I can remember the front cover of my childhood copy of What Katy Did – a copy now sadly lost. It showed Katy, smiling and wearing a starchy pinafore, swinging on her swing against a bright blue sky. I am not sure who gave it to me, but I have a vague feeling that it came from little-seen relative, a great-aunt perhaps, and that I had somehow sensed that it was intended to be Improving. At any rate, I took against the book, and did not even try reading it for quite a long time. When I did pick it up, I was bemused by what I found on the opening page: “I was sitting in the meadows one day, not long ago, at a place where there was a small brook. It was a hot day. The sky was very blue, and white clouds, like great swans, went floating over it to and fro. Just opposite me was a clump of green rushes, with dark velvety spikes…” What?! What was this boring stuff? Was this some sort of Victorian nature book? Where was the story?
Fortunately, I had the sense to turn the page and skip the prologue, and then I was instantly lost in the world of the “six little Carrs” – a motherless brood, each with their distinct appearance and personality, who were more or less running wild in a small American town. I felt an immediate affinity with Elsie, feeling myself somewhat of a misfit among other children, as well as a being “thin, brown child.” As I followed the Carr’s adventures, however, I began to develop a greater admiration for Katy, who was bold, impulsive and daring, who suggested thoughtlessly dangerous games, invented wild stories, and developed reckless attachments.
What Katy Did is a cunning book. It sucks you in with romps, and fun, and escapades, but then comes Katy’s accident and the reader finds that actually is about something quite different. Instructed not to use her swing, but not told why, Katy disobeys the order and suffers a terrible accident which leaves her disabled. A first, she thinks she may have to be in bed for “as long as week”, an intolerable idea. Then her father, a doctor, explains to her that in fact her spine is gravely injured, and that she will have to lie in bed for much, much longer than this. Katy is 12 when the accident occurs, and is in fact unable to walk again for four years. And so begins the real story: the tale of how Katy is forced to curb her nature because of her physical limitations; in her Cousin Helen’s words, she is now a student in the “School of Pain”, and has to learn lessons in patience, cheerfulness, hopefulness, neatness, and making the best of things. Michell Ann Abate, in her study Tomboys: a literary and cultural history notes that Katy, like Lousia May Alcott’s Jo, is one of the earliest examples of the tomboy in children’s literature; she also notes, however, that where a character is too young for her gender transgressions to be corrected through marriage, curbing her behaviour through illness or disability became a popular trope following the success of What Katy Did. Interestingly, the book is discussed in several medical humantities journal articles, in terms of what can be learned from it about 19th century treatment of serious disability, and whether in fact Katy’s problem is a phsyical disability at all, or actually psychosomatic.
Given that none of the qualities Katy has to develop have ever been strengths of mine, I would like to be able to say that what I so enjoyed about What Katy Did is that it offered a vision of change being possible. However, I am afraid that it is much closer to the truth to say that I was (and still am) a drama queen and a hypochondriac, and derived enjoyment from imagining myself as a suffering heroine like Katy. Thus, reading it did not “improve” me at all; if anything, it probably increased my own self-centredness.
My current copy is a beautiful, but rather the worse for wear, edition which contains both What Katy Did and What Katy Did at School. I haven’t been able to pin down the date for this exact edition, but judging from the cover and related editions for sale it looks to be about 100 years old. It contains no perplexingly dull prologue, but sadly is not illustrated. I picked this copy up in a charity shop somewhere for the price of £1.00.
What Katy Did was re-issued in Puffin Books’ Puffin Classics Relaunch series in 2009, with an introduction by a modern-day girls’ story writer, Cathy Cassidy. I am also pleased to see that all three Katy books (the third being, of course, What Katy Did Next) are available as free Kindle downloads.