Saturday, December 31, 2011

Petals on the Wind: Baseless Speculation on Andrews, Education, and the Rise of the Boarding School from Hell

We're getting up on Carrie's time in the Boarding School from Hell.  The following was originally appended to that review, but it ran a little long, so I'm putting it here.  It's mostly my thoughts upon V.C. Andrews and a recurrent motif.

Andrews herself suffered a crippling back injury while still in high school.*  She spent the rest of her teenage years--and indeed, the rest of her life--at home with her mother.  Andrews was academically gifted while in school, skipping a couple of grades and winning a scholarship.  After leaving school, she received an art degree via correspondence course, and later she became a very well-read, self-educated woman.  But she never had the full experience of public education, which at that time had only recently become a widespread, mandatory thing.  Mandatory public education through high school was a huge step in creating the modern concept of the teenager, of extended childhood, and of youth culture; prior to then, you only went to high school if you intended to go to college.  In a way, Andrews was a girl interrupted, cut off from that important source of social interaction, peer groups, and popular culture.     
Likewise, her heroines tend to hang around the house a lot.  They pass through school completely unscathed, with no friends, homework, extra-curricular activities, or diplomas to show for it.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but school just isn't as interesting as staying home and fucking your brother.  As if to compensate, all her heroines invariably have innate skills that make education redundant.  Cathy is naturally good at dancing, even without formal training.  Audrina's intuition allows her to successfully game the stock market.**  Heaven, the only one who seriously pursues education, happens to be so bright that she can cruise through school without much effort, leaving her time open for sexy plot-related pursuits.

It became something of an Andrews cliche--the What Amazing Talent Will This Heroine Have? game--but considering that the author herself became an extremely successful author and artist without the benefit of education and everything that comes with it, perhaps this was an aspect that Andrews took for granted. 

Cathy's entire high school experience (and her ballet training) is summed up with a few generic, easily-skimmed paragraphs.  She makes exactly one friend, who is never mentioned again.  Audrina, whose stated life-goals include attending school like a normal girl, spends one chapter establishing that school does, in fact, exist.  Later in the same chapter, she also makes a single friend, whose name we never learn.

Heaven, who latches onto education as the only way of ever improving her lot in life, has several scenes of the children at school and includes an almost pathetically heartrending description of her gratitude at receiving special permission to take schoolbooks home to study.  The book even devotes time to Heaven's teacher, who has taken a personal interest in Heaven's family situation.  It's significant as one of the few times in the novels where an adult female is portrayed as anything other than a threat to the heroine.  As soon as Heaven is removed from that situation, however, her education becomes so much wallpaper, to only emerge again when she herself experiences the Boarding School from Hell.

Finally, in almost every book, the Andrews heroine ends up completely marginalizing both her magical, special talent and her education simply because her family is always, always rich.  She never needs to work for a living.  The "magical talent" becomes a sideline, a hobby.  Cathy probably comes closest to actually using her talent for profit when she becomes a successful stage performer, and later teaches ballet to children, but by the time she is a full adult, her husband supports the family.  It's kind of a let-down, really.  One of the reasons we presumably root for these women is because they do have something special to give to the world.  To have their hard work undermined by something as crass as millions upon millions of dollars kind of gives an idea of the true value of their talent: rather than unlimited wealth freeing them to pursue their dreams, the heroines simply give up their dreams in exchange for a life amongst the leisure class.

One could argue that this is also the primary lesson of the entirety of Flowers in the Attic: that the children, as well as their mother, were willing to sacrifice something intangible and precious--their normal lives--in exchange for a shot at never having to work for a living, and the subsequent danger and emptiness of that decision.  It's hard to say if this lesson, coming as it does from a woman who did make a successful career of what could arguably be described as her art, is meant to be a warning to us all, or if it is uncomfortably cold, cynical, and unsettling.

*Andrews constantly gave out in interviews that she was twenty years younger than she was, a fiction that would have made her about sixteen in the early 1960s . . . thus making her precisely Cathy's age. If any of you ever wondered if Cathy was supposed to be an analogue for the author, consider that suspicion confirmed.

**More fun facts: V.C. Andrews herself was an avid player of the stock market.  She had a ticker machine installed in her mother's home and frequently relied on her own "intuition" to make successful investments.


  1. I love your blog. I read VC Andrews as a wayward youth, but never thought of the books as anything but fluff. You take a hilariously scholarly look at the Dollangagers, and point out things that I never noticed before. I might have to read them again just to get the full experience now.

  2. I always thought it hilarious that every heroine had this amazing talent, but Cathy's was the worst. I mean, you can be born with the talent to sing well, draw, play a musical instrument,etc. But there's NO WAY you can be become a performing dancer without Cathy's incestuous relationship was also the worst. Hmm, I'm seeing a pattern....

    Glad to see you back! Can't wait to see your next post delving into the boarding school from hell and Cathy and Julian's "romance".

  3. I do enjoy this blog so much. I cannot wait to see what's coming next. :)
    The talent IS something I noticed. Ruby is a painter, right? And I can't remember what Melody was into (I think that was her name?). Rain was a singer or something like that, and so was Dawn.

  4. @Ronni: Ruby was a painter, Melody played the violin, Rain was a concert pianist, and I think Dawn was the singer? At least, I remember Dawn's Boarding School from Hell was a music school.

    1. Yup, Dawn was the singer. Remember she sang Grandmother Cutler a song for her birthday and Grandma was NOT AMUSED.

  5. Yes, I noticed that also in Petals on the Wind. There's this throwaway paragraph about Julian dancing with Cathy's "best friend, Lorraine duVal." It's almost jarring to think about her having real friends, as real people do, outside of her too-close family circle and Julian/Marisha/Georges. It's like Cathy's ENTIRE world is stormy arguments with Chris, sexually-charged nighttime chats with Paul, and throes of revenge-lust toward her mother. Then there's the line: "In January I would graduate. I couldn't wait to be finished with school so I studied like mad." That's it!! No angst about schoolwork, friends, non-ballet non-sex non-revenge life worries. And school is the entire world to most teens. It's like when Cathy sees Corrine in the post office, and it's a surprise that Cathy does real-life things like visit the post office. -pibetaalpha

  6. Your posts are so hilarious, but also so witty and clever. You're a gifted writer. This post was really insightful from a writing perspective. I don't recall thinking about it at the time when I read this book and many of the other early ones by her in junior high, but as you discuss it here I clearly recalled...that I recalled nothing about school in her life. And it doesn't make sense, really, because adjusting to school -- teachers and schedules and responsibilities and that social world -- would be a huge part of her dealing with life post-attic. But it makes perfect sense why it's not there when you note that the author didn't really have that experience. School is a social microcosm all its own. She was wise, most likely, not to write about it, because it would be awful if the otherwise highly realistic events and relationships and dialogue in the book were marred by an unrealistic presentation of high school life. But seriously I felt for VC there, reading that. Reminds me a bit of trying to write guy talk scenes when by definition I haven't participated in a real guy talk conversation...not easy. Strategic eavesdropping helps.

    1. Thank you! I try to temper the snark with some insight here and there.

      There's so very little information about Andrews, especially in her earlier years, that any little tidbit feels like finding a nugget of gold. But she did put a lot of herself into her heroines so that many of them, especially Cathy, reflect her own experience--maybe not as they really were, but as she perceived them and related to them emotionally. I always imagine Andrews as a woman for whom feelings were a lot more vital than facts.