Some time ago, out of interest, I pulled a list of ‘Children’s Classics’ off Wikipedia. There were 66 titles, and Aesop’s Fables headed the list with William Caxton’s edition of 1484. Apart from a couple of obscure titles - at least, I have never heard of ‘A Token for Children’ by James Janeway, and ‘A Pretty Little Pocket Book’ by John Newbery - I can hand on heart say that I encountered most of them during my own childhood. 'Robinson Crusoe’, ‘Ivanhoe’, ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’, ‘The Coral Island’, ‘Journey to The Centre of the Earth’, ‘Uncle Remus’,‘Black Beauty’, ‘Treasure Island’, ‘The Happy Prince’. Tick, tick, tick. And so on.
What strikes me now is the extreme scarcity of heroines in these books. Fairytales apart, there are only 12 stories out of the entire 66 in which the main character is female: they are ‘Little Goody Twoshoes’ (1765), ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ (1865) and ‘Through the Looking Glass’ (1871), ‘Little Women’ (1868), ‘What Katy Did’ (1873), ‘Heidi’ (1884), ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ (1900), ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm’ (1903), ‘Pollyanna’ (1913), ‘A Little Princess’ (1905), ‘Anne of Green Gables’ (1908), and perhaps Mary Lennox of ‘The Secret Garden’. There are some deceptive titles which sound as though they are going to be about heroines, such as ‘Lorna Doone’ (1869) and ‘The Princess and the Goblin’ (1871) but these are really more about the male protagonists, John Ridd and Curdie.
Even though the last book on the list was published in 1918, many – in fact most – of these titles formed part of my reading a full half century later. As a child growing up in the sixties, I can’t say I consciously noticed the absence of strong female characters, since naturally I identified with the hero, whoever he might be. I swam lagoons with Jack, Ralph and Peterkin, roistered and swashbuckled with D’Artagnan, escaped across the heather with Alan Breck, roamed the jungle with Mowgli – but I did notice the rare occasions when the main character was a strong heroine. This, I think, is why so many of us loved – loved – Katy Carr, Jo March and Anne of Green Gables. We were resigned to encountering girly girls in books. And by girly girls, I mean girls filtered though a conservatice male imagination. Girls who needed to be rescued, who swooned on manly breasts, like Lorna Doone. Girls who were sweetly domestic, decorative, helpless and good like David Copperfield’s Dora. Girls who were ill-treated victims like Sara Crewe. Or else girls who simply were not there at all. It was a literary world in which boys were allowed to be Peter Pan but girls were condemned to be Wendy.
So we were thrilled when Katy lost her temper, disobeyed her aunt and swung in that swing; all the Victorian stuff about becoming an invalid and the heart of the family hardly seemed to count in comparison. Some of Susan Coolidge's writing is still extremely funny. You can sense her delight in her heroine's realistically child-like outbursts. Here's Katy inventing a break-time game:
…Katy’s unlucky star put it into her head to invent a new game, which she called the Game of Rivers. It was played in the following manner: - each girl took the name of a river and laid out for herself an appointed path through the room, winding among the desks and benches, and making a low roaring sound, to imitate the noise of water. Cecy was the Plate; Marianne Brooks, a tall girl, the Mississippi; Alice Blair, the Ohio; Clover, the Penobscot, and so on. They were instructed to run into each other once in a while because, as Katy said, ‘rivers do’. As for Katy herself, she was ‘Father Ocean’, and, growling horribly, raged up and down the platform where Mrs Knight usually sat. Every now and then… she would suddenly cry out, ‘Now for a meeting of the waters!’ whereupon all the rivers bouncing, bounding, scrambling, screaming, would turn and run towards Father Ocean, while he roared louder than all of them put together, and made short rushes up and down, to represent the movement of waves on a beach.
Naturally they get into trouble, but anyone can see it's worth it to have had so much fun. And Jo March, too, could lose her temper, and acted – in boots! – and wrote stories, and did things. While as for Anne – impulsive, rebellious, outspoken Anne –
“How dare you call me skinny and ugly? How dare you say I’m freckled and red-headed? How would you like to have such things said about you? How would you like to be told that you are fat and clumsy and probably hadn’t a spark of imagination in you? I don’t care if I do hurt your feelings by saying so! I hope I hurt them. You have hurt mine worse than they were ever hurt before even by Mrs Thomas’s intoxicated husband. And I’ll never forgive you for it, never, never!”
Such girls seemed to be going places. The trouble was that there wasn’t really anyplace for them to go. I don’t know why the imaginations of the women who created them could come up with so few goals in an era that was producing strong women by the bucketload: in the States, the early suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; in Britain reformers like Florence Nightingale, Josephine Butler, the Pankhursts. Writing and teaching figured largely. Anne of Green Gables becomes Anne of Ingleside, a teacher, marries Gilbert Blythe and has children. Jo marries Professor Bhaer not Laurie (this we could hardly forgive, though it may be more realistic!); she does become a writer, but then goes all matriarchal and nurturing and 'womanly'. Katy travels to Europe and marries a young naval officer who is attracted to her because of her – wait for it – selfless nursing skills. No one becomes a doctor or a politician or a reformer.
So the vigorous rushing rivers of Katy’s game end up flowing decorously into the great calm land-locked sea of wife-and-motherhood. Still, at least these books gave expression, release, validation to the passion and energy of growing girls. Nowadays we take it for granted. My own daughters were never very interested in Little Women or Anne of Green Gables. They didn’t find Jo an exciting rebel but a prissy homebody taking covered baskets of Christmas dinner to the poor, selflessly selling her hair. (Her hair? What? Why?)
In Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’, how I and my schoolfriends identified with the tomboy George, who cut her curly hair, wore shorts, owned a dog, told the truth at all costs and was brave and passionate. How much better she was than sissy Anne (who wore a plaid skirt and a hairslide)! And yet, and yet – that cry of hers, “I’m as good as a boy any day” – is the very mark of inequality. Why should a girl have to masquerade as a boy to be taken seriously? Why should bravery, independence and action be seen as masculine qualities?
We shouldn’t be complacent. I can think of plenty of independent, strong heroines in modern children’s fiction – Joan Aiken’s Dido Twite would come top of my personal list, and Harriet of ‘Harriet the Spy’, Lyra in ‘The Golden Compass', and Garth Nix's gallant Sabriel and Lirael. These girls aren’t trying to prove that they are as good as or better than boys. They simply get on with life and grapple with its problems. But there are many books for teenagers in which the heroines need – rely on – yearn for – the strong arms and love of some idealised boy. Compare Bella of 'Twilight' to Katy Carr or Jo March. It's hard to imagine either of them languishing after 'perfect' Edward.
Of all the girls in all the titles on this list of classic books for children, the most independent of all is Lewis Carroll’s Alice, who calmly steers her way through the looking glass wonderlands of her own imagination. Alice never feels in the least inferior to any male character. She stands up for herself in her own very feminine way, experimenting, chopping logic, lecturing herself and others, refusing to be snubbed, insulted or put in her place. At the end of each book when her imaginary world threatens her, she pulls it down about her ears like Samson pulling down the pillars of the temple in Gaza. She is extraordinary – and the creation of a man. But she is pre-adolescent: what does the world really hold for ‘alices when they are jung and easily freudened’? Carroll’s Alice touches a kind of bedrock: a certainty of self-worth that may be felt by many little girls in stable and happy families – but which is still all too easily lost as the teens commence.