Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did (1872)

Susan Coolidge was the pen name of author Sarah Chauncey Woolsey, whose Katy series is her best known work, What Katy Didbeing the first of that series. Do you know Katy Carr?[You might also recognize the name of her niece, author Gamel Woolsey, whose 1930 novel One Way of Love was not published until more than 50 years after it was written: too sexually explicit, and Good Girls Don’t, of course.. (Thanks to Virago for opening that literary door in 1987 as part of its Modern Classics series.)]

I wanted to chat about it before I chatted about Little Women because I read the Katy books before I discovered the Alcott stories, but actually What Katy Did was published four years after Little Women.

And it shows. It’s like Little Women goes to visit its country cousin. And no surprise because Coolidge/Woolsey and Alcott shared a publisher.

But I was surprised. Surprised to find that books I had read as compulsively as the first two Katy stories were so openly moralistic.

(And, similarly, I also was surprised by the overt moralistic storytelling I found in my reread of Little Women, which I’ll be chatting about in a few days. Their publisher their readership: these books sold by  bundles.)

Katy Carr is the oldest of six children, about fourteen years old when the story begins, living on the small lakeside town of Burnet in the midwestern United States.

Books about large families had a particular charm for me, so I loved the challenge of keeping Katy, Clover, Phil, Elsie, Dorry and Johnnie (Joanna) straight. (It’s not hard: it’s mostly the Katy and Clover show, with supporting roles for comic relief and moments of sweetness.)

The children are cared for by their Aunt Izzie, but it’s Papa Carr who undertakes the serious stuff. And Katy has quite an imagination (much like my favoured Anne Shirley and Jo March, who also — like Katy — had one of her manuscripts burned when she was a young writer), so it tends to get her in trouble.

But Papa Carr, the good family patriarch, sets his oldest daughter back on the path of righteousness:

“And he asked her if she didn’t think the time was come for beginning to take this dear place [that of her departed mother] towards the children. Poor Katy! She sobbed as if her heart would break at this, and though she made no promises, I think she was never so thoughtless again after that day.”

As if the Poor Dead Mama bit wasn’t enough of a guilt trip for Katy, there’s the angelic figure of Cousin Helen, who embodies the concept of a “teaching moment” for Katy and her readers.

“But doesn’t it make cousin Helen feel bad when she sees them walking about and enjoying themselves and she can’t move?” asked Katy.
“No,” said Dr. Carr, “it doesn’t, because Cousin Helen is half an angel already, and loves other people better than herself. I’m very glad she could come here for once. She’s an example to us all, Katy, and I couldn’t ask anything better than to have my little girls take pattern after her.”

Evidently I loved the idea of patterning myself after Katy. I returned to her story repeatedly as a girl, the copy of my 1970s Armada paperback (the image shown is a 1968 hardcover actually) worn and its pages softened.

I loved the Carr family’s Sunday rituals (complete with Katy’s reading of a newspaper much like the March sisters compile in the attic in Little Women), the romantic long-lie-a-bed that is connected with one character’s prolonged illness, and the children’s feasts in the loft (their snacks of vinegar and water — Clover calls her drink “Raspberry Shrub” — and cinnamon sticks).

It was like Heidi crossed with The Five Little Peppers: interesting to reread with an eye to what these “little women” were taught (together with the Carr family’s preparations to turn them into “good wives”), but for an adult reader the moralistic nature of the telling overshadows the story.

Curious? You can check it out online, at Celebration of Women Writers amongst other places.