Stories fit for feminists: 3
This month, I’ve been sifting through popular books from the 1860s until the first world war, a so-called golden age of children’s literature (the above is Edith Nesbit in The Wouldbegoods, or rather her narrator, Oswald), and I’ve found page upon page liberally sauced with casual sexism.
A reflection of the times? A nice reminder of the road since travelled? (“Weren’t people silly once upon at time … ?” I’ll say to my children.) Or misogynistic tripe that we no longer need to inflict on our sons and daughters?
On the other hand, many of these books have, trust me, hung onto their succulent narrative mouthfeel. I’m typing this distractedly, watching Fantasia with a croup-y toddler, but I know I’m going to well up when I check this quote from Nesbit’s The Railway Children—
“Oh! my Daddy, my Daddy!” That scream went like a knife into the heart of everyone in the train.
Yup, every time … (And that’s before we’ve even started on the red petticoats.)
Many of the memorable heroines from this period – Jo March, (What) Katy (Did) and Anne of Green Gables – actually feel decades ahead of their time. Unconventional, tomboy-ish, outsider-ish, outspoken, with their sass and panache they couldn’t be better designed to appeal to modern sensibilities.
But as I re-read, I was struck by how much of these stories’ energy comes from the girls’ fight to master their interesting natures, to squish themselves into a more appropriate cultural mould. Says Jo’s mother to her—
“I’ve learned to check the hasty words that rise to my lips … I just go away a minute, and give myself a little shake for being weak and wicked.”
If we worry (and I know I do) about the pressure on girls to look good these days, how much weightier was the pressure on girls a century ago to be good, monitored by mothers, fathers, aunts, neighbours, teachers, and, let’s not forget, by the über-patriarch, God himself.
These coming-of-age tales are set on a microscopic domestic stage, but the girls at their heart have big dreams. Vague, in Katy’s case (saving lives at sea, nursing “like Miss Nightingale” or heading a crusade all feature), more concrete for Anne in the shape of college. But in both cases, their horizons are drastically foreshortened for the sake of family. And as for the second Miss March—
Jo’s ambition was to do something very splendid. What it was, she had no idea as yet, but left it for time to tell her.
I did (tipped off by a delightful book about girls’ fiction called You’re a Brick, Angela!) track down a set of tales targeted at girls which ripped and roared as heartily as any boys’ own adventure. Bessie Marchant’s heroines are ‘boyish’ too – stalwart Britannias, as plucky as they are averse to introspection. They’re out of print; deservedly. Reading them was like talking to a great-grandmother whose resourcefulness you admire, but whose views are shockingly out of date.
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s two best-known heroines, Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden and Sara Crewe in A Little Princess, inhabit their girl-ness with fewer qualms or apologies. I even found myself reading The Secret Garden (a favourite, incidentally, of Roald Dahl’s Matilda) as Eve Redeemed: sour, sickly Mary returns sour, sickly Colin to their very own green and pleasant Paradise.
A Little Princess, on the other hand, which I was nuts about as a child, I read through muttering “gooey … paternalistic … sentimental … tosh …”, reserving my biggest grimace for the ‘happy’ ending of Becky, the ‘umble maid, whose deliverance is permission to wait upon ‘princess’ Sara for ever more.
Wendy in Peter Pan has class privilege aplenty, but her version of Neverland is a kitchen sink. And, worst of all, she’s in seventh heaven …
“Really there were whole weeks when, except perhaps with a stocking in the evening, she was never above ground. The cooking, I can tell you, kept her nose to the pot, and even if there was nothing in it, even if there was no pot, she had to keep watching that it came aboil just the same.”
“She huddled by the fire not daring to move, helpless and guilty, a big woman.
I will never love Alice (in Wonderland) – there’s no satisfying nursery-tea narrative lip-smack – but reading her in this context fanned my admiration for her irreverence and plain weirdness. She sticks two fingers up to to smug Victoriana—
“Who cares for you?” said Alice [to the queen] … “You’re nothing but a pack of cards.”
Next time … consciousness-raising fiction! The stuff I ought to have been reading in my teens when I was figuring out the shape of the world (instead my actual diet of VC Andrews, Jean M Auel and Jilly Cooper…)
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