote the first Nancy Drew novels. She was keen on adventure, and that was what Nancy offers. Though Nancy has changed over the years – both on the page and screen, most recently with the CW’s television series which was shown in the autumn last year – her key characteristics have remained the same. More recent versions have also thankfully moved past racist descriptions of characters in the books.

Nancy is intelligent, well-respected, and her opinion frequently asked for. Adults put trust in her and her knowledge and resourcefulness, and she is great in a crisis. Nobody can contain Nancy for long – whether the culprit of the crime she is solving catches up with her, or she is following a decoy. They were all things that inspired me as an eight-year-old, and still do, even though I’m now eight or nine years past the age Nancy is immortalised as. Ruth Bader Ginsburg hit the nail on the head for me when she told how she admired Nancy because

“she was adventuresome, daring, and her boyfriend was a much more passive type than she was.”

(See the full NY Times article telling of the Supreme Court women who held Nancy as a role model here).

I liked that Nancy pushed boundaries because she believed in doing the right thing, and that she was a leader. She would never be put in a box or sit by if she thought something was wrong. She was brave and quick-thinking. And as much as I did like that she had a significant other who appreciated her intelligence and logic skills, I did enjoy, as Bader Ginsburg did, that he wasn’t the one being celebrated for his prowess. It was nice to see that her having a boyfriend was not the main plotline: it was an aside to Nancy’s work as a detective. It was a positive thing to see as a young girl that Nancy succeeded in her own right, doing what she wanted to do.

Admittedly, Nancy didn’t always get it right first time and she was prone to a couple of lectures along the way… but I guess that made her a little more human in her know-it-all moments! I know I’ll always love her whatever, and come back to her every so often just to get my dose of her mystery-solving girl power for many years to come!

READ

Find Penguin Random House’s list of the classic Nancy Drew books in title order here.

Read this really interesting article from SmithsonianMag about the life and writing of Mildred Wirt Benson here.

WATCH

I’m yet to watch the CW series of Nancy Drew yet (though you might find that in my March or April round up!) but I still absolutely love the 2007 film starring Emma Roberts. It is a totally new story, set in Hollywood, and I have watched it to death. I really wish it had been picked up into a movie series, Roberts made a great Nancy! See the trailer here.

AND A LITTLE EXTRA…

In Savannah there is a brilliant bookshop, Books on Bay, which specialises in Children’s Literature, and Nancy Drew in particular. I could spend hours in there browsing all the fantastic editions of Nancy Drew books they have!

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