The Little Colonel Books

I own the first four volumes of the Little Colonel series, and recently reread them for the first time in at least a decade. Alas, I didn’t find them to be as entertaining as they once seemed to me.

The author, Annie Fellows Johnston, was born in Indiana in 1863. In 1888 she married a widower with three children, and just four years later Mrs. Johnston became a widow with stepchildren to support through her work as a writer.

When her stepchildren visited relatives in Kentucky Mrs. Johnston fell in love with the area, and (as a website explains it) “with its atmosphere of leisure and aristocracy left over from the days of slavery.” She later moved to the state. In 1895 Mrs. Johnston wrote The Little Colonel which tells the story of a five-year-old girl named Lloyd Sherman.

Lloyd’s grandfather had been a colonel in the Confederate Army, and had lost both his right arm and his only son in the Civil War. Colonel Lloyd’s only daughter married a wealthy Yankee, and had been disowned. The daughter gave birth to Lloyd, who was nicknamed the Little Colonel because she was just as quick-tempered and stubborn as her grandfather.

After Mr. Sherman lost his money, and went out west to try and earn some more, Lloyd’s parents refused to ask the colonel for any help. Mrs. Sherman, Lloyd and a black servant moved near the colonel’s plantation, into a cottage Mrs. Sherman had inherited from her mother. (It was never explained just why the colonel’s deceased wife had a cottage to leave her daughter.)

Lloyd pays visits to her grandfather, the two argue and scold, but eventually learn to love each other. Then Mr. Sherman came home with a fever, and it was thought he might die. Lloyd rushed to her grandfather, asked him to come and help, and the grandfather refused. Lloyd declared she never wanted to see him again, the grandfather remained stubborn … until the happy ending when all was forgiven. (And yes, there is a rather dull Shirley Temple movie that tells the Hollywood version of this tale.)

The next volume in what would become a series was The Giant Scissors about a western girl named Joyce Ware who spends a year in France, near an estate with a massive gate that has a pair of scissors as part of the ironwork design. Book three was Two Little Knights of Kentucky, where the Little Colonel has a minor role in a story about two brothers that live near her home.

The fourth was the first one I read, for The Little Colonel’s House Party was a book I somehow acquired when I was young. In this story Mrs. Sherman invites the daughters of her dearest school friends to come and spend part of the summer. The house party guests are Joyce Ware (fresh from her trip to France), a poor orphan named Betty, and a wealthy spoiled brat named Eugenia.

During the recent reread I found Betty and Joyce to be the nice girls, and Lloyd too easily influenced by Eugenia’s ideas that parental rules don’t have to be followed. Towards the end obedient Betty came down with the measles brought home by the disobedient girls. The measles affected her eyes, and for a time it was believed she might be permanently blind.

Fortunately Betty regained her sight, but not before important lessons were learned by all, especially Eugenia. And in future novels Lloyd had her adventures while obeying her parents and being a proper young lady, which made her a rather dull character. As a five-year-old, facing a family crisis, it was acceptable for the Little Colonel to be feisty, but as she grew older she was admonished to be polite and patient, which turned her into a nice, but unexceptional girl.

After The Little Colonel’s House Party children sent letters to Annie Fellows Johnston imploring her to keep writing about Lloyd and her friends. Mrs. Johnston dutifully wrote the next novel, The Little Colonel’s Holidays, which I just read online. That novel taught me that just about anything can happen in a Little Colonel book.

Lloyd was invited to visit the farm family who had raised Betty. The Little Colonel enjoyed the visit, though for a time she disliked the angry teenage girl, Molly, who’d come from the orphan asylum to help with household chores.

Betty talked with Molly and was told her dreadful secret – Molly’s father had been a good man until he started drinking liquor. Soon the family was destitute. Her mother died, her grandmother was sent to an insane asylum, and just as Molly and her younger sister, Dot, were to be taken to an orphan asylum the drunken father carried off the sickly Dot, and no one had seen her since.

Both Lloyd and Betty wrote letters to Joyce and Eugenia, and soon all the girls were dedicated to finding poor Dot. When Lloyd left the farm, and traveled to a different location for Thanksgiving and Christmas, she told her hosts about Molly and Dot, so I knew the poor waif would be located by the end of the novel.

Lloyd found Dot while delivering gifts to a charity hospital, but while Molly was briefly reunited with her sister, Dot dies a few days later, on Christmas evening, just as the last Christmas tree candle went out.  Mrs. Johnston informs her readers that “nothing but the cruelty and neglect of a drunken father had caused Dot’s illness and death.” Molly was at peace over Dot’s death, for she knew her sister would never again be starved or beaten, plus her sister had been happy for the month she spent at the hospital.

I wasn’t pleased with the ending, but the novel apparently sold well, for Mrs. Johnston went on to write about Lloyd Sherman traveling to Europe, going to boarding school, and visiting Joyce Ware after Joyce’s brother was seriously injured and the Ware family moved to Arizona to aid his recovery.

The Little Colonel’s Knight Comes Riding tells of Lloyd’s marriage, and after that the series switched to books about Joyce’s younger sister Mary Ware – whose family moved to Texas due to the brother’s continued poor health.

I learned that the books with western settings came about because the author’s stepson, John Johnston, contracted tuberculosis, and Mrs. Johnston went with him to Arizona, California and Texas in an eight-year attempt to save his life. While the fictional character, Jack Ware, eventually regained his health, Mrs. Johnston’s stepson died when he was only 29. After his death Mrs. Johnston returned to Kentucky.

While researching this book series I discovered there is an Annie Fellows Johnston and The Little Colonel website. At the site is information about the author, and the people who inspired the fictional characters. There are also links enabling readers to download all of the Little Colonel books.

While I don’t plan to collect the remaining books in this series, I will probably read them online, mainly to learn what happens to the orphan girl, Betty, as well as the Ware family.

Annie Fellows Johnston wrote fourteen Little Colonel novels between 1895 and 1912. In addition, chapters of some books were slightly revised and published as smaller books. For example, The Story of the Red Cross As Told to the Little Colonel (published in 1918) consists of five chapters from The Little Colonel’s Hero (published in 1902), with a new ending chapter. The book series must have had a large and loyal following, for the volumes stayed in print until at least the 1930s.

Though I can’t give the Little Colonel books a glowing recommendation, they are a look at what past generations of young people liked to read about. And the Little Colonel’s poorer friends are both interesting and likable. In my humble opinion, being born into the leisure and aristocracy of the Old South sure put a crimp in your ability to carry along a book series based only on your own merits.

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