Clare Walker-Gore, ‘A Girl Who Wasn’t Born Neat’: Disability, Gender Trouble and ‘What Katy Did’

Front cover of Bancroft & Co. ed. of 'What Katy Did' (1966)
Front cover of Bancroft & Co. ed. of 'What Katy Did' (1966)

Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did has never been out of print since it was first published in 1872. Along with Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, it’s one of a handful of North American classics which have remained popular with young female readers on both sides of the Atlantic – and, upon re-reading, it’s not difficult to see why. Written in a jaunty, accessible style, heavy on dialogue, light on description, and featuring a lively cast of child characters, it’s one of those novels that has retained its appeal, with the irrepressible, badly behaved heroine Katy as loveable as she ever was. But should we be recommending What Katy Did to children? Shouldn’t we recoil from the representation of disability as a punishment for moral failings, a curse that will be lifted when the moral lesson has been learnt?

Strange to say, Katy’s miraculous recovery from paraplegia (which my own experience had taught me was impossible) was the only part of the novel I found difficult to accept as a child. Right up to that point, I lapped the story up. Disability tends to be excised from fiction for children: What Katy Did offers a rare opportunity for young disabled readers to see their own experience mirrored – however distorted by moralism the reflection may be. The novel’s representation of disability as ‘the school of pain’ does at least offer a way of conceiving disability as an empowering state – not a catastrophe or an unspeakable fate, but a useful experience. More than this, coming to the novel from a more academic perspective, it seems to me that young female readers may be responding to the novel’s implicit representation of femininity as a learned, rather than an innate, state. Conservative as it may seem, What Katy Did actually offers a critique of gender as a learnt code of behaviours, implicitly challenging the idea that femininity is ‘natural’ to girls and women.

Front cover of Puffin Classics ed. of 'What Katy Did' (1992)
Front cover of Puffin Classics ed. of 'What Katy Did' (1992)

In case you haven’t read it, the novel’s plot goes something like this: Katy Carr is a twelve-year-old girl with many good qualities, but a total lack of feminine docility. She is a tomboy who prefers rushing about having fun to sitting still and learning how to be a lady. In the narrator’s words, she ‘tore her dress every day, hated sewing, and didn’t care a button about being called good’. In the first half of the novel, Katy has all sorts of comic scrapes, but although the narrator seems to sympathise with her, and encourages the reader to do so too, there is an increasing sense that Katy’s behaviour can’t continue, and the time has come for her to grow out of her wildness. She is, after all, the eldest of six motherless children; after one particularly outrageous episode of mischief-making, her father speaks ‘of the time when her Mamma died, and of how she said, “Katy must be a Mamma to the little ones, when she grows up.” And he asked her if she didn’t think the time was come for beginning to take this dear place towards the children.’ As she is ‘reminded’ here by her (emotionally manipulative) father, it is Katy’s explicit destiny to take her mother’s place in the household. The trouble is, she doesn’t know how. Again and again, Katy makes good resolutions to reform, but is unable to keep them. Although she is deeply impressed by the perfect femininity of her invalid cousin Helen, she doesn’t know how to imitate her.

At this point, fate intervenes. Katy falls off a swing and is paralysed from the waist; she finds herself confined to her bed, in exactly Cousin Helen’s position. Helen duly visits and explains to Katy how she can make the most of her time in ‘the school of pain’, and use the experience of disability to make herself ‘the heart of the house’. It is here that the subversive implications of the novel’s intertwining of disability and femininity become apparent. As Helen describes her experience of disability to Katy, she makes it clear that her perfect femininity has been painfully learnt, and has been a matter of tremendous effort. She stresses to Katy that she herself wasn’t ‘“born neat”’, but used to be ‘“strong and active, and liked to run, and climb, and ride, and do all sorts of jolly things”’. After her accident, she tells Katy, she was ‘“so wretched that she didn’t care what became of anything”’. It was her father’s appeal to make her room ‘“pleasant”’ and herself ‘“pretty”’ that convinced her to change her ways, as she tells Katy:

‘I began to think how selfishly I was behaving, and to desire to do better. And after that, when the pain came on, I used to lie and keep my forehead smooth with my fingers, and try not to let my face show what I was enduring. So by and by the wrinkles wore away, and though I am a good deal older now, they have never come back.
It was a great deal of trouble at first to have to think and plan to keep my room and myself looking nice. But after a while it grew to be a habit, and then it became easy. And the pleasure it gave my dear father repaid for all.’

As you can see, the skills and attributes that Helen develops through her experience of disability are all distinctively feminine. Although Helen makes a joke of the idea that it’s all about brushing your hair (‘“Do you really think I could do so too?” she asked. “Do what? Comb your hair?”’), this isn’t so far from the truth. The learning process Helen describes consists of learning how to take care of her personal appearance when she doesn’t want to; how to control her temper, cope with boredom, put others’ feelings before her own, and above all to seem cheerful and calm while having to stay still. Essentially, she is describing a crash course in femininity.

By following her example, Katy, too, becomes a perfect lady, with a ‘womanly look, pleasant voice, politeness … [and ] tact’. These are not qualities which have simply come to her as part of a natural maturing process, but qualities she has consciously acquired through diligent study in the ‘school of pain’. Over the course of the novel, what Katy learns is that a lady – to mis-quote de Beauvoir – is not born but made. What Katy does, I would argue, is demonstrate the artificial nature of gender, as a code of behaviour rather than an essential state. The alignment of disability with femininity not only gives disabled women a positive self-identity – Cousin Helen may be a limiting role model, but at least she isn’t condemned to an early death, or depicted as useless – but gives readers struggling with the burgeoning demands of femininity a means of understanding their struggle. Certainly, Coolidge tries to inculcate the desire to be more like Helen in her readers, but she also reassures them that it won’t come naturally, that femininity is a matter of practice. The fact that it takes Katy four years of total immobility as a prisoner in her bedroom to achieve her ‘womanly look’ seems to me to suggest more strongly than any feminist polemic could that a ‘womanly look’ is not something that comes naturally to a woman. Rather than banning What Katy Did from school libraries, perhaps we should be advocating its study as a feminist critique exploring how girls learn to ‘do’ gender.

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