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Shy girl makes good

What is it that makes stories of "improvement" so appealing? When I think back over the books I read over and over again as a child, one topic or theme that stands out, apart from all the good-versus evil fantasies that I read, is that of the girl who becomes better or stronger by being exposed to new experiences.

Of course, the "uber" text in this genre(? is it a genre?) is The Secret Garden, in which sallow, bad-tempered Mary Lennox is removed from her home in India and deposited into a large echoing mansion in Yorkshire. She is taken aback when her rosy cheeked, no-nonsense housemaid refuses to dress her or bring her breakfast other than porridge. She is given a skipping rope and sent outside, where she gets fresh air and exercise, and her temper begins ever so slowly to improve. And then there's that lovesome thing, the garden, the deserted, magical walled garden that she discovers and starts to rehabilitate along with herself. Of course, there's the other parallel rehabilitation story of her cousin Colin, which I always found less interesting - I used to skip bits towards the end. It was the transformation of Mary Lennox that always fascinated me.

I was never particularly keen on Little Women, preferring Little Men, which I found more robust and fun. But my all-time favourite Louisa May Alcott book was Eight Cousins, which is far less well-known than either of those. In this, Rose is a sickly, wan, forlorn orphan whom we meet drooping around her aunt's house, making herself cry. Her life is cheered first by a meeting with a serving girl, Phebe, who sings and is of good spirits despite deep poverty and hardship. Then, into Rose's life bursts her bluff and cheerful uncle Alec who has quite subversive and unusual ideas about child-rearing. He makes her throw away her coffee and her stays. He makes her learn to row and takes her on adventures. Best of all, he introduces her to her seven boy cousins and throws her in amongst them to run and climb trees and generally raise hell. I always liked the systematic "tom-boy-ification" of Rose, turning her from a droopy, "girly" girl to one that I would have liked to meet. As an only child, I sympathised with her and longed to share her large, cheerful, extended family.

Then there was Understood Betsy. I had one of those paperback Scholastic press editions of this, you remember, those books that you could order from school (subject of another post to come, I think)? Betsy lives in a city with a couple of twittery aunts who for one reason or another (I vaguely remember sickness in the family) can no longer support or look after her. She is sent to live with another set of relatives who run a farm in the country. Betsy has been over-protected and sheltered and is shy and scared of everything. But no sooner does she get off the train than she is forced not only to meet and get to know a large, friendly dog, but to take the reins of a horse and cart and drive (how symbolic)! Gradually, she becomes as tough and no-nonsense as her country cousins and learns to look after others as well as herself.

Of course there are others on the fringes of this topic: What Katy Did, which I used to abandon after Katy walks again, to some extent A Little Princess, although Sarah Crewe has strong character to start with. The best bits of that, though, are where Sarah loses her fortune and has to live in an attic with rats, and then when the Indian gentleman redecorates her room and brings her breakfast - that has to be one of the most glorious scenes in all children's literature.

What is the appeal of those books, though? I notice now that they are all fairly "old" - yet all quite subversive and feminist in their attitudes about what girls should and should not do (I'm not up-to-date enough with current children's books other than fantasy to know whether the genre proliferates today). All of them show a weak, shy or socially awkward (or spoiled rotten) girl blossoming and becoming not just "normal" but healthy and vigorous and productive. And independent. In critical works that investigate the female "bildungsroman," we learn that in adult novels before perhaps the 1950's the move to independence and freedom for a woman tends to be tragic; often her only escape from the confines of society is either death or exile. Yet, it seems that in these early books for girls, the bildungsroman, the "coming of age" story, is rich and flourishing and highly optimistic.


( 25 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 18th, 2007 03:33 pm (UTC)
This happens a lot in Charlotte Yonge's novels in contemporary settings: e.g. Countess Kate, the trajectory of Ethel May through the various volumes that deal with the May family. There's often a disciplining process happening as well - training the wild and unproductive or simply misdirected energies/sensibilities into productive channels.

One of the few Enid Blytons of which I can remember an actual plot, Six Cousins, has the spoilt and wimpy girl cousin becoming less of a wimp, and her slovenly tomboyish cousin becoming less rough-edged.
Jul. 18th, 2007 04:48 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure whether I've ever read any Charlotte Yonge. Shall have to seek her out (if I write this thesis I seem to be thinking about lol)
Jul. 19th, 2007 08:58 am (UTC)
I strongly recommend her - probably The Daisy Chain is a good place to start. A lot of her books seem to be in print with those POD editions, or downloadable.
Jul. 18th, 2007 03:52 pm (UTC)
"Eight Cousins" was my favourite Lousia Alcott, too. I notice a strong medical theme or set of imagery in many of these texts - I wonder if it's worth adding in 'Heidi', too, although I've not read it since I was eight or so (and then, I think, in an abridged version. Funny things happen to children's books in translation at times)

One old girl's book of the 'improvement type' which I intensely disliked was 'The Wide Wide World', because the heroine was given (a certain sort of low-church, joyless) piety instead of a personality; though I was amused by the sort where she is sent to her rich British relatives and finds them Ladaeocian, not concerned enough about Sabbath observation, and practically Catholic in their churchmanship. Which might do, if they weren't also characterised as typical mid-nineteenth century respectable Edinburgh business people. I think the author got the Church of Scotland confused with the Cof E.
Jul. 18th, 2007 04:33 pm (UTC)
I don't remember much about The Wide Wide World, but she sounds like Martha Finley's Elsie - a example of youthful piety to her seniors. There is wonderfully creepy episode where she refuses to read a secular book to her sick father on a Sunday. Angst and martyrdom ensue. And don't get me started on the racial angle (it starts in antebellum Southern States, nuff said).
Jul. 18th, 2007 04:56 pm (UTC)
The heroines sound quite similar.

I only read 'The Wide Wide World' because Jo is mentioned in 'Little Women' as crying over it (and eating apples in the garret). Either the tears were sentimentality, or her literary judgement was worse than I thought....
Jul. 18th, 2007 04:46 pm (UTC)
Yes - Heidi has elements of that theme, especially in the rehabilitation of Clara at the end. Heidi is tough and jolly to begin with, and it is she who brings joy to the people around her rather than needing any character building herself. That's another sub-genre, I think - jolly girl brightens up the place. cf Pollyanna, Rebecca of Sunnybrook farm (?maybe? I'm not as familiar with it)et al. The Wide Wide World sounds dreadful!
Jul. 18th, 2007 04:59 pm (UTC)
Yes, that sounds right. I enjoyed Pollyanna as a kid, although not as much as 'Eight Cousins', etc. I suppose you could make a case for placing 'Cold Comfort Farm' in that genre, although not a children's book (and not entirely serious, either).
Jul. 19th, 2007 12:53 am (UTC)
Heh - yes, that's indeed true!
Jul. 19th, 2007 05:53 am (UTC)
I'm going to look for Eight Cousins for my daughter. Thanks.
Jul. 18th, 2007 05:41 pm (UTC)
Two I can think of that I've read with my daughter are What Katy Did and The Good Master.

I'm not sure I'd call such books feminist, exactly. If they are, it is in a very restrained way, for the problem with these girls is often that they do not possess sufficient feminine virtues to take their places in the world (as wives). The maturity they gain often has to do with curtailing their desires and learning to think of others, becoming connectors, caregivers, and peacemakers. I do think the (mostly) women who wrote these works are fantasizing about a world in which womanly virtues are given due credit, but I don't think they're yet able or willing to posit a world in which self-betterment leads to a shedding of social restrictions or even to a peace that comes from within and not from fitting in. Nor are they able to imagine a world in which the maturation of boys into men would include these same lessons. To me, many of these books seem feminist like contemporary romantic comedies are feminist: they encourage in order to channel.

And in many cases, such as in What Katy Did, the girl must suffer so!
Jul. 18th, 2007 11:59 pm (UTC)
Nor are they able to imagine a world in which the maturation of boys into men would include these same lessons

There's a very close parallel between what Mary learns in 'The Secret Garden' and what her cousin Colin learns.
Jul. 19th, 2007 12:51 am (UTC)
I don't think I'd agree with that assessment in the case of Eight Cousins at least, or Little Men for that matter. Or perhaps The Good Master. At least, not as they stand on their own. Unfortunately, in all cases, the sequels tend to undermine whatever "feminist" or proto-feminist values might have been put forward in the originals. The sequels all show the girl, now a young woman, taking her "proper place" and maturing only through association with a love-interest :(
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 18th, 2007 11:19 pm (UTC)
No, Becky (I think her name was) wasn't black. But the servant from next door - Ram Das - was Indian. The "Indian gentleman" wasn't, but was the guy who ... but if you're going to read it again, I won't give the plot away.
Jul. 18th, 2007 07:21 pm (UTC)
Arguably Emma is one of the greatest and earliest of the genre - after all, in the end they are all about learning womanly virtues and an independence which is in keeping with their wifely destinies. My gut feeling is that the genre of such books for girls coincides with the opening up of the frontiers (including the British Empire in that) and the need for resourceful, educated wives who could cope with what it threw at them but still know their place. There's no suggestion Mary will strike out on her own, after all, just become the sort of British woman who won't fade and die if sent out to the Colonies.

Interesting that you refer to What Katy Did. Most reasonably-educated British women of our generation know the book (I adored the sequels too and bitterly regret giving away Clover and >i>In The High Valley</i>) but virtually no American women of roughly my age seem to know of it, or the author. Did you encounter it before going to Canada by any chance?
Jul. 18th, 2007 11:16 pm (UTC)
No, I read it when I was about 10 or 11. Don't forget that though we lived in Canada, my mum was British through and through, and recommended many books that she had either read or knew about. Also, I was just a voracious reader and read everything available in the library.
Jul. 19th, 2007 12:58 am (UTC)
And in any case, aren't the Katy books American?? Curious that you associate them with British readers...
Jul. 18th, 2007 11:17 pm (UTC)
We must have gotten the same reading list somewhere along the way :-)
Jul. 19th, 2007 12:05 am (UTC)
I always liked Eight Cousins best, too. Did you ever read any of Zilpha Keatley Snyder's books? YA gothic mystery, and almost all of the 'young girl matures well through adversity' type.
Jul. 19th, 2007 12:46 am (UTC)
Yes - I loved Zilpha Keatley Snyder! Nowadays most people seem to know her from the "Below the Root" trilogy, but my favourite of hers was Season of Ponies which was one of the "mature through adversity" type with gentle fantasy. Also The Changeling.
Jul. 19th, 2007 04:06 am (UTC)
I liked both of those, but got hooked with The Velvet Room.
Jul. 19th, 2007 05:52 am (UTC)
Oh my, The Velvet Room. I think you may have just solved an old mystery. I read a book once in which a velvet room figured prominently. I haven't been able to remember the title, though. Perhaps you could give me a synopsis?
Jul. 19th, 2007 01:53 pm (UTC)
Okie girl is living with her family in a migrant worker camp, stumbles across old woman who is thought by all to be a witch, but who gives her a key to the empty (haunted?) mansion nearby. Girl seeks refuge in the library there, and eventually unravels a mystery that helps her to become mature young adult woman. OR something like that -- I's been over 30 years since I read it.
Jul. 23rd, 2007 02:45 am (UTC)
Yes, that's it! Do you remember the author?
Jul. 19th, 2007 04:07 am (UTC)
Oh, and Elizabeth George Speare and Joan Aikin (AU adversity counts!)
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