This is another repost from the vaults of Why I Really Like This Book, a round-up of three books I reread addictively all through my childhood and early twenties. You can also listen to the original podcast on Susan Coolidge and the What Katy Did books (1872, 1873, 1886)
The origins of my love of 19th-century fiction lie in the frocks. Think of the paintings of James Tissot, the French painter who worked mainly from Britain, who is most famous for his paintings of society ladies in wonderful dresses. His parents worked for the fashion trade, and he specialised in portraits of parties in the later years of the 19th century, where the dresses are the focus: ruched, frilled, spotted, draped, gored, sweeping, acres and acres of fabric and trimmings, they’re just glorious. I used to trace them from a book of fashion history onto kitchen paper when I was a little girl, and spent days in the summer holidays lying outdoors on the grass colouring them in. These are the kinds of dresses that Katy and Mrs Ashe would have bought from Worth when they were in Paris.
But I am getting ahead of myself. There are other novels in the series, concerning Katy’s siblings and their adventures in life, but they’re not as strong. The last two of the Katy series, Clover and In the High Valley, are very good on the process of colonising the American West, when towns were growing but needed new inhabitants, but they lack the snap and powerful innocence of the Katy novels. There isn’t much information available about Susan Coolidge, the pen-name of Sarah Chauncey Woolsey (and aunt of the poet Gamel Woolsey) who died unmarried in 1905, aged 70. I’m dubious about the rather vague critical opinions we can find online. One person’s ‘good’ may be another person’s ‘not as romantic’ or ‘yet more drivel about children’s games’. She was a prolific author of children’s novels and short stories for magazines, and a former nurse in the American Civil War. She lived in Cleveland, Ohio; in New Haven, Connecticut; and in Newport, Rhode Island. She doesn’t write about the lives of the very rich on Rhode Island, but she does give a splendidly critical portrait of the home of the awful Lilly Page and her snobbish mother, which says everything we need to know about Coolidge’s views of their values in life. The contrasting portraits of the Carr family in Burnet, and the Agnew family in Boston, which are all pictures and children and love, are so much more appealing. The Page family home is very like the Shaw house in Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl (also a podcast): all show and expense and no comfort or friendliness. Both families have a neglected and nagged teenage son, whom the visiting girl manages to tame. Coolidge is very interested in family dynamics, and how a home is run, and I assume that the scenes in the Carr home in Burnet, Ohio, and in Rose Red’s homes in Boston, are all based on her own experiences: they ring so feelingly true. One of the very good things about Coolidge’s novels is that they are a lot lighter on the evangelical messages and temperance propaganda that her contemporary, Louisa May Alcott, dished out.
The first three of the five Katy novels are What Katy Did (1872), its sequel What Katy Did at School (1873), and a later sequel to that, set three years later, What Katy Did Next (1886). The titles are plain and the plots do what they say: these are straightforward narratives of family life in Ohio in the 1860s. Katy is a Carr, the eldest child in a motherless family of six, whose father is a busy family doctor, and the house is run by their misunderstood aunt, Aunt Izzie. Katy is a perfectly natural, normal child, constantly getting into trouble, and her siblings are also natural and normal. What makes What Katy Did remarkable is that portraits of natural, normal children, as we understand them now, were exceedingly rare in the 1870s. When I read these books in the 1970s, these children seemed as familiar as my own friends. This was never the case with the Little Women, who were continually trying to be perfect, devout, prissy and irritatingly perfect in their little failing and sins. How did Coolidge write imperfection so well?
I think the clue is in what she wrote about. Coolidge was interested in people, not morals, and in relationships. She was also a gifted writer about food: I can’t recollect a single meal in any of the Alcott novels, but the food in Coolidge’s writing stayed with me for decades, most of all the trouble Katy has in trying to order the meals from their patient cook Debby. At this stage in What Katy Did, Katy is fourteen, has been bedridden for a couple of years after a fall from a forbidden broken swing, and Aunt Izzie has just died from typhoid. Many Victorian writers would dwell interminably on the guilt the children feel on not having loved snappy Aunt Izzie better, and there would be at least a chapter of ghastly Evangelical moralising, and a lot of standing about mournfully in depressing black frocks. Not so with Coolidge: Aunt Izzie dies, there is a reasonable amount of surprise and grief, but life has to go on, the doctor has to bury his sister, and the meals have to be ordered from the cook, so at age fourteen, bedridden Katy become the housekeeper, and gets stuck into the cookbooks. Her puzzlement over unfamiliar ingredients (I read the word ‘shallot’ for the first time in this novel, and it was many years before I realised I could buy them from the Co-op down the road), and her longing for a new animal to be invented so the family could have some respite from beef and chicken, were so heartfelt, and such familiar feelings, I warmed much more to Katy the teenage housekeeper rather than Katy the suffering, rebellious patient stuck in bed for four years.
Katy’s back often puzzled me. What exactly did she do to herself when she fell off the swing in the woodshed? Dr Carr explained that she had bruised the membrane around the spinal cord, but four years seems a very long time for this to get well, and the very rapid improvement in her condition once she does find that she can stand again, is also puzzling. Not that the diagnosis or medical history matters much: the important thing is that Katy the rebel is trapped in bed for four years, and forced to be good, to be a surrogate mother, and to be a nicer person. Everyone likes a nicer person, but Katy’s transformation is actually more to do with her growing up, and accepting responsibility as an absorbing way of occupying her life, than the chastening power of suffering over time.
The moralising influence in Katy’s life is another bedridden woman, Cousin Helen, who visits from time to time, usually as a reward or as an encouragement to Katy, and is a very strange and fascinating person indeed. For a start she is perfect and good and beautiful, and only about ten years older than Katy. She too is suffering from her back condition, after being a giddy young girl. She is unbearably noble because she broke off her engagement after she fell from a horse, presumably because she would never be able to have children, and instead insisted that her ex-fiancé marry someone else. He obeyed, he and his wife moved in next door, named their daughter after Helen, who is little Helen’s godmother and surrogate perfect angel. That story gives me the shivers: it is potentially so claustrophobic and emotionally fraught, but it is the stuff of Victorian romance. It is a perfect side story to Katy’s own, to show what she and the other Carr children respond to, and how different, and down to earth, they are in comparison.
There are many ill people in these novels, mostly women. In the school story, What Katy Did Next, Louisa Agnew’s mother is paralysed, which Coolidge calls ‘lame’, but she has to be carried from place to place by her husband. Miss Jane the horrible teacher gets a month-long illness, and is nursed by hardly anyone except Katy. In What Katy Did Next, Mrs Ashe’s nephew gets scarlet fever, and so her daughter Amy comes to live with the Carrs for two months. Amy herself is ill with something called Roman fever, for weeks and weeks, in uncomfortable unhealthy Italy: was this too from Coolidge’s own experience? Such social history makes you realise that being ill 150 years ago was a frighteningly slow and dangerous business.
Once she can walk again (and has grown tall and ladylike, a prerequisite for moral perfection) Katy is sent to boarding school with Clover, to broaden their social horizons, and learn more about people than Burnet can teach them. They’ve already met Cousin Olivia, Mrs Page, who is a judgemental snob, very concerned with fashion and society, and they don’t like her. On their journey to the school, three days travel to Connecticut, they meet her daughter Lilly, an affected little madam whom we are expected to loathe. She too is a crashing snob, hypocritical, selfish, self-centred, and a pitiful creature because there is no way she will ever have a happy life, the way that Coolidge relentlessly makes her behave. This wonderful bitchy portrait is balanced by the utterly delightful Rose Red, a glorious, affectionate and uninhibited creature who belongs more in the Chalet School tradition of wild schoolgirls always breaking rules, one hundred years later, than in staid Victorian Connecticut. The things she does inside and out of school are wondrous, because she simply doesn’t care. No fear that Rose Red will be expelled: her father is a Senator, which means social nirvana to the Pages, and other wealthy parents, so the school will keep her there no matter what dreadful things she does. So much for democratic America. The scrapes that Rose Red gets into, and drags Katy and Clover into after her, are very trivial, so the school and its rules are revealed as a regime of pettiness. This house full of teenage girls, living next door to lively and possibly uneligible young men in college, are fenced inadequately round with rules and restrictions.
The episodes of transgression, and Katy being framed for unladylike behaviour, and the social frisson caused by the proximity of adult men, give What Katy Did at School a lot of more tension than anything Alcott ever managed. Bad things happen, false accusations are made, unladylike behaviour ensues, people (usually Katy) suffer, and then things get better. The emotional journey is more varied, and the plot is consequently more enthralling, when the characters are having a tough time, even if the cause is no more than a faked note sent to a boy whom Katy doesn’t know. To hammer home the message, that these are trials of life to be endured, we return to the metaphor of food. Trying to feed a family and keep the meals interesting was a pleasant and reliable way of describing teenage housewifery. The terrible food the girls have to eat when Mrs Nipson takes over is fairly obviously symbolic of its penny-pinching and unegalitarian ethos. The Christmas box sent to Clover and Katy full of fruit, flowers, and home baking – someone American tell me, please, what is a jumble? – is a reminder that home cooking is always better than food cooked by strangers. The envy the less well-behaved girls feel for the lucky ones allowed to perform their piano pieces and mingle with the grownups at a school soirée, is mitigated by the reports of very ordinary food and drink being served: grown-up life is not as glamorous as it may seem.
Finally, in What Katy Did Next, at age 21, Katy goes to Europe. She’s taken there by Polly Ashe, the convalescing widow and neighbour, as a companion and as a nanny for Amy, her only child. There is also a fairly obvious match-making element, since Polly has a younger brother in the US Navy, whom she hopes they will meet up with in Naples. This is not a journey of unmitigated pleasure. There are probably more terrors and worries and disappointments than pleasures, so this novel too is a roller coaster for the emotions. The trials of seasickness, the disappointment of foggy London, the wholly implausible account of an afternoon’s trip to Stonehenge, the continual abandonment of plans due to bad weather or illness, are a realistic balance to Katy’s exuberant enjoyment of Nice, Sorrento and the Mediterranean. They take rooms in hotels and guesthouses for months at a time: oh the luxury. Polly is outraged to find that brother Ned is in the toils of horrible Lilly Page – bitchier and better than ever – so Katy is glad that she and Polly have had Paris gowns made by Worth to keep Mrs Page’s snobbishness at bay. Amy has to wait at death’s door in unhealthy Italy for a few weeks while Ned makes up his mind that a friendly woman in a grey gown who is a natural nurse is a much better bet for a naval wife than a selfish party girl. I don’t think romantic scenes were Coolidge’s strong point, but we get there in the end. The potential for passionate enjoyment that Europe has for the Victorian traveller is very strong in this novel. The food descriptions are surpassed by the flowers, and the glorious picturesqueness of the foreign scenes, even the down-to-earth descriptions of struggles with the ways of foreign servants.
Professionally speaking, I discovered that What Katy Did Next is a rather interesting fictionalised travelogue, because it mixes the real with the invented. Coolidge has Katy visit real places, which is standard, but she also encounters real people. She sees George Eliot getting out of a cab in London; a pink-coated hunt seen from the window of a train speeding through the English countryside reminds Katy of Muybridge’s time and motion photographs; she orders dresses from the most famous Paris couturier; she and Mrs Ashe borrow books from Vieussieux’s ex patriate library in Florence. This novel is partly a young adult romance, and partly a journal of 19th-century European culture, so was Susan Coolidge a traveller too? In In the High Valley (1890) she shows how little she knows of Devon, but her Colorado settings in Clover (1888) are completely convincing. She may have borrowed her European descriptions from other travellers, but they entranced me as a child, and still do.