This post, and several others to appear in due course, are generously sponsored by a gentleman-scholar from County San Francisco, supportive of the production and assessment of nasty novels, dealing familiarly with gamblers, misandrists and flashy reprobates. But, like, this one is more of a popular book for kids and stuff. We also have more of his gargantuan donation left, so continue pitching me your 18th and 19th century trash fiction stories.
When I was about ten or eleven years old, I had several favourite books on any given day. But I kept re-reading What Katy Did over and over again, and I wasn’t sure why. It had no drama or fight scenes, and certainly no love scenes, but there was something comforting in a quiet story where not much seemed to happen. Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did used to be a staple on children’s bookshelves and then fell out of favour, and teachers and librarians stopped recommending it to young people—girls, really, as this is a book by a woman, for girls, about girls. Its message was obsolete, you see. What Katy Did is a morality tale in an 19th-century pink striped dress (quite literally—in my copy of the 1872 novel, Katy is wearing a pink-and-white striped dress with her hair in a flyaway braid.)
Katy Carr is a tomboy—that hated word!—who loves to “make-believe” and play boisterously with her five younger siblings and best friend. She spends the first half of the book getting into never-ending scrapes with the best of intentions, much to the dismay of her stern aunt. On a beautiful summer day, Katy disobeys her aunt, and goes for a fateful forbidden swing in the barn. Like Icarus, she soars too high, and the swing breaks and dooms her to years of convalescence in her room following a terrible spinal injury.
(Although in the book the injury is described as a bruised spinal membrane followed by brain fever, today Katy’s injury would probably be described as a type of incomplete spinal-cord injury with subsequent temporary paralysis.)
After a period of angry rebellion, she learns that her life is far from over, and when her aunt dies she assumes the management of the house while unable to stir from her bedroom. Eventually Katy eventually becomes the “Heart of the House,” with moral support from her cousin Helen, who had been disabled and permanently paralyzed in an accident years before. While safely tucked away in an upstairs bedroom, Katy becomes the gracious and sweet-tempered young lady she was meant to be, learns to walk again, and everyone lives happily ever after. There are several sequels that follow the further adventures of Katy and the rest of the Carr family, although they lack the energy and verve of What Katy Did.
This was initially assumed to be a very suitable novel for girls and young women, with its wholesome message and happy ending. Despite its overarching theme that a sweet disposition and homemaking skills are the highest achievement for young women (which we must remember is not at all surprising for the time frame), What Katy Did is remarkably forward-thinking for its publication date. More typical literature of the period would be akin to the Elsie Dinsmore novels, a series of twenty-eight interminable novels about Elsie, a young girl who embraces Christianity to the point where she has a nervous breakdown at the age of eight from the inability to obey both her irreligious father and her religious ideals. In the second book, Elsie’s father embraces Christianity, and the next twenty-six books discuss Elsie’s marriage, family, widowhood, and grandchildren in excessive detail. (All twenty-eight are available free online for the devoted masochist or those in need of a sleep aid.) When put before this backdrop, Katy is marvellously vibrant and vividly realistic. Katy is active and poorly-behaved, and while her heart is in the right place, she makes mistakes, fights with her siblings, and loses things. Personality-wise, she is far better classed with modern heroines than with her contemporaries.
No one can suggest, though, that What Katy Did is a modern novel. It is very much a product of its times, during which the highest virtues for women were kindness, good manners, and selflessness. Katy’s injury leads her to a better understanding of her loved ones and accelerates her maturation far beyond her years (at the time of the injury she is twelve; by the end of the book when she has regained the ability to walk she is just past sixteen.) The book, like the culture that surrounded it, is rooted in a Protestant Christianity that flavoured nearly every aspect of public discourse. But, after the Second World War, the book became much less popular despite the occasional reprint, and now it is relegated to the dustier shelves of libraries and niche readers. “Modern girls won’t like this after reading about Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen,” or so the thinking goes. Because after all, nothing much happens in What Katy Did. It is set against no backdrop of a major war or conflict, it involves no love triangles or major interpersonal conflict, and it has no climactic scene. It is not the type of engaging historical fiction that will entrance young readers today.
But, of course, it is not historical fiction at all. “Historical fiction” very generally denotes works written in the modern era about the past, and is frequently maligned as a place for children’s novels and bodice-ripping romance novels. Regular old fiction, though, can sometimes be historical in that it is, you know, from history—a Jane Austen novel is an actual piece of history sitting right on the bookshelf. But books aimed at young people are often codified differently. Anne of Green Gables and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are often described, however erroneously, as historical fiction for young people, although at the time they were published they were quite contemporary. Would someone describe Moby Dick as historical fiction? Probably not, though it is fiction that takes place in history. Similarly, then, should we lump What Katy Did into the pile of historical fiction, and hold it to different standards as a result?
Perhaps it would be better to read the books for what they can teach us about the standards of the time. Reading Gone with the Wind may not tell the reader much factual information about Atlanta during the Civil War, but it can certainly describe the longing by some Southerners in the 1930s for a romanticized version of the past. Similarly, to read What Katy Did is to read a story about a girl from a time before feminism, with wildly different social standards for women. If it were written today, Katy would be a plucky girl at the centre of madcap misadventures in the hospital before walking, and then running to become the same zany girl she was before, only healthy. Today’s novels for young people tend to focus on relationships with other people, rather than personal growth, mirroring a demonstrable change in what young people value.
There are those who would argue that books like What Katy Did and its even more obscure cousins like The Pillars of the House by Charlotte Yonge and Daisy’s Dilemmas by “Mrs. Hart” (Elizabeth Hart) should be consigned to the trash heap of history and that young people cannot, or will not, appreciate them. But the real joy in reading What Katy Did or indeed any fiction from history (distinct from historical fiction!) is to use it as a primary source—an item originating from the time period in question—from which readers can explore the mid-Victorian period in Midwestern America.
But should these novels only be restricted to readers of a certain age? What Katy Did could be an excellent piece to include in a history class with a focus on social norms. Discussing the ideal of the “angel of the house” can be a difficult abstract concept for modern teenagers to grasp, since it is a societal construct at odds with modern ideals of femininity. It is also strongly marked for class, race, and religion, which is fascinating in the way it is frequently unnoted and unremarked-on in period novels. The way we understand our favourite childhood books usually changes over time, so that one can go from understanding the novel like a storybook (error, redemption, happy ending), to frustration (when Katy does not seek any other goal besides to love and be loved in return, and to enjoy keeping house and her family), to reading the novel as a period piece (understanding that Katy’s life occurs in a more restrictive world does not mean that her life is less worthy or enjoyable.)
To go so far and say that period novels for children can be harmful may be overstating things. Can reading novels like What Katy Did overcome a lifetime of experience in the modern world, and teach regressive social norms? I doubt it. Reading Pride and Prejudice or Little Women means that one is reading many similar societal ideals, but as classics they do not come with the same stigma that “popular literature” of the period does. But reading fifty pulp novels from the turn of the century gives the reader a sense of what the public likes in escapist fiction, which is usually rooted in a cultural experience or the zeitgeist of the period. And some classics are derided as “period trash” and studied as literature at the same time.
Should we look at these novels as a chance to experience a different era? Classics are wonderful and an important part of the educational experience. But there is something beautiful in losing oneself in a novel for no other reason than it is an entertaining story and not to bother about examining the different types of metaphor and simile for a term paper; to read a novel and realize that you are experiencing the story in exactly the same way as a child would have a hundred or more years before.
Lindsey Palka holds a Master's degree in Canadian history, focusing on the First World War, youth, and family history in the Atlantic provinces. She reads, reviews, and trashes young adult historical novels from the '80s, '90s, and 2000s on her blog, Young Adult Historical Vault.