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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.
Tags: bildungsroman, books, children's books, girls, reading
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  • RIP Ray Bradbury

    I wanted to write something about Ray Bradbury

  • The Weakness in Me

    Robinson's death has hit me hard. Also, the general feeling of doglessness. I haven't been without a dog, except for when on holiday, for eighteen…

  • Profound Gifts

    My tribute to Robinson, blogged elsewhere.