I don't enjoy this sort of thing", Louisa May Alcott confessed to her diary, as the deadline for the submission of Little Women loomed. "Never liked girls, or knew many, except my sisters." As a women writer and a writer for children, Alcott felt herself to be a second-class literary citizen. Yet the writing she experienced as drudgery produced one of the most widely read and best-loved books for children, which has survived most of its contemporaries.
What Katy Read identifies a canon of British and American girls' fiction, whose roots, Shirley Foster and Judy Simons argue, lie in the mid-19th-century domestic novel. Such books, they note, are read obsessively, and girls frequently develop enduring identifications with their heroines. Yet to adults they appear sentimental, sanctimonious and psychologically crude. The school story seems the nadir of girls' fiction, proof of the extent to which girls were short- changed.
Foster and Simons are keen to reclaim this literature from the charge that it is conservative. They argue that women writers of fiction for girls represented aspects of contemporary women's culture, questioned the ideologies that underpinned 19th-century femininity, and frequently presented creativity as a counter to a restricted woman's sphere. Thus, the March family harbours the budding author, Jo, whose writing releases her fantasies of violence and cross-dressing; hierarchies of class and gender are suspended in the secret garden, which is presided over by the spirit of Colin's dead mother, and "sub-lesbian attachments" flourish in the anarchic female community of Angela Brazil's Marlowe Grange School. Fictions for girls, they argue, derive their power from the subversive fantasies they unleash, fantasies only partially tidied away by invariable anodyne endings.
Foster and Simons rightly emphasise the neglect of girls' fiction but go only a small way towards redressing this neglect. Most of the readings are conducted at the level of plot and character analysis, and "the context of [contemporary] socio-historical changes" which they promise is either impossibly vague ("love between siblings [in the 1850s] expressed itself more vehemently than would currently be acceptable") or absent (there is no discussion of the late-19th-century category of adolescence).
What Katy Read raises fascinating questions: why do these novels obsess their readers? to what extent is their appeal gender-specific? But in their search for subversion Foster and Simons downplay the extent to which the best children's fiction is deeply conservative; part of the appeal of the school story is its stratified culture and the fact that adolescence simply does not happen. Children's reading is often compulsive, and particularly compulsive at particular moments. The stories analysed in What Katy Read belong to a particular moment, prepubescence. In order to understand their compulsive quality, perhaps we should ask (and these are historical as well as psychological questions): what did Katy want? and what did Katy know?
Fiona Russell is a research fellow in the school of cultural studies, Leeds Metropolitan University.
What Katy Read: Feminist Re-Readings of
Author - Shirley Foster and Judy Simons
ISBN - 0 333 58253 5 and 62673 7
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £35.00 and £10.99
Pages - 223