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.
I must have pretty little myself when I last read LITTLE WOMEN, because I don’t think I’ve read it as an adult, at least not all the way through. I decided to return to it after reading Jane Smiley’s THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE NOVEL, which contains some fascinating commentaries on a hundred books, including Louisa May Alcott’s classic. I wasn’t sure about it at first: the opening chapters seemed clunky and when the girls gave up their Christmas breakfast to feed a poor family, the didacticism seemed too overt. But then it took hold. I raced through both parts and was sorry when it ended. What redeems it is that these are girls with real flaws, capable of behaving badly: I was horrified when Amy burned Jo’s manuscripts. Yes, there is sentimentality – the baby talk of Meg’s children is nauseating – but mostly it is held in check. Beth’s illness and death has an element of realism that you don’t find in, say, the death of Little Nell. The pain isn’t glossed over. In many ways of course the lives of these four girls are worlds away from the experiences of young women today. As Jane Smiley points out, ‘Jo and her three sisters aren’t recognisable teenagers any more’ . . . and yet and yet . . . The novel opens with Meg and Jo both doing work which they find uncongenial, one as a governess and other as companion to Aunt March and the over-riding theme of the novel is how they are to live and find their way in life. True, both Meg and Amy in the end find their destiny as wives and mothers, but Jo finds some success as a writer and ends by assisting her husband in running a school as well as bringing up her own children. It seems to me that the question of how to combine work outside the home and children still hasn’t been satisfactorily solved – and perhaps it never will be in the sense of a solution that fits all. There can only be individual accommodations. I was amused by Jane Smiley’s point that when Jo falls in love with Professor Bhaer ‘there could be no Prince Charming less appealing in the eyes of an eleven-year-old reader,’ though to an older reader he seems a far more suitable husband for Jo. I too remember being disappointed that Jo rejected the proposal of Laurie, the good-looking, wealthy boy next door. This time round I felt she was quite right to go for a professor. After all I married one myself.