Generations of Nancy Drew

Nancy’s first appearance in 1930’s The Secret of the Old Clock

I grew up with the 1930s versions of Nancy Drew (not because I grew up in the 1930s, but because my mother collected them and so they were the editions in my house available for reading) and adored her. She was quirky and feminine and brave and smart and had friends and a boyfriend and a car.

For me, Nancy was everything my grandmother wanted me to be (proper, put together, feminine), but also had basically all of the qualities I wanted to make sure I retained all my life – curiosity, a willingness to actually seek the answer to a question, kindness, compassion, and an openess that let her approach the world optimistically and with a belief in the goodness of people even when her life is filled with crimes.

Nancy’s 1950’s makeover is evident on this 1953 cover for The Ringmaster’s Secret

But Nancy changes for every generation, every reworking of her books, every television or movie version of her, every new spin-off series about her. Nancy is both timeless and ever-changing to fit the time she is in. Her cloche hat and modest dress become a plaid skirt and headband, her roadster becomes a hybrid, and her housekeeper disappears entirely.

I came across this article that talks about the new CW Nancy Drew show (which I have not seen yet, but am quite interested in) and about those generational changes. It very astutely compares Nancy’s sort of over-perfect unrealness to Barbie, but also recognizes that, like Barbie, sometimes we need that over-perfect heroine.

Nancy Drew as portrayed by Emma Roberts in the 2007 movie “Nancy Drew”

It also says some fascinating things about Nancy’s cultural history and the women who created her (all of whom are credited as “Carolyn Keene”). I definitely recommend this article if you have ever spent any time in River Heights solving mysteries with any incarnation of Nancy!

Nancy Drew’s specific perfection was engineered in a 30s context, to, as the writer Deborah Siegel points out, combine Victorian conceptions of womanhood with modern ones. The purpose of the original Nancy was to reassure a (white) culture that a more active woman was no less feminine, but also to inspire young women to be as dynamic as they wanted to be. In all likelihood, her ghostwriters belonged to the generation that had fought for women’s suffrage, the generation that celebrated the rebellious Victorian conception of the “New Woman.” The image of Nancy they created has, for the most part, outlived the social context, with the many iterations published in the following decades keeping its female sleuth relatively fixed. 

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