Not every childhood heroine grows with us

Katy Guest
Sunday 05 January 2014 01:00
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As a bookish child with an oddly Americanised first name, I was more than once given the 1872 children's book What Katy Did. I was named as I was because my mum happened to have read the Susan Coolidge books, but never Katie Boyle, and to adults the novel must have seemed a perfect gift for a little girl called Katy. Unfortunately, to my young mind, what Katy did was this: had a mind of her own and, apparently somehow linked to this character flaw, unforgivably unruly hair; refused to take "because I said so" for an answer; fell off a swing; ended up paralysed (and deserved it); learnt the lesson that girls are to be seen and not heard; became meek and quiet, and accepted that her role in life was to give up her writing ambitions and mother her five siblings instead.

For me, clearly, these lessons didn't stick. (Many years and many metaphorical wonky swings later, I still don't have nice girl's hair.)

So when I heard about Samantha Ellis's new book How To Be A Heroine: or what I've learned from reading too much (Random House, £14.99), about how fictional women shape us from a young age, I immediately turned to page 131 to find Ellis's view on the disappointing Katy Carr. I am relieved to say that the fictional Katy is deemed "a drip".

Ellis's idea – "to look again at … the girls, women, books that had shaped her ideas …" and see if they stood up to scrutiny – is an intriguing one, inspired by a debate with a friend who had dissed her beloved Cathy Earnshaw. But I think that I'd be too nervous to re-read some of the novels that formed me as a young reader.

As a teenager, I was entranced by Tess of the D'Urbervilles, but if I read the novel now I would I want to smack Tess in her mobile, peony mouth and tell her to get a grip? Could I ever root in the same way for Jane Eyre, as she stands her ground against the petulance of rude Mr Rochester, knowing that in the end, reader, she married the miserable so-and-so? More to the point, could I ever be best friends with a woman who saw herself as a heroine I hated? (Not if it was Anna Karenina I couldn't.)

I don't know if young male readers identify with literary heroes in quite the same way – or what they learn about life from James Bond or Frodo Baggins, if anything. It is gratifying, however, that the one literary heroine who seems equally popular with both male and female readers, and who loses nothing on re-reading Pride and Prejudice as a sensible adult, is Elizabeth Bennet. Nothing, even being played by Keira Knightley, can spoil our Lizzie.

I'm at the stage now of re-reading some of my favourite children's books as I introduce their heroines to my little niece and nephew. So far, I still want to hang out with the inquisitive Sophie from The Tiger Who Came to Tea. And I can't wait until they're old enough for all of Roald Dahl's naughty little girls. But I'll be forced to reassess my whole life's purpose if, on closer reading, Miffy turns out to be a complete bitch.

twitter.com/@katyguest36912

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