“The Best Thing in a Girl’s Life”: Early Women’s Colleges in Fiction and Fact

Freshman Year

Before admission come the entrance exams.  Bryn Mawr’s were remarkably tough, and some students prepared for an additional year after finishing high school (not uncommonly at 16) to pass them.  The “conditional” admission, a source of worry and unaccustomed hard work in many of the series books, was no fiction.  Colleges routinely gave students a second chance, but not necessarily a third, to bring their work up to the required standards.

Most college books begin in the same way: the protagonist arrives as a stranger at a school far from home.  Depending on the characterization of the heroine (and the needs of the plot), she may be excited, frightened, determined, or unhappy.  She usually performs some naive action immediately upon arrival which sets into motion a narrative path.  Molly Brown steps unknowingly to the front of the line to ask the stationmaster for her trunk, antagonizing a spiteful sophomore who causes her trouble for the next three books.  Betty Wales’s father has telegraphed the Registrar of the College to meet her at the station.  Not surprisingly, that busy administrator ignores the telegram, but when Betty tells a sophomore who she expected to meet her, she opens herself up to the notoriety and good-natured teasing that substantially define her relationships with the other girls. 

Paths and Plots
Class Spirit

Bryn Mawr College Library