“Maida’s Little Shop” and its many sequels told the story of the motherless daughter of a tycoon, and her unusual upbringing with a group of special friends. Many people assume that the Maida books, like Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins and so many other popular series, were the collective work of various people writing under a single pseudonym. This seems especially likely when you consider that the series was written over a period of 45 years, from 1910 to 1955. During this time, America went through two World Wars, the Great Depression and many other changes, none of which are reflected in the series, in which Maida and her friends age only slightly.
But these books were written by one person, Inez Haynes Gillmore Irwin, who was a distinguished and influential writer, feminist leader and political activist. She was a co-founder of the National Collegiate Equal Suffrage League and a member of the National Advisory Council of the National Women’s Party. The Maida books reflect the author’s interests in feminism and social change, as Maida’s father uses his wealth and insight to provide Maida and her friends with a series of alternative environments for living and learning.
The series begins with Maida’s Little Shop, published in 1910. This is the tale of Maida Westabrook, the daughter of Jerome “Buffalo” Westabrook, Wall Street tycoon. Although Maida has had everything that money can buy and the devotion of her father, she has also known trouble and heartache. Poor health has given her much pain and for most of her life she was unable to walk, and her mother died when Maida was eight years old.
When the story begins, Maida has recovered from surgery performed by a renowned German specialist, and has regained the use of her legs. However, her father and her doctor are worried that she remains listless and want to help her find some interest in life to improve her health and happiness. On a chance visit to Charlestown, on the outskirts of Boston, they visit a little neighborhood shop, and Maida is enchanted and wishes that she, too, could keep a shop just like this one. Buffalo Westabrook, delighted to see Maida take an interest in something, buys the shop and arranges for Maida to live above the shop with elderly Irish housekeeper, Granny Flynn. The only two conditions are that she must make the shop pay, and she must not reveal her true identity.
Maida stocks her shop with school supplies and inexpensive toys, and soon meets all the neighborhood children. Her special friends are the rebellious, beautiful Rosie, with her scarlet cape and her penchant for skipping school, and the quiet, patient, lame Dickie, who make wonderful things from bits of colored paper, and stays home to take care of his baby sister while his widowed mother is at work. Eventually she even makes friends with Arthur, who is a little rough, and the snobbish Laura, whose disposition is much improved after a bout of diphtheria.
Keeping her true identity a secret is difficult. Maida is something of a puzzle to the other children. She talks of traveling in Europe, of birthday presents that include a motor car and of her father’s flock of peacocks, but there are many common, everyday things that she doesn’t know, and must be taught. Throughout the fall, Maida keeps her shop and makes it pay, learns about the ordinary games of childhood from her friends in Primrose Court, and becomes happy, healthy and strong. When Christmas comes, Maida’s father comes to visit and her true identity is revealed, and Granny Flynn, Dickie and Rosie all have wonderful surprises.
The adventures of Maida and her group of friends from Primrose Court continue through several more books, thanks to the generosity of Buffalo Westabrook, who makes all of the arrangements for the children to live together in various interesting settings. But it’s the first book in the series that is the favorite of most readers. There is a fairy tale charm about Maida, the poor little rich girl, who is restored to health and who finds happiness living in an ordinary neighborhood among ordinary children, tending her little shop. The story combines elements of such classics as The Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Understood Betsy, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, but has a charm all its own. Many young girls found Maida’s life as a shopkeeper rather than schoolgirl quite fascinating, and the element of being a princess in disguise is always appealing.
The Maida books were written over a period of many years, and the later ones have a different tone than the first, more like standard school stories, with fewer fairy tale elements. They were all popular, however, and are still sought by collectors and those who want to reread them.