The time: a late June afternoon in the nineteen seventies. The place: Sheffield railway station. I was changing trains there on my way home to the North-east from Leicester university. I was nineteen. I didn’t have much luggage as my trunk had gone on by road (does anyone take a trunk to university these days?). I was sitting in the sun, reading Walter Scott’s WAVERLEY, when a woman sat down next to me. I remember someone a lot older than me, attractive, well-dressed. She asked me if I was reading Walter Scott for pleasure and I explained that I was doing an English degree and it was on next year’s reading list. It was just a fleeting encounter, but there was something about it – the sunny day, the charming woman – that’s anchored it in my memory. Now I live in the Peak District and I often change trains at Sheffield. When it’s sunny, I sometimes think of that day, and feel again the luxurious pleasure of being young with the whole summer holiday ahead.
One of the advantages of my e-reader is that I can download a lot of out of copyright material and that’s what I’ve done with some of the books I used to love as a child but had somehow mislaid over the years. I have done that with Susan Coolidge’s Katy novels. WHAT KATY DID AT SCHOOL is still on my shelves and I have reread it now and again, but it was years since I had read WHAT KATY DID or WHAT KATY DID NEXT and I’d never read the later ones in the sequence. Well, now I have and there’s a special interest in reading them again as an adult and being conscious of their historical context. It’s interesting in itself that books written for children over a hundred years before were considered suitable reading for me as a child in the sixties. I certainly can’t imagine my own daughters enjoying them. The Katy novels are very much in the mould of LITTLE WOMEN which had come out a few years before in the 1860s, and Charlotte M Yonge’s family stories were no doubt an influence too, but I have to say that they are not nearly as good as either. They are distinctly preachy and the characters are not as fully developed. After her initial feistiness and disobedience is punished by a fall from a swing which injures her spine, Katy is really a bit too good to be true and it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone that the girls in the family might do anything but keep house. Having said that, I did enjoy reading them. They give a fascinating picture of family life and social life in the US of the 1860s and they still retain some of the charm of childhood associations. When I’m very tired or not feeling great, the old childhood favourites – or maybe an Agatha Christie – are the books I reach for.