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What Katy Read: Susan Coolidge and the Image of the Victorian Child In March of 1863, the British periodical Chambers's Journal of Popular Literature ran a lead article explaining the role of children in the modern world: "It is a bad world, we say, this world of men: full of evils of all sorts and sizes; overrun with selfishness and its prolific brood," the anonymous writer observed. "Still, here are children in it" (177). And children, it seems, are the unacknowledged moral legislators of the world, for they "exert an influence with respect to the work of men, the importance of which can hardly be exaggerated" (178). This influence permeates best-selling British and American children's literature in the third quarter of the nineteenth century; from Maria Louisa Charlesworth's Ministering Children in 1854 to Frances Hodgson Burnett's Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1885, novels and nonfiction commentary alike present an image of the child as savior. The typical child heroes or heroines of this genre, like Hesba Stretton' Jessica in Jessica's First Prayer (1867), are notable for two experiences. The first is their conversion of those about them to a state of nearly childlike innocence and virtue; as one adult explains to the local minister in Stretton 's tract, Jessica's religious questions "have gone quicker and deeper down to my conscience than all your sermons" (88-89). The second is the life-threatening illness they undergo, setting them apart from more robust humanity and rendering their ethical pronouncements doubly precious to their families and friends; in Louisa May Alcott' s Jack and Jill (1880), for instance, Jill's sledding accident not only improves her own character but those of everyone around her, as she becomes "a sort of missionary without knowing it" (194). Susan Coolidge' s 1872 novel What Katy Did plays on this image of the child, simultaneously dismissing and affirming the lessons children may learn through fiction. Its heroine is reminiscent of Alcott's Jo March, who saw the light of print some four years before Katy was published; like Jo, Katy is initially careless, clumsy, hoydenish, and infinitely well meaning, and like Jo she is addicted to reading in all its forms. But Jo is consistently denied the glamorous "heroine" roles fiction offers to girls (Amy gets the fairy-tale marriage, Beth the tractlike holy death). In contrast, Katy is permitted to enter into the fellowship of fictional angels--once she learns how to "read" life with the proper discrimination. Before her reformation, Katy' s definition of a heroine focuses on novelistic plot and description rather than on character. Her daydreams concern a future in which she would be beautiful and beloved, and amiable as an angel. A great deal was to happen to Katy before that time came. Her eyes, which were black, were to turn blue; her nose was to lengthen and straighten, and her mouth, quite too large at present to suit the part of a heroine, was to be made over into a sort of rosy button. (15) 217 In this scenario, plainly the love Katy is to attract (and, in turn, her amiability) depend on the perfect conformity of her appearance to that of the heroine of magazine illustrations. Later she comments on the "something grand" she means "to jio_" in her role: "Perhaps ... it will be rowing out in boats, and saving peoples' lives, like that girl in the book. Or perhaps I shall go and nurse in the hospital, like Miss Nightingale. Or else I'll head a crusade and ride on a white horse, with armour and a helmet on my head and carry a sacred flag" (23). Being a heroine, whether one is Grace Darling, Florence Nightingale, or Joan of Arc, involves action and drama; above all, it takes place outside the home. As both these examples show, of course, Katy is aware that heroines must be virtuous. But her reading of virtue, too, is exterior rather than interior; she has absorbed the letter but not the spirit of religion. Her editing of a family religious newspaper entitled The Sunday Visitor exemplifies the problem with her approach to goodness: The reading part began...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-1201
Print ISSN
0885-0429
Pages
pp. 217-222
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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