Thursday, 8 December 2011

December 2011: Susan Coolidge's "What Katy Did" and our next book

We decided it was time to cross the Atlantic and dip into some late 19th century domestic fiction for girls, so this month was all about Katy and What She Did.  Susan Coolidge (Sarah Woolsey, 1835-1905) established herself as an author by writing semi-biographical and charming but morally didactic stories about the six middle-class children of Dr Carr, whose motherless household is managed by stern but well-meaning Aunt Izzie.
Most of us remembered reading What Katy Did (1872) as children and we were delighted to get the chance to read it again with adult eyes.  It proved to be an interesting experience second time around - almost too much for some who were overwhelmed by the sugary story with its moralising underpinnings and had to resort to skim reading.  However, we all pushed on through the rather dull opening pages with their references to John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress to rediscover a humorous book with many well-drawn and closely-observed characters and events.

We talked about the frequent appearances of heroic bed-ridden invalids in Victorian children's fiction: Coolidge's Katy and her too-good-to-be-true cousin Helen; Dick in Louisa M Alcott's Little Men (1871); Clara in Johanna Spyri's Heidi (1872); Colin in Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (1911); Pollyanna in Eleanor Porter's Pollyanna (1911) and Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843) being just a few examples.  Several of us recalled bed-ridden Marianne in Catherine Storr's powerful and eerie classic, Marianne Dreams (1964).  We discussed the recurring theme in which an undisciplined and headstrong character - frequently a tomboyish or non-conformist girl - suffers an injury directly as a result of their own disobedience, and learns discipline through long-term suffering and immobility.  Cousin Helen, permanently disabled, tells injured Katy that she must study in God's "School of Pain" to learn lessons in "Patience" and "Making the Best of Things" and so become the "Heart of the House".  See The Treatment of Disability in 19th and Early 20th Century Children's Literature by Ann Dowker of the Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford at

We reviewed too Susan Coolidge's own life and circumstances and talked about the influence of Louisa M Alcott (Little Women etc) on Coolidge's writing direction and style, and the fact that both these authors remained unmarried - resonating with Virginia Woolf's thoughts about the consequences for writers of marriage and domestic duties in her essay "A Room of One's Own" (1929).

What Katy Did and What Katy Did At School are often credited with sparking abiding interest in writing school fiction for girls.  Next month (11 January 2012) we are back on this side of the Atlantic to explore this genre with First Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton (1946).  It's a quick read, so a suggestion for a companion book is Beswitched by Kate Saunders (2010) which combines the story of Flora Fox at a girl's boarding school with magic spells and time travel.

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