14 Things You Might Not Know About Sweet Valley High

Long before Harry Potter turned young adult literature into a publishing phenomenon, there was Sweet Valley High. A 1983 to 2003 episodic series featuring teenaged twins Elizabeth (the good one) and Jessica (the naughty one) Wakefield, the thinly-bound soap opera narratives created and supervised by author Francine Pascal sold over 150 million copies worldwide. Take a look at these 14 facts about the series that rewrote the book on high school angst.

1. PASCAL HAD NO INTEREST IN WRITING THEM ...

A former journalist, Pascal had shopped a teen-oriented television soap opera in the 1970s but had no takers. In the early 1980s, she decided the serialized format might lend itself to an ongoing line of books. Pascal’s agent, Amy Berkower (who also shepherded the Choose Your Own Adventure franchise) sold the idea to Bantam. Pascal wrote a reference “bible” for ghostwriters and acted as the title’s de facto editor. Though Pascal’s name appears on every entry in the series with a “Created By” credit, her role was supervisory in nature. She told The Guardian she had no interest in writing them in part because her previous books were for a “sophisticated, educated audience."

2. ... SO SHE HAD AN OXFORD GRADUATE DO IT.

Ghostwriters would get a book outline from her with plot points to follow; they’d be able to add their own flourishes and character moments, then turn the manuscript around for Pascal’s approval. One regular writer, Oxford graduate Amy Boesky, described the outlines as like “long, free-verse poems,” with eight or nine pages of single-spaced suggestions; Pascal said the process was like “paint by numbers” for books.

2. READERS THOUGHT PASCAL WAS A TEENAGER.

The tribulations of the Sweet Valley gang—stolen boyfriends, social cliques, irritating parents—so resonated with her readership that some assumed Pascal was roughly their age. One autograph seeker at a public signing approached her and exclaimed she thought Pascal would be 16; in fact, Pascal’s daughters were older than that. The author was in her late 40s when the series debuted and 66 when it ended in 2003.

4. PASCAL ALSO HAD A 100-BOOK CONTRACT.

While it’s not unusual for publishers to lock up celebrated, successful authors to contracts, Pascal may have had one of the most substantial commitments in the book business: Bantam signed her to a 100-book deal. (The series grew to roughly 152 entries in total, not including spin-off titles like Sweet Valley Twins that de-aged the girls to grade school and a thriller line where they solved murders.)

5. ONLY THREE CURSES WERE ALLOWED.

According to ghostwriter Ryan Nerz, the SVH protocol allowed for only three semi-profane words to appear in the titles: damn, hell, and bitch. Nerz peppered his manuscripts with them, then let editors pare down the expletives to an acceptable number.

6. IT WAS THE FIRST TEEN TITLE TO MAKE THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER LIST.

In just a few short years, SVH took up permanent residence on nightstands in teen bedrooms across the country. Perfect Summer, released in 1985, became the first paperback young-adult fiction title to crack the venerable New York Times Bestseller List. The following year, 18 of the top 20 young adult spots in Waldenbooks and B. Dalton were Sweet Valley titles.  

7. BUT THE SERIES HAD ITS DETRACTORS.

While Sweet Valley High intoxicated young readers who may never have otherwise picked up a book outside of assigned reading, critics believed it was the literary equivalent of “junk food” and nothing more than a sanitized version of the Harlequin romances; libraries didn’t like how the flimsy spines looked on shelves. Pascal dismissed the talk, saying it didn’t matter so long as it got kids to read. “I don’t know that they’re all going to go on to War and Peace, but we’ve created readers out of nonreaders,” she told People in 1988.

8. THE COVER ARTIST PAINTED THE PRESIDENT.

Book cover artist James Mathewuse was highly sought after by the New York publishing houses: In addition to doing work for the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys lines, he painted roughly 250 Sweet Valley covers. Two decades earlier, he was asked by the Democratic National Committee of Florida to paint President John F. Kennedy. Mathewuse also studied under Norman Rockwell protege Peter Caras and employed Rockwell's practice of having models photographed for reference material. For teen-lit, he skipped symbolism and went for light colors. "A symbolic cover is probably over the teenagers' heads," he told the New Yorker in 2010. "A romance title works best with pastel, lavender, and pink."

9. THE RE-RELEASE PUT THE GIRLS ON A DIET.

When Random House re-issued the series in 2008, they circulated a letter to journalists indicating certain dated references would be updated for contemporary readers. The twins’ red Fiat, for example, became a Jeep Wrangler. Curiously, they also shrunk the dress sizes of the girls from the original “perfect size 6” to a “perfect size 4.” The move prompted some media outlets to voice concern that the tweaks could provoke body-image issues in readers.

10. THE BOARD GAME WAS PRETTY VAPID.

Few pop culture touchstones escaped the board game treatment in the 1970s and '80s. In Sweet Valley High: The Game, players could “trade boyfriends” and acquire material goods in order to win. You might also land on a space that lets you give your maid the day off. Who can’t relate?

11. A MAJOR CHARACTER DIED FROM SNORTING COCAINE.

Though Pascal was initially reluctant to explore more taboo topics like teen pregnancy and drug use, she eventually warmed to the idea: Book #40 in the series, On the Edge, was a cautionary tale featuring the twins' pal, Regina Morrow, who attends a party, tries cocaine for the first time, and drops dead on the spot. (Unbeknownst to her, she had a heart defect.) The Internet is rife with people who claim they have never done drugs as a direct result of Regina’s passing.

12. THE ORIGINAL SERIES ENDED WITH AN EARTHQUAKE.

Natural disasters are not typical teen-lit fodder, but Pascal wanted to go out with a bang: The final books in the main Sweet Valley franchise revolved around an earthquake that demolished the township. Tragically, classmate Olivia Davidson perished when a refrigerator fell on her.

13. THE TWINS CAME BACK AS ADULTS.

Though Pascal once stated she wasn’t interested in the twins beyond the age of 17—she wanted to “keep them at the stage where everything is intense and pure”—the author explored their entry into adulthood with 2011’s Sweet Valley Confidential. It was the first installment she wrote entirely by herself, motivated in part after getting letters asking what happened to the Wakefield sisters after the conclusion of the series. (Spoiler: When the book opens, the two aren’t on speaking terms.) While the novel was not critically embraced, it sold well enough for Pascal to follow it up with an e-book serial, The Sweet Life.

14. A MOVIE AND/OR TV REBOOT IS COMING.

Nothing escapes the cultural recycling bin, and Sweet Valley High is no exception. Brittany Daniel, who played Jessica on the 1994-97 syndicated television series, has said there’s talk of a reboot; Pascal told an interviewer in 2012 that a feature is possible, and that she’d like Taylor Swift to play both girls. It looked like a film would move forward when Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody signed on—she's been attached since at least 2011—but she told Vulture earlier this year that, though it's the project she's asked about most often, she "can't get the f***ing thing made!"

Be sure to check out 12 of the Sweet Valley High Books’ Most Ridiculous Plotlines.

This piece originally ran in 2015.

10 Revolutionary Facts About Poldark

Courtesy of Mammoth Screen for BBC and MASTERPIECE
Courtesy of Mammoth Screen for BBC and MASTERPIECE

The fall weather brings with it a lot of cozy activities: Apple picking, pumpkin carving—and curling up on chilly nights with a comfy blanket, a steaming cup of tea, and a good British period drama. If you’re a fan of that last activity, it probably means you’ve been spending your Sunday evenings watching Poldark, which currently occupies the coveted Sunday-at-9 p.m. slot on PBS’s long-running Masterpiece program.

Now in its fourth season, Poldark is story of one Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner): an 18th-century gentleman-turned-social-justice-warrior juggling a love triangle, a new gig as a member of Parliament and a ripped set of abs. Whether you’re on Team Demelza (Ross’s wife) or Team Elizabeth (his lost love), here are 10 things you may not have known about the breathtaking BBC series.

1. POLDARK IS BASED ON A SERIES OF BOOKS BY BRITISH AUTHOR WINSTON GRAHAM.

Jack Farthing as George Warleggan, Heida Reed as Elizabeth, Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark, Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, Luke Norris as Dr. Dwight Enys and Gabriella Wilde as Caroline Penvenan
Courtesy of Robert Viglasky, Mammoth Screen for BBC and MASTERPIECE

Between 1945 and 2002, Winston Graham penned a total of 12 novels about Ross Poldark and his cherished community in the southwest of England. Although the Manchester-born writer also had a prolific portfolio of non-Poldark published works, it was the saga of Cap’n Ross that brought him fame and fortune. The final book in the series, Bella Poldark, was published in 2002—just a year prior to the author’s death. On television, Poldark's fourth season is based on The Angry Tide, the seventh novel in Graham’s saga.

2. THIS IS ACTUALLY THE SECOND TV ADAPTATION OF POLDARK.

Forty years before Aidan Turner’s brooding portrayal of Ross Poldark resulted in a barrage of online marriage proposals, fans across the globe were swooning over the BBC’s first television adaptation of the Cornwall-set drama. The 1975 version of Poldark—which was also broadcast in the U.S. on Masterpiece Theatrestarred Robin Ellis as Ross and the late Angharad Rees as Demelza.

Although, in recent years, Ellis has turned his attention to his second career as a cookbook author, he occasionally cameos on the new Poldark as one of Ross’s adversaries: the irascible Reverend Halse.

Though the original Poldark was a hit, famed Masterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cooke hated it. “I was bored stiff," Cooke said in 1982, when asked about his least favorite program featured on the long-running series. "It seemed to be a bunch of cardboard figures going through the motions of love and hate.”

3. AIDAN TURNER IS A FORMER AMATEUR BALLROOM DANCER.

Before he was melting hearts with his luscious brown locks and chiseled pectorals, the Poldark star spent a decade competing in amateur ballroom dancing competitions, representing his home country of Ireland. Earlier this year, while appearing on The Graham Norton Show, Turner sheepishly downplayed his skills as a teenage tango expert, claiming he wasn’t disciplined enough to “go pro.”

Fortunately for fans who are craving a taste of Turner’s not-so-hidden talent, there is the above behind-the-scenes video from the Poldark set, in which Turner—decked out in Ross’s 1700s finery—can be seen cutting a rug to the decidedly 20th-century track “Mas Que Nada.

4. TOURISM IN CORNWALL SPIKED FOLLOWING POLDARK’S SUCCESS.

Whenever location is considered a character in a film or TV show, it’s inevitable that the tour buses will start rolling in. It’s no different for Poldark, which shoots in the southwest England county of Cornwall, and regularly enhances its narrative with sweeping vistas of its rugged coastline.

According to The Guardian, there was an uptick in Cornwall’s visitor numbers after the show’s first season, with one-fifth of the people who took part in a tourism survey admitting that Poldark was the reason behind their trip to the area. Even the official Cornwall tourist board has jumped on the Poldark bandwagon: Their website’s homepage immediately greets visitors with a “Discover Poldark” tab (complete with a photo of, you guessed it, Aidan Turner).

5. TWO POLDARK ACTRESSES APPEARED IN ICONIC FILMS FROM THE 1980s.

Ever hear of a couple of little films called Return of the Jedi and Highlander (1986)? While most of the younger actresses featured in Poldark weren’t even born yet when those movies were in theaters, their senior colleagues were upgrading their resumes with parts in some of the most memorable movies of the '80s. Caroline Blakiston, best known to Poldark fans as the feisty family matriarch Aunt Agatha, appeared as Mon Mothma in 1983’s Jedi. Beatie Edney, who plays Ross and Demelza’s curmudgeonly maid, Prudie, broke hearts in 1986’s Highlander as Heather MacLeod, the Scottish lass who succumbed to old age in her immortal husband’s arms.  

6. SEVERAL OF POLDARK’S CHARACTERS ARE PORTRAYED BY NON-BRITS.

This is hardly a new thing: A Welsh guy played a Russian pretending to be an American on The Americans, after all. But it still can be shocking to learn that Poldark employed overseas talent considering its distinctively English pedigree (then again, that just goes to show the actors’s skill level).

As mentioned earlier, the man who embodies Ross Poldark, the epitome of British land-owning gentry, Aidan Turner, is Irish. Adding to the series’ international cast is the Connecticut-born Kyle Soller, who played Francis Poldark, Ross’s cousin and romantic rival in the first two seasons. The biggest surprise, however, has got to be Heida Reed, a.k.a. the genteel Elizabeth Warleggan, who is originally from Iceland; her given name is Heiða Rún Sigurðardóttir. But don’t expect to hear Reed sound terribly different from Elizabeth in interviews; she deliberately speaks with an English accent now.

7. PULLING OFF THAT CORNISH ACCENT IS HARD.

Accents are different all over, whether you’re from the north of England, like Eleanor Tomlinson, or Cornwall, like the fiery Demelza, her character on Poldark. So, Tomlinson, who was determined to get Demelza’s Cornish mannerisms right, adopted a distinctive technique to get the job done: Speaking with a clenched jaw.

“I learned about how [the Cornish people’s] jaws were a lot tighter because of the wind, and living so close to the sea, the salt makes you speak in a different way,” Tomlinson told The Telegraph in 2015. “They clench their jaw tightly so you get a completely different sound.” But even with two seasons playing Demelza under her belt, Tomlinson still found it impossible to slip into the character when prompted during a Masterpiece podcast in 2016: “It’s not something I can just immediately pick up,” she said. “I have to really work hard at it.”

8. THE SECOND SEASON OF POLDARK FEATURED A PROBLEMATIC SEX SCENE.

In a scene that came from Warleggan, the fourth novel in the Poldark series, Ross angrily barges into Elizabeth’s bedchamber upon learning that she intends to marry his mortal enemy, George Warleggan. Although she tells him to leave and resists his forceful advances, Elizabeth eventually submits to Ross’s will—and appears to enjoy it. Their one night of passion resulted in Ross receiving a much-deserved decking courtesy of Demelza, and Elizabeth delivering a son, Valentine, less than nine months after her marriage to George.

This scene also resulted in a barrage of criticism toward Poldark, accusing the series of “prettifying” sexual assault and blurring the lines of consent. Andrew Graham, son of Winston Graham and a consultant on Poldark, defended the show’s portrayal of the scene, claiming “there is no ‘shock rape’ storyline in the novels,” explaining that “what then actually happens is not described but is left entirely to one’s imagination.”

Amazon Prime subscribers can watch the scene in question in the second season’s eighth episode.

9. THE ACTOR WHO PLAYS THE REVOLTING REVEREND OSSIE WHITWORTH IS FAR FROM REVOLTING IN REAL LIFE.

Christian Brassington as Ossie Whitworth
Courtesy of Mammoth Screen for BBC and MASTERPIECE

One scroll through Christian Brassington’s Instagram is a double-take waiting to happen. The actor plays the villainous minister Ossie Whitworth on Poldark. But if you’re expecting pics of a rotund dude with a self-righteous gleam in his eye, you’ll have to make do with someone who looks like he walked off the cover of GQ instead. As Brassington recently revealed in a Masterpiece Instagram Story Q&A (click on the story titled “Christian”), he put on 40 pounds to play the loathsome Ossie.

10. THE FIFTH SEASON OF POLDARK WILL ALSO BE ITS LAST.

All good things must come to an end, including Poldark. Shortly before season four's U.S. premiere, it was announced that Poldark is getting a fifth and final season. Since American audiences aren’t even midway through the fourth season yet, there’s really not much that can be speculated over season five without dropping some major spoilers. However, series creator Debbie Horsfield (who has written every episode) has suggested that she may not be following the books to the letter for the final season: Season four is based on Graham’s seventh novel, The Angry Tide. But the eighth novel, The Stranger From the Sea, jumps ahead 10 years. Does that mean season five will see the Poldark and Warleggan children fully grown? Maybe. But maybe not.

“In The Stranger From the Sea, Winston Graham made many references to developments that happened in the ‘gap’ years,” Horsfield said in a statement on Masterpiece’s website. “Much can also be inferred. There are, of course, historical events and people of the time, in Cornwall and London.”

(A slightly less cagey version of what to expect in season five is available by clicking here; be advised that it contains all major season four spoilers.)

The Gruesome Medieval Masquerade That Inspired Edgar Allan Poe

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In March 1849, Edgar Allan Poe published a short story with one of the most macabre dénouements in his entire body of work. Called Hop-Frog, it was the tale of an eponymous court jester who endures repeated humiliations from an abusive king and his ministers before finally exacting his revenge. Like other works of the great horror master, it may have been inspired by historical events—in this case, by a particularly grisly episode from 14th-century France.

In Poe's short story, both Hop-Frog and Trippetta are people with dwarfism stolen from their respective home countries and brought as presents for the king from one of his generals. Hop-Frog is described as having a disability that makes him walk "by a sort of interjectional gait—something between a leap and a wriggle." Forced to be the court's jester, he's the target of the king's practical jokes, and while enduring near-constant humiliations grows close to Trippetta, whose status at the court isn't much better.

One day, the king demands a masquerade, and as the evening draws near, he asks Hop-Frog what to wear. After a scene in which he and Trippetta are abused once again, Hop-Frog sees the perfect chance for revenge. He suggests the monarch and his ministers dress as escaped orangutans chained together, which he calls "a capital diversion—one of my own country frolics—often enacted among us, at our masquerades." The king and his ministers love the idea of scaring their guests, and especially the women. The jester carefully prepares their costumes, saturating tight-fitting fabric with tar and plastering flax on top to resemble the hair of the beasts.

On the evening of the masquerade, the men enter in their special outfits just after midnight. The guests are duly terrified, and amid the hubbub, Hop-Frog attaches the chain that surrounds the group to one hanging from the ceiling that normally holds a chandelier. As the men are drawn upwards, he brings a flame close to their bodies, pretending to the crowd that he's trying to figure out who the disguised men really are. The flax and tar ignite quickly and the noblemen burn to death, suspended above the crowd. "The eight corpses swung in their chains," Poe writes, "a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass."

Bernard Picart, "Bal des Ardents"
Bernard Picart, "Bal des Ardents"
Rijksmuseum, Europeana // Public Domain

The gruesome scene was likely inspired by a historical event: the Bal des Ardents (literally, "the Ball of the Burning Ones"). This obscure episode took place during the reign of Charles VI of France (1380-1422), known to posterity as "Charles the Mad." His periods of illness are well-documented by contemporary chroniclers, who tell us that he ran through his castle howling like a wolf, failed to recognize his own wife and children, and forbade anyone to touch him because he believed he was made of glass. After his first bout in 1392, when delirium led him to kill several knights, his physician prescribed "amusements, relaxations, sports, and pastimes."

Meanwhile, the royal council was controlled by his brother Louis d'Orléans and his uncle the Duke of Burgundy—who both had their eyes set on the throne. It was also the middle of the Hundred Years' War, and England was seen as a severe threat to national stability. In spite of the unrest, on January 28, 1393, Charles's wife, Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, held a ball in the royal palace of Saint-Pol to celebrate the third marriage of her lady-in-waiting Catherine de Fastaverin. The plan was also to entertain the king, as the royal physician had prescribed. One of the guests, the knight Sir Hugonin (sometimes Huguet) de Guisay, suggested that a group of nobles dress as "wild men" or "wood savages," mythical creatures associated with nature and pagan beliefs. The king liked the idea so much that he decided to join in as one of the masked dancers.

The six noblemen wore garments made of linen covered in pitch and stuck-on clumps of flax, so they appeared "full of hair from the top of the head to the sole of the foot," according to contemporary historian Jean Froissart. Poe preserved these details in Hop-Frog, though his characters weren't dressed as wild men, but as orangutans—an animal he had also used in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) to great effect.

Unlike his fictional counterpart, Charles VI was aware that the costumes were highly flammable, so he ordered all torch-bearers to keep to one side of the room. As they entered the ballroom, five of the wild men were chained to one another. Only the king was free. The men probably humiliated the newlyweds, howling and dancing; some historians believe the wild dance was a charivari, a folk ritual intended to shame newlyweds at "irregular" marriages. (As a widow getting married for the third time, Lady Catherine would have been a target.)

But there was an important guest missing: the king's brother, Louis d'Orléans. He arrived late, carrying his own torch, and joined the dance. While the exact sequence of events is unclear, before long his torch had set fire to one of the wild men's costumes. The fire spread quickly. Two of the knights burned to death in front of the guests, and two more died in agony days later. Court chronicler Michel Pintoin, known as the Monk of St. Denis, describes the dancers' "flaming genitals dropping to the floor … releasing a stream of blood."

Only two of the wild men survived. One of them, named Nantoiullet, had reacted to the blaze by throwing himself into a barrel of water, which spared him a horrid death. The other was the king. He was saved by the Duchess of Berry, who used her gown to extinguish his costume before it was too late.

The event shook French society. It was seen as the height of courtly decadence, causing outrage and further unrest. That the king had engaged in this extravagant amusement, and that his life had been spared only by chance, was further proof that he was unfit for the throne.

Meanwhile, the part that Louis d'Orléans played in the tragedy was subject to some debate. Most chroniclers blamed his youth and recklessness for the terrible accident; some reportedly suggested it was a prank to "frighten the ladies" that got out of hand.

Although it seems that the Bal des Ardents wasn't a planned crime, the king's brother must have felt responsible for the fatal accident, since he founded a chapel in the convent of the Célestins shortly afterwards, hoping it would buy him a place in heaven. It didn't save him from a violent end, however: In 1407, Louis was assassinated on the orders of his cousin and recently minted political rival the Duke of Burgundy, which triggered a civil war that divided France for decades. The Duke of Burgundy justified the murder by accusing Louis of having used sorcery and occultism to attempt regicide on several occasions—one of them, he claimed, during the Bal des Ardents.

Regardless of the truth behind the matter, the horror of the event filtered down through the centuries to inspire one of Poe's most macabre works. (It's not clear where the author first heard about it, but it may have been in the pages of The Broadway Journal, where he was soon to become editor, and where a writer likened it to the accidental onstage burning death of the dancer Clara Webster in London.) Today, the shocking historical event lives on in Poe's story—and in Hop Frog's memorable final line: "I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester—and this is my last jest."

Additional source: Chronique du Religieux de Saint-Denys

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