Nancy Drew feels wrongness in her gut. From the very beginning of Carolyn Keene's novel The Hidden Staircase, Nancy is led by her emotional compass. "I declare, I don't know what makes me so nervous this afternoon!" the book begins. "I have the strangest feeling — just as though something were about to happen." Or, at least, that's how the book is supposed to begin.
Like so many young girls, I went through a Nancy Drew phase. For an entire summer, I checked out book after book of Nancy's tales from the public library. But the installment I liked best was The Hidden Staircase, the second book in the series. The musty, tattered book had a blue cover with an orange serif title above a silhouette of a girl peering into a magnifying glass. Inside the book was Nancy: a spunky, serious young girl who let her hunches lead her into a scary stranger's house on a quest to fight evil.
In March, during a rough week and desperate for nostalgia, I ordered Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase online. The story I remembered went like this: Nancy is introduced to the middle-aged Turnbull sisters who ask her to investigate their "haunted" home, where valuable objects keep going missing. After receiving a threatening letter, the brave Nancy Drew, armed with her father's revolver, spends a week living in the Turnbull mansion. Her father gets kidnapped; Nancy sneaks into a twin mansion built on the other side of the property, finds a hidden staircase leading to a tunnel between the mansions, and saves her dad.
The book I got in the mail was newer. It had a yellow binding and an illustrated cover and was completely unfamiliar to me. At first I blamed my memory. Decades apart from a book can smooth it over, rewriting the story in your mind with rose-colored glasses into something it never was in the first place. But the further I got into my new copy, the more I felt that hunch Nancy taught me about. Something was not right.
In this book, Nancy goes on a prom date, her friend gets engaged, and instead of sneaking into the neighboring mansion with only her revolver and her gumption, Nancy gets a key to the house from a realtor.
I ordered an early edition of The Hidden Staircase. It arrived as the book I remembered. Both books are titled Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase. Both are the second book in the Nancy Drew series. Carolyn Keene is named as the author of both. But they are entirely different books. The chapters have different titles. The books include different characters. Even Nancy's behavior is different. And that's because two different women wrote them in very different decades with different ideas of what girlhood should look like. But you'd never know just looking at them.
The first copies of the Nancy Drew series, like the ones I read as a child, were published in 1930. Edward Stratemeyer, a prolific publisher of children's literature, decided to commission the series because he had seen great success selling off mystery novels to young boys. He hired Mildred Wirt to write the Nancy Drew novels under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Wirt was an ambitious woman in her early 20s who said she despised the "boring and namby pamby" books for girls that she had grown up reading.
Wirt was writing just on the heels of the Roaring 20s, and she invented a heroine to match. Wirt's Nancy Drew was assertive, aggressive, and willing to contradict any adult who kept her from solving mysteries. Through the character, Wirt was doing what all young American women in the 1930s were trying to do: bridge Victorian and modern sensibilities about what a girl (and a woman) could be. In her books, Nancy drove a car; she existed in a public sphere. Women in the First World War had directed movies, flown airplanes, and been newspaper reporters. Nancy Drew, a self-sufficient girl detective, was a book those modern women could buy proudly for their daughters.