Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did at School (1873)
What’s better than a boarding school story? Nothing much.
Even though the fictional Katy and her beloved sister Clover weren’t especially fond of the idea of being sent away (too much responsibility at home was making them grow too serious, Papa was instructed by an arguably overly-concerned and meddly relative who had visited).
If they’d grown up reading The Little Princess and Enid Blyton stories, Anne of Avonlea and the Harry Potter books, they woud have known how much fun was in store for them.
What Katy Did at School would have been one of my earliest school stories; clearly I was misled, dreaming of boarding schools and orphanages like other children dreamed of circuses and zoos.
But if it’s true, that Sarah Woolsey was inspired by her own experience of The Select Family School for Young Ladies in New Hampshire, then she well knew how much fun a girl could have.
She apparently recreated aspects of her own experience there in Katy’s and Clover’s days at Hillsover, situated fictionally on the north part of the Connecticut River, a school the girls affectionately referred to as “The Nunnery” (as was the author’s school).
There, the girls are away from home and family (but receive the most delightful letters and care packages) and make new friends (who figure in the later books in the series as well).
[Apparently Rose Red was based on a mash-up of two girls with whom the author was friendly at school: she’s a feisty one, almost Pippi-ish in nature.”]
It’s just as a good school story should be. But, as with What Katy Did, there is a heavy dose of finger-wagging here. Katy and the other girls are meant to become young women. They are learning more than one sort of lesson at school.
As much as they make their own fun, it’s frequently with an eye to social restrictions and limitations, as with the humourous, but also not-so-humourous, “Constitution of the Society for the Suppression of Unladylike Conduct, known to the Uninitiated As the SSUC”.
(As a girl reader, I thought this sounded like great fun; as a grown woman, I find it a little sad.)
And amidst the school hijinks, there is something sad about What Katy Did at School.
“And with that tomorrow, when she came out of her pretty room and took her place once more as manager of the household, her grown-up life may be said to have begun. So it is time that I should cease to write about her. Grown-up lives may be very interesting, but they have no rightful place in a children’s book. If little girls will forget to be little, and take it upon them to become young ladies, they must bear the consequences, one of which is, that we can follow their fortunes no longer.”
I read What Katy Did more often than I read What Katy Did at School: I preferred her when she wasn’t a young lady.
Did you prefer your heroines to not be young ladies too?