What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge

Katy and the bunch of siblings who trailed in her irrepressible wake were always great fun to spend time with. Katy loved writing and was always reading so I felt we had a lot in common, plus she was impulsive and funny and full of ideas which frequently got out of hand. I love the two games she invented which caused mayhem. There was Kikeri, during which the nursery was turned upside down and left in complete but unintentional chaos, and after which all the children (except Elsie, asleep in two seconds flat in the trundle bed) were in serious trouble for foregoing bedtime and running riot. And then there was the Game of Rivers, even noisier and more chaotic, which left Katy’s school classroom with furniture overturned, ink everywhere and even a crowd of people at the door wondering what the appalling noise was. Clearly in those days a teacher’s remit did not extend to break duty!

After a visit from her saintly cousin Helen, who is bedridden, Katy dreams of becoming something amazing and being an ‘ornament to the family’. Instead she has a terrible fall from a swing and injures her spine with the result that she too is unable to walk. How she comes to terms with this is the subject of the second half of the book. Reading it back now I feel quite sad that Katy, through the trials and tribulations of her illness, changes so much. But then maybe she would have grown out of childish pursuits at roughly the same sort of time anyway. Prior to the accident she writes wonderfully imaginative stories, invents games, and her overactive brain is constantly thinking up things to do; plan a picnic, hold a literary ‘fete’, make friends with all sorts of unusual people, plan her weekly magazine. By the end of the book she has lost the impetuosity and, seemingly, most of her creativity as well. She has become a young woman, keeping house for the family, being the ‘heart of the home’ and finding it a very rewarding job. But it is not quite as interesting to read about, and I prefer Katy breaking things, falling over things and getting into scrapes.

However as a child I found Katy’s transformation terribly impressive and rather to be emulated (although preferably without the rather drastic catalyst) and I found it just as interesting to read about this Katy as I did about the previous one. I wondered whether I could become quite as useful and good if I put my mind to it. I couldn’t and I didn’t, and all these years later I still haven’t, but the ideal seemed to be an admirable one.

I just wish Katy had carried on with her writing. I would have loved to hear more of ‘Edwitha of the Hebrides’ or ‘The Fairy of the Dry Goods Box’. I bet they would have got her a few five star Amazon reviews . . . . . .

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Frost in May by Antonia White

This is one of those books which can be read by both adults and older children with equal fascination but only as an adult can you begin to appreciate the psychological effect that her class-riddled Catholic schooling had on the creative and sensitive Nanda. It is quite beautifully written and contains some wonderful characterisation. The individual nuns, particularly Mother Frances and Mother Radcliffe, Leonie the philosopher, the feverishly searching Clare; all are so vivid and finely drawn that you feel that if you look up from the book they will be there in front of you.

The tragedy of the book is that Nanda tries so desperately to fit in, but as a middle class convert from Anglicanism, she is outside the experiences of the other girls, who are steeped in aristocratic Catholicism not only from birth but from the bloodlines of centuries. Try as she might, cloaking herself in ritual, absorbing the liturgy and the history, she can’t help but question and withhold.

‘Frost in May’ is a school story, in that it is set in a school, but it is so much more than that. As a child I found the descriptions of strict convent school life at the beginning of the twentieth century fascinating. Bathing wrapped in long white calico cloaks, folding stockings in the shape of the cross, annual retreats, mortification of the senses, the total emphasis on eradication of a sense of self and the sense of living ‘all day long in the presence of the court of heaven.’ There is also the glamour of the intense international friendships and the strange beauty and richness of the daily routine, but it is Nanda’s heroic efforts to become what she never can be which are so compelling.

The all-consuming Catholicism both repels with its rigidity and attracts with its certainty, and it is this dichotomy which leads to Nanda’s downfall. She knows, in spite of the fact that the church had ‘grown into every fibre of her nature’, and she could never ‘break away without a sense of mutilation’, that it does not and cannot fulfil her in the way she has been taught that it should.

The build-up to the final disaster is agonising and the denouement shocking. If you haven’t read the book though don’t let this put you off. A children’s book which doesn’t end happily is a rarity but you realise afterwards that this was the inevitable and only possible outcome.

White’s writing is Keatsian in its sensuousness. The reader can almost smell the hot beeswax, lilies and incense, and hear the chanting of the litany.

I re-read this book regularly; it is nothing short of brilliant.