Rebecca Clarke (Sophie May) and her sister, Sarah Jones Clarke (Penn Shirley), were born in Norridgewock, Maine: Rebecca on February 22, 1833, and Sarah, seven years later, on September 12, 1840. Rebecca attended a "female academy" in Norridgewock and also studied Latin and Greek.
After finishing school, Rebecca Clarke moved to Evansville, Indiana, where she taught for a while until hearing problems forced her to return home. She never married, but lived in the family home with Sarah Clarke, who was also unmarried and also producing magazine articles and children's books. Rebecca died in Maine in 1906; Sarah remained in Norridgewock after Rebecca's death and died there in 1929.
Sarah Clarke's ten children's books (three three-volume series and one individual volume) were published from 1886 to 1902, under the pseudonym "Penn Shirley."
Though Sarah's books were still in print in 1912, her career was never as fruitful as her sister's.
Rebecca's first story was published in 1860 in the Daily Appeal. Later stories appeared in Little Pilgrim, a juvenile magazine, then were published in 1864-1865 as the Little Prudy series, the first of her six series for children and adolescent girls. She also contributed stories to other juvenile magazines, including Merry's Museum. From 1861 until 1903, Rebecca Clarke wrote forty-five books under the pseudonym "Sophie May": thirty-seven of these were series books; at least five of the others were also for children.
Her earliest successes and greatest fame came from the Little Prudy series and, later, from its offspring: Flaxie Frizzle, Dotty Dimple, Little Prudy's Children, and Little Prudy's Flyaway. All of these series were for younger readers (primary grades) and were episodic fiction, telling the adventures of several young children. Each series was limited to six volumes.
Reviewers praised the series for the "natural" qualities of the children: the younger ones were constantly creating chaos, getting lost, fighting with each other, or breaking toys or furniture. The books had didactic overtones, in that improper behavior, especially for older children, was regularly punished -- by everything from feelings of guilt to parental discipline to serious illnesses or minor catastrophes.
Little Prudy and Sophie May's other series appear to have been much loved-- or at least often reprinted--from their first appearance in the late 1800s through the early 1900s. Indeed, Little Prudy and the other series were still in print in 1912, almost fifty years after the original publication of the first three volumes.
1. This may have provided the idea for Helen's eye problems when teaching in Our Helen.
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