Monday 18 May 2009

What Katy Did, Susan Coolidge

What Katy Did was probably the first book I read that I would call "girls'" fiction. I was bought the book when I was very small because, of course, the heroine shared my name.

The book is often criticised for being too sugary-sweet and moralising, but that is an inevitable result of the time, place and audience of writing - it is similar in that respect to Little Women. I always preferred the Carr family to the Marches, however, probably because they were younger. The earlier chapters are quite simply about children playing, quarrelling and getting into trouble - and it's so vivid. Katy had such a vivid imagination, and I could just dream I was there, sitting on the roof of the ice-house, or exploring Paradise with a picnic, playing Kikeri or the river game, playing post-offices... to name but a few. There is no doubt in my mind that the first half of the novel is the most fun.

At the beginning of the novel, Katy is twelve years old, full of mischief, thoughtless, careless, untidy - for a C19th century children's novel bound for reform from the very start - but one does so much wish she wasn't. She's not always very nice, which we see in her treatment of Elsie. Elsie is very much the middle child - wants to join in with her big sisters' games, but always pushed aside and told to run along and play with the children. Yet Katy means well, and that redeems her character.

Halfway through the book, we are introduced to Cousin Helen, and this is a character that I think has changed over the last century or so. Before they meet Cousin Helen, who is an invalid, Katy predicts that she will be "something like 'Lucy' in Mrs Sherwood, I suppose*, with blue eyes, and curls, and a long, straight nose. And she'll keep her hands clasped so all the time, and wear 'frilled wrappers', and lie on the sofa perfectly still, and never smile, but just look patient

Ugh! Doesn't she sound simply ghastly? Though that is what Katy is looking forward to. Thank goodness Cousin Helen is not like that - though she's almost as bad. She is just too perfect. Unlike the imaginary Helen, she does smile, and has fun, and is never too busy for the children. She never gets cross, and when she became an invalid, broke off her engagement to the man she loved, so that he wouldn't have to be always looking after her. "[a]nd now, he and his wife live next door to Cousin Helen, and are her dearest friends. Their little girl is names 'Helen'. All their plans are talked over with her, and there is nobody in the world they think so much of." I don't know about you, but I find that most unhealthy. More than anything, I pity Alex's wife - surely she would never be able to live up to Alex's first love who is "half an angel already."
Don't get me wrong, Helen is lovely, but she is too lovely. I notice as an adult that she is quite a two-dimensional character, a person for Katy to aspire to, and to trigger her improvement.

For improvement is what Katy is doomed to from the beginning. On a day of bad temper, Katy disobeys her Aunt Izzie's orders not to play on the new swing in the wood-shed, and it breaks and injures her spine. She is confined to bed for four years, where she learns patience and consideration for others, and later the responsibility of being the Woman of the House, after Aunt Izzie dies. She emerges from her bed at the age of sixteen, unrecogniseable from the impetuous little girl she was before - and from this point onwards the interest in the series switches from her to the next sister down, Clover.

Although Clover was much more of a good girl than Katy to begin with, she keeps her sense of humour, and her character. Alas, Katy does not. That is not to say that I don't like the series from this point on - because I do. But the focus of the story switches onto what Katy did, rather than the character of Katy herself.

*Research turns up the story "The History of Lucy Clare" by Mary Martha Sherwood, a story that makes the "moralising" in What Katy Did look simply anarchical by comparison.


  1. I have just finished re-reading "What Katy Did", having read it something like 50 odd years ago. I live in France and came across it in a second-hand shop. Just imagine my delight!
    A few years ago I had found "What Katy Did at School" and was very disappointed by the goodie-goodie I found in it. I had remembered a fun book and only Rose Red matched my memories and the Christmas box from home ...
    But in "What Katy Did" there she was, the Katy of my childhood reading who got into scrapes and never quite avoided the consequences of her acts. Ok the end is rather what we called "pioshious" but Katy was so real that my friends and I read the books with pleasure. And at least it was something written for us, we felt. To discover today on internet that it was already almost 100 years old when we read it came as a bit of a shock.
    Reading it took me back to my bike riding, roller-skating, wandering over the countryside, days in the 1950s and my friends of that time. We too seemed to tear our dresses and get into scrapes and to horrify our parents by being "unladylike".
    My reactions reminded me of Tuppence Beresford in Agatha Christie's "Postern of Fate" where she re-reads books she read as a child and enjoys them. I have just checked the name in Google and found a comment saying that it is an example of the wanderings of an elderly mind ! Oh dear, oh dear ! Well I suppose it might be but I didn't think that at 65 I was really elderly.

  2. Thanx for your critique, you had different ideas about the book then i did, so you really made me think. I wanted to add something about the parenting styles in the book. Aunt Izzie, to my mind, displays some of the worst parenting skills, while Dr. Carr, Katy's father, some of the best. I worked with children for 22 years, and studied Child Development. One of the *first* things i was taught, working in an Infant-Toddler Center, was to always explain *why* to children. Aunt Izzie expects children to obey because they’re "supposed" to. Susan Coolidge makes direct commentary on this - before Katy has her accident on the new swing, Aunt Izzie tells the children not to use it WITHOUT explaintion - the narrator tell us "This was unwise of Aunt Izzie. It would have been better had she explained (the swing was unsafe) then all would have been all right."

    Aunt Izzie does the kinds of things we were taught *never* to do as educators. When Katy asks to take Aunt Helen her tea tray, Izzie says she'll only drop it. When Dr. Carr says it's all right because he likes children to be useful, Izzie still pesters Katy, telling her to Katy, to please her Aunt, does hurry, and drops the tray. Telling a child she *will* fail is bound to become a self-fulfilling prophecy...why, it'd practically have been disobedient for Katy *not* to drop the tray after her Aunt *told* her she would.

    When Aunt Helen gives Katy a vase, Izzie remarks that she'll break it. This is a severe blow to a child's self-esteem, embarrassing her in front of a beloved visitor, as well as being UNNECESSARILY harsh! Why make such a rude, disparaging, insulting, hurtful comment? It's not like Helen could've given Katy something else in that moment. Izzie's spiteful remark only lends to Katy's ill temper the day she hurts herself on the swing. In fact, all day Izzie makes horrible, demeaning remarks to Katy, making her feel resentful and rebellious. Her self-esteem plunges so low Katy no longer feels she *can* behave - she breaks Izzie's rule about the swing on purpose, to fulfill Izzie's low opinion of her.

    *Teaching* children to behave requires patience, knowledge and wisdom. Dr. Carr likes his children to be active, and allows them to play all over the yard, to physically explore their world, allowing them to learn by experience. When Katy brings home a friend who behaves in an odd manner, Dr. Carr is concerned and talks with Katy about it. First, he gives Katy a positive stroke, then his criticism of the affected friend, then he asks Katy *why* she likes this friend. Dr. Carr helps Katy think thru and truly understand the situation, by first, making her feel good about herself ("my dear you're an affectionate child, and i'm glad of it"), then explaining the problem, then asking Katy to reflect.

    People assume we’re naturally born with good parenting skills - but people have to *learn* good parenting skills. If you beat children until they're afraid to misbehave (unless they're *sure* they won't get caught) they're "behaving" out of fear, not moral understanding.

    Dr. Carr isn't concerned with obedience, he’s concerned with raising smart, capable, self-confident people. Katy takes after him when she becomes the woman of the house. In managing the younger children, Katy gives them positive strokes when they’re on task; encountering problems Katy starts by showing compassion to the child, then explaining the problem, then asking the child to think it thru. Katy's transformation may seem forced, but as someone who has gone thru chronic pain as an invalid, i can say such an experience is life-changing. Still, i also love the young Katy, and but i think Susan Coolidge wanted to make commentary on parenting, and Katy's transformation helped her do that.


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