Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Review: Molly Make-Believe by Eleanor Hallowell Abbott

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1911

Genre: romance, epistolary

Topics: illness, letters, love, relationships


Molly Make-Believe tells the story of Carl Stanton, a young man from New England who suffers from rheumatism. Carl is engaged to be married to Cornelia; and to his complete dismay, his being unwell doesn’t prevent her from going south for the winter with her family as she has always done. To add insult to injury, the letters Cornelia writes him are distant, short, and businesslike: they completely fail to provide a sick young gentleman with the comfort and amusement he requires. How dare his fiancée neglect him so?

It is Cornelia herself who suggests that Carl sign up to receive letters from The Serial Letter Company. As the advertisement says, this company provides “Comfort and Entertainment for Invalids, Travellers, and all Lonely People in the form of “Real Letters from Imaginary Persons”. Carls begins to receive letters from someone who calls herself “Molly Make-Believe”, and very soon this imaginary person begins to take the absent Cornelia’s place in his heart. But who exactly is the real Molly? And could it be that there is any real feeling behind what is in essence a business exchange?

Molly Make-Believe tells Carl and Molly’s story though the letters they exchange, but the presence of long narrative sections means that the novel is perhaps more accurately described as semi-epistolary.

I decided to read Molly Make-Believe because it was mentioned in the same breath as Jean Webster’s delightful Daddy-Long-Legs in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. The reference, I might add, is not exactly flattering, but I figured that if I disagreed with Fitzgerald’s narrator about the latter, I might very well also disagree about the former.

As it turns out, I was completely wrong.

Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs is in many ways a traditional romance, but it’s also full of proto-feminist elements and exciting ideas about women’s education and intellectual and emotional independence. Not so with Molly Make-Believe. The deep-seated assumption underpinning this story is that it’s only right and proper for a woman to put a man’s emotional needs first – that it is indeed completely unreasonable for a wife, or wife-to-be, to dare to do otherwise.

This is well exemplified by Carl’s reaction to the photo the fictional Molly sends him at his requests. You see, she had the audacity to pick a photo of something other than a beautiful woman. Here is our noble hero’s response:
Scowlingly he picked up the picture and stared and stared at it. Certainly it was grim. But even from its grimness emanated the same faint, mysterious odor of cinnamon roses that lurked in the accompanying letter. “There’s some dreadful mistake somewhere,” he insisted. Then suddenly he began to laugh, and reaching out once more for pen and paper, inscribed his second letter and his first complaint to the Serial-Letter Co.
‘To the Serial-Letter Co.,’ he wrote sternly, with many ferocious tremors of dignity and rheumatism.
‘Kindly allow me to call attention to the fact that in my recent order of the 18th inst., the specifications distinctly stated ‘love-letters’, and not any correspondence whatsoever,—no matter how exhilarating from either a ‘Gray-Plush Squirrel’ or a ‘Banda Sea Pirate’ as evidenced by enclosed photograph which I am hereby returning. Please refund money at once or forward me without delay a consistent photograph of a ‘special edition de luxe’ girl.
The response he receives from the company is perhaps even more revealing:
‘Oh, please, Sir,’ said the enclosed letter, ‘Oh, please, Sir, we cannot refund your subscription money because—we have spent it. But if you will only be patient, we feel quite certain that you will be altogether satisfied in the long run with the material offered you. As for the photograph recently forwarded to you, kindly accept our apologies for a very clumsy mistake made here in the office. Do any of these other types suit you better? Kindly mark selection and return all pictures at your earliest convenience.’
The assumption is that this kind of behaviour is a man’s prerogative, and this premise is never, ever questioned. I should add that even after being sent a “satisfactory” set of pictures to choose from, our Carl is still afraid that his Molly may be old, disfigured, or, horror of horrors, black.

illustration from Molly Make-Believe
Yes, seriously.


A possible feminist reading of Molly Make-Believe is that it features a young woman who achieves financial independence by attaching value to the kind of care work – in this case, companionship, amusement and emotional support – that women are generally expected to do for free. Unfortunately, this reading is undermined by speech Molly herself gives towards the end:
‘I guess—I guess it takes a man to really run a business with any sort of financial success, ‘cause you see a man never puts anything except his head into his business. And of course if you only put your head into it, then you go right along giving always just a little wee bit less than ‘value received’—and so you can’t help, sir, making a profit. Why people would think you were plain, stark crazy if you gave them even one more pair of poor rubber boots than they’d paid for. But a woman! Well, you see my little business was a sort of a scheme to sell sympathy—perfectly good sympathy, you know—but to sell it to people who really needed it, instead of giving it away to people who didn’t care anything about it at all. And you have to run that sort of business almost entirely with your heart—and you wouldn’t feel decent at all, unless you delivered to everybody just a little tiny bit more sympathy than he paid for. Otherwise, you see you wouldn’t be delivering perfectly good sympathy. So that’s why—you understand now—that’s why I had to send you my very own woolly blanket-wrapper, and my very own silver porringer, and my very own sling-shot that I fight city cats with,—because, you see, I had to use every single cent of your money right away to pay for the things that I’d already bought for other people.
Yes, the ladies are far too emotional to ever successfully run a business. Furthermore, charging money for the kind of care work they are naturally suited for feels so wrong to them that they’ll always do more than they’re expected to, and the result will inevitably be financial ruin. It’s a sad fact of life.

To end with something positive, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Carl’s fiancée Cornelia was treated with far more kindness than I expected in their final confrontation. The two part ways amicably, having realised that they’re not temperamentally suited to each other, and there’s far less condemning Cornelia for not being as devoted as a woman should be than I feared.


It goes without saying that Molly Make-Believe is a product of its time. Of course, the early twentieth-century world in which it takes place was not a place where the gender essentialism, racism or conservatism that underpin this novel were never questioned, as evidenced by novels like Daddy-Long-Legsor the work of early feminists like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and of other activists; but nonetheless these ideas were socially dominant to an even greater extent than they are now.

It’s of course completely possible to enjoy the novel for the love story without aligning oneself with the very traditional ideas about gender roles or the problematic power dynamics it reveals. Readers’ mileage for how much is too much will naturally vary. It’s also possible to find Molly Make-Believe an interesting read exactly because its pre-feminism is so revealing. That was what happened in my case: I may not have loved it, but I’m glad to have picked it up all the same.

You can find Molly Make-Believe at Project Gutenberg.

Illustration from Molly Make-Believe
Another illustration from the novel by Walter Little.

They read it too: Redeeming Qualities