Monthly Archives: May 2015

In step with Virginia Woolf

Who said this?

… a word is not a single and separate entity; it is part of other words. Indeed it is not a word until it is part of a sentence. Words belong to each other …

We heard the voice of Virginia Woolf in a BBC radio broadcast in 1937, and saw her handwriting projected onto the front curtain of the main stage at the Royal Opera House last Saturday. From the darkness emerged the still figure of Alessandra Ferri, recognisable as Virginia Woolf.. It was a thrilling opening to an amazing event. Woolf Works – Virginia Woolf in ballet.

Outside the ROH

Outside the ROH

And what I like is the connections Virginia Woolf makes between words, ballet steps and people. With a little adjustment you could substitute words, in these passages, for ballet and people.

… a word/ballet step/person is not a single and separate entity; it is part of other words/dance/community. Indeed it is not a word/ballet step/person until it is part of a sentence/ballet/community. Words/ballet steps/people belong to each other …

All this from a ballet? Well, yes!

Woolf Works

The full-length ballet by Wayne McGregor is described as a triptych and was drawn from three of Virginia Woolf’s novels: I now, I then (from Mrs Dalloway), Becomings (from Orlando) and Tuesday (from The Waves).

178 VW 3 novelsWayne McGregor read Virginia Woolf and it inspired the desire to choreograph a full-length ballet without a strong narrative thread – a challenge to mainstream balletomanes. Wayne McGregor wanted to capture ‘the spirit of her writing’. I understand him to want the audience to have an experience not unlike reading Virginia Woolf’s novels.

How was it done?

As I’ve said, this was not a ballet with a narrative thread. Virginia Woolf herself was questioning ways in which to capture experiences and feelings in her novels, and experimenting with ways of writing about them. Wayne McGregor explains his ideas.

And I thought Woolf was perfect for my idea of making a full-length ballet without a narrative, because she herself doesn’t write conventional stories – they’re more like collages, where thoughts, emotions and sensations take precedence over plot. The audience will recognise certain characters. Alessandra Ferri, who is a wonderful dance actress, is obviously an older presence, and will convey the sense of Woolf within and alongside her work. You’ll see a dancer inhabit the body of an androgynous Orlando. They’ll be like hooks that allow the audience to go on a longer journey than with a purely abstract piece. (ROH magazine Jan 2015)

McGregor is known for his collaborative work. The choreography, the music and the design all brought together to create this ballet.

What was special?

Here are a few highlights, but in no order and this is not an attempt to capture the whole experience:

  • A male dancer in tweeds (from Mrs Dalloway).
  • Septimus’s angularity of body and movement, expressing acute psychological damage (also from Mrs Dalloway).
  • Alessandra Ferri, had a calm stillness about her, and combined with suppleness captured Virginia Woolf without caricature. And, by the way, she’s 52.
  • The fabulous gold costumes of Orlando, and the romp being enjoyed by the cast. You can view pictures of the production here.
  • The mounting tension (The Waves) accumulating through dance, sound and lighting towards the terrible conclusion of Virginia Woolf’s fate. Her suicide letter was read before this part. More words.
  • The cello.

The Naysayers

He [Wayne McGregor] admits he had been completely unaware of how possessive some of those readers would be when he began work on the project. “I was really surprised by the number of people, some of them very passionate and expert, who approached me and told me exactly what they thought my piece should be like.” McGregor has put a careful distance between himself and the “Woolf industry”. (From Dances with Woolf by Judith Mackrell in The Guardian Review on Saturday 2nd May 2015.)

And on reflection …

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

In some ways Virginia Woolf is so cerebral that I was surprised to be so moved, overcome with emotion, and differently moved in each of the three parts. Septimus’s sequence had me rigid in my seat, my hands and feet flexed. The whirl of dancers building to an exuberant climax in Orlando was stirring. I was steadily pulled towards the appalling and inevitable horror of the waves, waves of sound and dancers, towards death.

I have written about my reluctance to embrace films of novels here, mostly because they dispense with imagination and complexity. But ballets that draw on them do not have the same limiting effect on the audience, indeed I felt Woolf Works enhanced the readers’ experiences.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first edition via WikiCommons

I will now reread Mrs Dalloway, and possibly The Waves, certain that I will find new experiences. An additional reason to reread books (see the previous post on rereading books.)

And I go back to the words we heard her say as the lights dimmed.

Words, English words, are full of echoes, memories, associations – naturally. They’ve been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today – they’re stored with other meanings, with other memories, and they have contracted so many famous marriages in the past. The splendid words ‘incarnadine’, for example – who can use that without remembering ‘multitudinous seas’? [Virginia Woolf in a BBC radio broadcast in 1937]

 

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Rereading books

Do you reread books? My lovely friend Eileen suggested this topic was a good one for Bookword blog. I thought she was right and with a little arm-twisting she agreed to contribute this post. We benefit from her research skills and her colourful use of pseudonyms. And she has referred to lots of great books – read or reread them!

Eileen writes about rereading books

Ladder of Years, by my favourite author Anne Tyler, was serialized on Radio 4 a few weeks ago and I thought ‘I must reread that’. I have read all her books, some more than once, and The Accidental Tourist many times. Do you have a favourite author or book that you come back to again and again? I wondered if other people are similarly addicted so I asked Caroline if she would write a blog about it. She replied ‘Why don’t you!’ (Note to self: Be careful what you ask for.)

177 Therese R coverThe book I read compulsively is Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola. I first read it when I was 20, found myself reading it again at 30, and then kept going. You probably know the story – two lovers plagued by guilt – gripping stuff!

My next most often reread book is To kill a Mockingbird – such fantastic story telling and powerful themes. I’m not keen on stories from a child’s perspective but this one’s amazing. Have you seen the film adaptation staring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch? Fabulous.

177 Atticus FinchI also admit to rereading: Madame Bovary, Cold Comfort Farm, Gone with the Wind, Jane Eyre, Jude the Obscure and Far from the Madding Crowd – well anything by Hardy. And I’m planning to read H is for Hawk again soon. It’s such an exquisitely written book. Do read it if you haven’t.

In order to understand my predilection for rereading I asked 12 of my friends to consider the novels they have reread, why they do it and what they gain. I loved their enthusiastic responses and reminders of some excellent stuff.

You might want to consider your own responses before reading on? If so, Dear Reader, look away now!

The Survey results

It turns out that none of my friends reread books as often as me. Indigo was a bit indignant: ‘I have never reread a book. I don’t have the time and there are so many other books I want to read’. Would that be your reaction? About six of my 12 buddies agreed to some extent including Marigold: ‘I always feel I don’t read enough and feel like I’m wasting time if each read isn’t new’. But she often rereads poetry and short stories such as those by Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Muriel Spark and Ali Smith. And she added: ‘I have reread The Summer Book a good few times – I find it subtle, delightful and fresh each time’.116ToveJanssonSignature

Violet told me she has only ever reread one book. If you were going to pick just one which one would it be? For Violet it was Pride and Prejudice, which she would happily read again:

I read it once at school as a set text with no appreciation, watched the various films and then reread it a couple of years ago. That brought both enjoyment and a deeper appreciation of Jane Austen’s craft. The opening sentence is a total triumph and she manages to maintain her skill throughout the book.

She surprised me by saying that when she has greatly enjoyed a book she rarely reads a second one by the same author: ‘… that may seem odd. Perhaps I feel it sets the bar too high’.

The prospect of disappointment was also on Carmine’s mind: ‘If I really enjoyed something, I don’t want to read it again in case I don’t enjoy it as much’. Magenta agrees especially after her experience of rereading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet:

I picked up the first book, Justine, and it seemed so dated.  I am definitely not the 18 year old that read it in the 1960s. It just didn’t speak to me as it had done. I did not finish the first volume never mind the four. I would rather leave the good memories.

People of a certain age, like me and my mates, like to reread to gain new perspectives on books read in their youth. Carmine spoke about this in her reply saying there was bound to be things she’d missed in the first reading. The example she gave was I Know why the Caged Bird Sings. Yes, I agree. That is worth another look.

Ebony loved reading the following eclectic mix in her teens: Hundred Years of Solitude, Death in Venice and On the Road. These had made a real impression and she wondered if they still would.

Rereading them reminded me of ways of thinking and of expressing ideas that struck a chord. These books shaped my thinking and I was curious to see if I still thought they were relevant and inspiring. They were, which was reassuring.

Blanche reread Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady for a similar reason. When she first read it in 1978 she found there was much that related to her feelings: ‘Rereading was a different experience as I was not identifying with the character and so appreciated it in a new way’. Sapphire mentioned the need to reread a book straight away in order to grasp its meaning: ‘As soon as I finished The Sound and the Fury I reread it. I understood it the second time!’

Exploring far off countries and cultures was important. Jade had reread three particular books that gave her insights into places she liked or wanted to visit – A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute, Cache Lake Country by John Rowlands and Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee.

Ruby spoke about her passion for Barbara Kingsolver’s books, rereading to psych herself up for travelling. I savoured her reply:177 poisonwood B

I bought and read The Poisonwood Bible voraciously when it was first published in Blog.doc paperback in 1999, because I’m a big fan and am always impatient for her next book. I reread it before my trip to Mali in 2007, to get me in the mood for Africa. (OK, so Mali is in West Africa and The Congo is in Central Africa, but there are commonalities: we’d be travelling by pinasse on the Niger River, the women wear similar combinations of brightly coloured cottons as body and head wraps, carry their babies on their backs, sell similar goods in the markets, etc. Both countries struggle with poverty and instability.) More recently, I read it for the third time just prior to seeing Barbara Kingsolver discussing the book with John Mullan, and I now have my copy signed! It’s not an enjoyable reread but I valued and savoured it more.

And for those who write themselves there is another purpose for rereading. I was intrigued by Marigold’s comments about The Accidental Tourist. She saw somewhere that it’s the perfect structure for a novel: ‘I started reading it with an eye on the structure and just ended up enjoying the minutiae’. Caroline’s research for her blog inspires her to reread. Her recent posts include: What Katy Did, Brighton Rock, A Passage to India and Love, Again. Another writer, Sapphire, says she studies high quality novels in great detail, reexamining each paragraph and sentence to appreciate good construction.

177 I capturedLoving the style, or the lifestyle depicted in particular books came up. Scarlet said she had reread Perfume by Patrick Susskind and Memoirs of a Geisha. She likes both because they’re visceral and experiential and she becomes completely immersed. And Jade said she had reread I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith as she loved the lifestyle portrayed.

If you belong to a book club you might reread novels to prepare for the discussion as Caroline, Blanche and Magenta do. Caroline has recently reread The Awakening by Kate Chopin because someone mentioned it in a book group and so she wanted to look closely at that again. She returns to a book in order to read more carefully rather than relying on memory. She reads so much and so quickly that she doesn’t keep the story in her head for long. Blanche enjoys being a member of a book club to get her rereading. She still sees novels as a holiday luxury, despite retirement, filling her life with ‘doing’ things. Recognise that pattern? I do.

And, of course, new technology has an influence. Magenta says she now mainly reads on a Kindle and has a tendency to read quickly, almost skimming the book:

I don’t take it in fully on the first reading, so I often read a second time and then get a lot more out of it. I do that particularly with books that we are going to discuss in our book group. So that is a very pragmatic use of rereading that is done immediately rather than after a long gap.

Comfort reading – ah yes! Carmine said: ‘Another reason is to be taken to a place I know is OK and comfortable, when I don’t want to be challenged, like reading Alexander McCall’s books when I want something interesting but light’. And ‘for therapy’ Caroline reads Pride and Prejudice and Catch-22.

Last was rereading by mistake – starting a novel and then remembering it had been read before.

So, do you ever reread books?

  • to be intellectually stimulated – to gain new perspectives or insights or shape your thinking
  • for emotional reasons – to immerse yourself in the warmth of the familiar, the joy of meeting old friends or the feeling a character, style or place can inspire
  • to develop your own creative skills – to study the beauty of the language, structure and plot for ideas for your own writing …
  • … or do you think rereading is a complete waste of time. Do let us know.

 

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Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize 2015

176 fict u logioMore recommended reads! In the Fiction Uncovered list every year, you can discover some less well-known good reads. The list aims to highlight the best of British fiction of all kinds, provide retail promotion as well as prize money to eight winners. Great writing to discover in their apt strapline. More information on the prize can be found here. It’s a source you might not otherwise hear of. I usually try and read at least one from the list.

Here is the longlist for 2015, announced on Tuesday 12th May. (For links click on the titles)

Now, (drums fingers) what to choose ….?

Mother and sister of the artist by Berthe Morisot 1969/70 National Gallery of Art, US, via wikicommons

Mother and sister of the artist by Berthe Morisot 1969/70 National Gallery of Art, US, via wikicommons

The eight winners will be announced on Thursday 18th June. As with many prizes, however, we the readers are the winners because good books are being drawn to our attention. Read on!

 

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Men Explain Things to Me

I’m out walking with a friend. We check the map to be sure where we turn off the path. ‘Are you lost?’ a passing man asks. And he proceeds to take the map from us and to tell us where we are (we knew) and which road to take (ditto). Is that a familiar scenario? It’s the kind of thing Rebecca Solnit would recognise, and she wrote about it in her essay Men Explain Things to Me. Originally published on the TomDispatch blog in April 2008, the essay led to the coining of the word ‘mansplaining’, although not by Rebecca Solnit herself, who avoids the implication that ‘men are inherently flawed in this way’ (see dedication below).

175 Men exp coverReading about walking and how walking and writing and story telling are interconnected I came across the wonderful and multi-talented and multi-knowledgeable Rebecca Solnit. I referred to The Faraway Nearby in my previous post (here), and how it distracted me from other reading while on my walking holiday. I had been waiting for the publication in book form of her essay Men Explain Things to Me since I came across references to it and to her writing. It’s available now.

Men Explain Things to Me

‘Every woman knows what I am talking about,’ says Rebecca Solnit, as she gave her hilarious account of a man explaining. She told him she had been writing about Muybridge, and he informed her that she should read this important book that had just been published. He resisted three or four attempts by a friend to let him know that this was Rebecca Solnit’s book before he finally took it in. ‘He went ashen.’

Giving explanations of this kind involves not listening, and denies a voice to, woman, suggests they don’t know about things and implies women’s ignorance and their need for the authoritative material to be delivered by a man.

But Rebecca Solnit’s essay is about much more than the annoying experience of being mansplained, silenced, assumed ignorant. In a postscript reflecting on responses to this essay (including being told by some men that she didn’t know what she was writing about) she included these paragraphs, leading us into the other essays in this collection:

I surprised myself when I wrote this essay, which began with an amusing incident and ended with rape and murder. That made clear to me the continuum that stretches from minor social misery to violent silencing and violent death (and I think we would understand misogyny and violence against women even better if we looked at the abuse of power as a whole rather than treating domestic violence separately from rape and murder and harassment and intimidation, online and at home and in the workplace and in the streets; seen together, the pattern is clear).

Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity and to liberty. I’m grateful that, after an early life of being silenced, sometimes violently, I grew up to have a voice, circumstances that will always bind me to the rights of the voiceless. (16)

The Big Picture

The dedication to this collection of essays begins

For the grandmothers, the levellers, the men who get it, the young women who keep going, the older ones who opened the way …

I especially admire Rebecca Solnit’s ability to draw the bigger picture, to link the minor social misery to more extreme and brutal forms of silencing. In a more recent essay (2011) she draws a very clear parallel between the IMF’s exploitation of third world countries and the assault by Strauss-Kahn, the ex-head of the IMF, and other men of power of women, who often come from the same exploited areas of the world (Worlds Collide in a Luxury Suite: some thoughts on the IMF, global injustice and a stranger on a train).

Dominique Strauss-Kahn graffiti in the "Abode of Chaos" museum of contemporary art, in Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d'Or, Rhône-Alpes region, France. Picture by Tierry Ehrmann via Wikicommons

Dominique Strauss-Kahn graffiti in the “Abode of Chaos” museum of contemporary art, in Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d’Or, Rhône-Alpes region, France. Picture by Tierry Ehrmann via Wikicommons

Rape, and the fight back by the women of Delhi, the ‘disappeared’ of South America and the mothers and grandmothers who would not be silenced about their loved ones, gropers on trains who are pelted with grapefruits, the struggle for marriage equality and how gay marriage has challenged the traditional institution of marriage, the removal of women from history through male genealogies, and mansplaining; they are all connected, reproduce inequality, demean us all and silence so many.

175 Womenppower symbolShe pays too frequent tribute to ‘the men who get it’ for me, but I guess that in this collection of previously published essay each one has to reassure readers that some men do get it, and that’s a good thing. Actually it is an important message that men are not inherently flawed. If they were change would be impossible and there would be no hope for the world.

There may not be anyway, but that’s another aspect of this story.

The writing

Beautiful prose. Such a knowledgeable writer. Again, you should read Rebecca Solnit.

 

Rebecca Solnit (2014) Men Explain Things to Me and other essays Granta Books 130pp

For a blogger’s take on Mansplaining in detective fiction see Miss Marple vs the Mansplainers: Agatha Christie’s Feminist Detective Hero by Alice Bolin on the Electric Lit blog.

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Bookword in Alsace

I spent the first week of May this year walking in Alsace. I took some reading, heard some excellent stories and came across some bookish things along the way. Here’s one of them, seen on a gatepost on our last day, walking through Ammerschwihr, a village between Turckheim and Kaysersberg.

174 stone girl reading

Reading in Alsace

I planned to read The Erl-King by Michel Tournier in my non-walking hours. It was the only Alsace-related novel I had found that interested me. But I didn’t finish it before my return. This was because

  1. I was also reading the fabulous Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, and thoroughly immersed in her erudite and fascinating writing about Frankenstein, Innuits, Che Guevara, apricots, the Grand Canyon and other equally engaging topics. Much of her book is about having a voice and the importance telling stories.
  2. I was worn out by walking up and up and down. I needed a wee lie down every afternoon.

I also took with me to read the latest in Peirene’s subscription: Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean. I will finish both these French books very soon and you may find more about them on this blog.

Stories in Alsace

On hearing about the witches of Riquewihr I amused my fellow walkers by exclaiming that the region must be one of the most sexist! The witches’ dispatch was necessary for the quality of the grape harvests, we were told. And the female saints of Alsace, in particular, had a very hard time: St Odile and St Richarde. Both were treated badly by men close to them who should have known better.

174 storks

Storks did rather better than saints. We came across this charming pair of storks in Katzanthal. Their ‘swinging’ habits could have contributed a few episodes to a soap opera. I think this is Marguerite and her new partner Arnold. But it might be Balthazar, her original partner, with her younger replacement, who currently ‘keeps him company’.

174 vineyardsOur walks provided ample stimulus for a storyteller’s imagination: castles, Hansel and Gretel houses, Heidi meadows and dark woods. And if the creativity lagged there was always the wine, the vineyards, the Rhine valley and the people we met along the way.

174 castles

Book Exchange

I nearly missed this delightful book corner in Ribeauville, as I was distracted by grit in both my eyes. But what a delightful and low key way of keeping books in circulation, with the added assistance or forbearance of the French postal service.

174 book box

Walking, Writing and Reading

In a section of her book I read Rebecca Solnit’s thoughts about labyrinths, reading, walking and books:

In this folding up of a great distance into small space, the labyrinth resembles two other manmade things: a spool of thread and the words and lines and pages of a book. Imagine all the sentences in this book. Imagine that they could be unwound; that you could walk the line they make, or are walking it. Reading is also travelling, the eyes running along the length of an idea, which can be folded up into the compressed space of a book and unfolded within your imagination and your understanding. (188-9)

This connection between some of my favourite activities – reading, writing and walking – is most satisfying and a good excuse for a post which is basically about what I did on my holidays!

174 Faraway coverI plan to explore more of Rebecca Solnit’s writing in the next post: Men Explain Things to Me. Meanwhile take this as a rather relaxed recommendation for The Faraway Nearby.

In the Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit. Published by Granta Books in 2014. 254 pp

 

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Most Popular Posts on Bookword

I’ve been walking in France. So only one new post and now I refer you to some of the most popular posts on the Bookword Blog to date. Please comment and let me know what you think.

I am thrilled by the success of the older women in fiction category. About 50 novels have been suggested so far. And I initiated the list because I thought there was a shortage of older women in fiction! Two novels are included in the list below. You can visit more of the twelve reviews in this series. Click on the category to find all the posts.

Book Reviews

  1. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. This review has never been out of the 15 most read of my posts. It’s a charming but distressing account of an older woman who on being widowed moves to live in a hotel in the Cromwell Road, London. Published in 1971, it still has things to tell us about ageing today, not least the challenge of loneliness. I wrote about what we can learn from Mrs Palfrey in a more recent post, which you can find here.
  2. The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen. I reviewed this soon after I launched the blog, and in the last 6 months it has become very popular (something to do with search engines?) and is currently the single most popular post on my blog. Elizabeth Bowen was a wonderful writer, and in this novel she explored Ireland in 1920 and the ways in which people communicate and don’t. The title refers to the impending troubles in Ireland of the 1920s. I have also reviewed her war-time novel (one of her best) The Heat of the Day, chillingly observant about people and why they behave as they do.25 Stone Angel
  3. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence. Also in the series on older women in fiction, this is the story of Hagar Shipley, who is furious at her growing dependence as she ages, and at the ways in which she is treated by her son and by the medical staff who care for her. She is not going quietly into that good night. Margaret Laurence was a Canadian writer.
  4. Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys. Jean Rhys was not afraid to look into the darker aspects of life, in this case a woman who has very few resources, except her body, living in the demi-monde of Paris. It is bleak, amusing, insightful and leaves a sense of unease, especially in view of the author’s own later life.

    The young Jean Rhys

    The young Jean Rhys

Connected to Books

  1. Decluttering my books. Who would have guessed that the trying question of managing books would be so popular? And so riven with emotion. What to remove and the manner of the disposal. I was preparing to move house at the time I wrote this post, but it seemed to strike a chord with people who buy books. Book buyers always need more room.
  2. How do you organise your books? Another popular post about book management. This one also surprised me because so many people showed an interest in how books are arranged in their homes: alphabetically, by genre, by colour, by size …?

83 WPFF bookpile

Others

A word rant, rather against my better judgement I made some criticisms of word use, as I like to play up the positive and not use the blog to vent spleen. But people had two reactions: they read it, and if they knew me they declared a fear of offending me with their use of language.

And our tribute to our editors, on the publication of our book also received lots of attention.101 RWA cover

I hope you find something to enjoy in this round-up of popular posts from the blog.

 

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What Katy did to me

Yuk! I read What Katy Did as a little girl, as many little girls did. My copy is old and battered, printed on war-time yellowing paper and has 1945 written in my childish hand in red pen on the title page. It was first published in 1892, written by Sarah Chauncey Woolsey under the pen name Susan M. Coolidge.

172 What KD coverWhat Katy did for me was underline the sexist messages that abounded in my youth. Katy’s story would not have worked if the main character had been a boy. This was growing up for girls.

And What Katy Did said that girls should learn patience, cheerfulness and making the best of things. And that suffering endured will ensure that a girl will be ‘beautiful and beloved’. Indeed, as Samantha Ellis says, the pernicious idea that suffering has value is common. What Katy Did is a fiercely moral book that appealed to the fiercely moral child that I was. I have since had to unlearn that lesson.

Katy and me

They say that good fiction allows the reader to identify with the main character. I certainly identified with Katy although I allowed myself to pick and chose the things I identified with. Like me she came from a large family of six children and Katy was the eldest. (I was the oldest girl of six siblings which wasn’t that different). Unlike the Carr children my mamma was not dead and we were not cared for by Aunt Lizzie. Like me, Katy was very tall – ‘the longest girl that ever was seen … up above Papa’s ear, and half a head taller than Aunty Izzie.’ (16) And Katy had wild imagination and was always getting into scrapes, although she knew she should be being good and taking care of the children, when she wasn’t learning her lessons or lacing her boots.172 What K didf cover

The story

Katy is 12 years old and blessed with imagination, spirit but no patience. She gets into scrapes at school and at home and cares little about the effects of her behaviour. Refusing to accept Aunt Izzie’s injunction not to use the swing Katy falls from it as it breaks and in falling damages her back so that she is more or less bedridden for four years.

Aunt Izzie did not warn the children that the swing was unusable. The narrator comments:

This was unwise of Aunt Izzie. It would have been better to explain further. The truth was … that the swing really was not safe. If she had told this to the children all would have been right; but Aunt Izzie’s theory was that young people must obey their elders without explanation. (97)

The second half of the book follows Katy’s slow progress through ‘The School of Pain’. The insufferable Cousin Helen explains this concept to Katy. She will learn to become patient and cheerful, become the woman at the heart of the house and to make the best of things.

“Sometimes there isn’t anything to make the best of,” remarked Katy, dolefully.

“Yes there is, always! Everything in the world has two handles. Didn’t you know that? One is smooth handle. If you take hold of it the thing comes up lightly and easily, but if you seize the rough handle it hurts your hand and the thing is hard to lift. Some people always manage to get hold of the wrong handle.” (114)

Still looking for the smooth handle to life myself. Cousin Helen has some good ideas about learning, if not about handles.

“For you know we never do people good by lecturing; only by living their lives with them, and helping a little here and a little there to make them better.” (120)

And Katy learns her lessons and becomes thoughtful, patient and grateful. She does this by taking over the running of the household. Yes really. And to conclude the book demonstrates her newly acquired modesty.

“Oh, Cousin Helen, don’t!” said Katy, her eyes filling with sudden tears. “I haven’t been brave. You can’t think how badly I sometimes have behaved – how cross and ungrateful I am, how stupid, how slow. Every day I see things that ought to be done, and I don’t do them. It’s too delightful to have you praise me – But you mustn’t. I don’t deserve it.”

But although she said she didn’t deserve it, I think that Katy did. (175)

Why I hate this book now

I certainly absorbed the idea that suffering led to virtue. I am glad to say this idea has more or less disappeared, otherwise hospitals and doctors’ surgeries would be less caring and comforting.

And I absorbed the pernicious idea that my job as a child was to lose my impatience, my bossy exuberance, my imaginative games and my quick temper. I should be more meek, pretty, tidy and patient. Girls were constantly told this and Katy’s story underlined the message. By the way, although I didn’t want such a bad injury as Katy’s, I did believe that if life dealt me such a blow I was sure I would respond, and without Cousin Helen’s interfering and angelic prompting.

Now I want to say, especially to those reviewers who say Katy was their childhood heroine, ‘Look at Katy and what those adults did to her, forcing her into becoming better in their terms and ultimately the best homemaker.’ If Katy was my heroine, it was before the accident, not after.

Yuk! It was the first in series of What Katy Dids. I probably read them all. Enthusiastically.

172 How tb heroineI am indebted to How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis for some of the criticism and inspiration for this post. Speaking of her own life, Samantha Ellis observes that pain did not teach or liberate her. I liked this comment:

There should be a special place in hell for Cousin Helen, a saintly invalid who wafts about in ruffled lace nightgowns, and thinks illness is an opportunity. Yes, an opportunity. (131)

I am pleased to find that What Katy Did is the name of a retro shop, based near me in Devon.

What Katy Did by Susan M Coolidge. Version used for this post was published ?1945 by the Children’s Press (London and Glasgow).

Do you have any views on What Katy Did? Did you ever read it?

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Learning, Reading, Reviews