I first encountered Molly Make-Believe in the December 1911 issue of the Girl’s Own Paper.
I started reading it, and was utterly enchanted: the writing wasn’t genius, but the whole effect was so charming, and frivolous, and very, very period.
I devoured the exposition with much mirth. I chuckled at the introductory sentence, which rivaled the infamous “it was a dark and stormy night” (I have always dreamed of eating a vapid grapefruit, haven’t you?).
I met Carl Stanton, our atypically bedridden hero, suffering from a most unromantic case of rheumatism described with writing that suffered from a most amusing case of over-use of adjectives, some most alarmingly mis-applied.
I met Carl’s not-quite-fiance Cornelia: the epitome of 1910s beauty, “big and bland and blond and beautiful”, off to warmer climes, because every girl like Cornelia must go off to warmer climes for winter, sick fiance or no.
I followed along as Carl encountered ‘The Serial Letter Co’, which made me gasp in delight. Talk about the best pen-pal ever. I want to subscribe to all of them! (obviously, the first one is a reflection of its time)
I read the Serial Letter Co letters with great interest, and wondered a little at the things they talked of: balsam fir and Cardinal flowers seemed so much more North American than English, and Cornelia fleeing to the warmth of Spain for winter wasn’t in my usual experience of London society girls of 1910ish. But the story specifically mentioned London as its setting.
So I raced along, quite riveted, turned the page, and was most disappointed to realise that ‘Molly Make-Believe’, like the letter company at the heart of its plot, was a serial. The rest of the story was in the next few issues of the Girls Own Magazine, which of course I don’t have!
I was sure I’d never be able to read the rest of the tale of Carl and Cornelia and Molly Make-Believe, as most of these serial stories have vanished without a trace. So I sulked and went on to other things, and forgot about Molly Make-Believe.
Then, months later, going through my images of the Girls Own Magazine, I was reminded of the story, and thought I would give the internet a shot. Because if you can’t find something on the internet, it might not exist.
Well, not only is Molly Make-Believe on the internet, the entire book, images and all, is on Project Gutenberg. Hooray! Happiness!
So I read it all, enjoying the silly letters, finding out what happened to all the characters, even meeting the Japanese fairy in the flesh (well, in the flesh on the pages).
I also solved the mystery of Spain and balsam fir and Cardinal flowers: the story was written in a North American setting, but the Girl’s Own rather clumsily changed some of the terms for its English audience (see, publishers assuming the readers are dumb isn’t just something that happens to Americans reading Harry Potter!).
It was light, it was fun, it was fluffy, completely improbably, and very, very silly indeed. It’s not surprising that Abbott’s writings haven’t remained a classic in the same way that Montgomery’s (who was Abbott’s contemporary in age as well as topic and geography) are. And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed it, in part because it wasn’t a classic, because the things that are so much of-a-time that they fail to stay relevant tell us as much, if not more, about a time than the timeless creations of that era.