Saturday 7 December 2013


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. 


  1. Great post, Katherine! Well, if Jo ends up married and matriarchal, running a boys' school, "naughty Nan" becomes a doctor and refuses to marry at all.

    I loved Garth Nix's Old Kingdom trilogy but I'll tell you something interesting: in my library, it has been the boys, not the girls, who have been reading and loving those books! Likewise, fellow Aussie Michael Pryor's steampunk Laws Of Magic series, set in an alternative Edwardinan era, which may have a male protagonist, but whose female characters are all strong, intelligent and interesting, including the mothers - I think there's been one girl who read them, the rest boys. Maybe the girls have all been reading about Bella and others like her?

  2. That's really interesting, Sue! I wonder why the girls are missing out on such great books. Is it because there's not much love-interest in them? and if so, what does that say? Do teenage girls really need romance in their diet that badly? You have to wonder how well The Hunger Games would have done without the love interest.

  3. I don't think, though, that Sara Crewe is quite as passive as that. She keeps her world of imagination going, and she is heroic when she gives the buns to the beggar girl. Though the idea of being royalty is yukky to me nowadays, nevertheless, by 'being a Princess' she is saying: 'I am somebody, even if I'm ill-treated and starved.' I do often wonder what happened to her in later life, and can imagine her becoming some famous philanthropist like Burdett-Coutts, or a suffragette, even.

  4. That's a brilliant idea, Leslie! And I agree, I was a little unfair to Sara Crewe: but the 'appeal' of the book, at any rate to me as a child, was definitely the appeal of being a martyr.

  5. I despair about the diet of romance that's the current staple of teenage girls' reading - and in terms of the whole YA phenomenon, I think the big growth, and the big change, has been exactly that - the teen romance, with the idealised hot boy. I read what sounded like an interesting concept YA novel recently in order to review it on ABBA and then couldn't bring myself to review it because the romantic breathlessness was just non-stop: 'he's so handsome I don't deserve him, why would he even look at me... Oh, gasp, I think he LIKES me, look at his flat stomach and perfect abs, swoon...'
    I think there's a strange contradiction going on at the moment, where girls are more successful than ever, and have more opportunities than they used to - but culturally there's more emphasis on closing down their options and putting them in a box where looks and sexiness and finding a man are def9ned as the main goal. As a mother of two daughters, it makes me weep with rage.

  6. Actually, sorry, as a human being it makes me weep with rage.

  7. Wonderful post. And wonderful comments from the others too. Now I am going to be one of those horribly annoying people with a different perspective.

    When I was a tween, I loved The Famous Five. Anne was my favourite character because I was a gentle girl (although I spent my days roaming forests and spying on suspicious neighbours and shooting wooden guns along with my boy chums.) I related to Anne. Imagine how it felt then to discover my library had blacklisted The Famous Five because of the books' sexist attitudes. It was an early lesson in the fact that gentle girls, nurturing girls, were no longer admirable in society or literature.

    No one goes on eloquently about Beth March, for example. She was my favourite of those girls. I hated Jo. I loved that in Beth there was a character whose gentleness and sensitivity was celebrated. Although even then, she couldn't be allowed to live with it.

    I always wanted to be a mother and a homemaker. But if I'm to go by modern books for girls - and by women's commentary of them - that makes me unintelligent (I would waste my excellent education) and weak.

    I'm not saying characters like Bella Swan are good role models for girls. I'm just regretting that there is so little celebration of gentle girls, nurturing girls, alongside the worthy celebration of tough girls. (I say tough instead of strong because I believe gentleness is a strength also.)

    Now that I am the mother of a teenaged girl, I struggle to find books which offer a wide selection of heroines - fiesty , quiet romantic, dreamy, sword-wielding, tough, quirky, bookish, sexy. And girls who are all those things in one complex realistic character. Thank goodness for writers like Melina Marchetta.

    Sorry to be so argumentative. I do love what you wrote.

  8. No, actually, our girls read a good variety of stuff, they just happen to have missed out on those ones. And while I couldn't get past the first in the Twilight series, it was so dull, I won't put it down, because as a librarian, I couldn't help but feel touched when I saw them sitting in doorways, curled up in the library, all over the school, noses in the books, which they passed around among them till I bought a set for the library. The excitement eventually died down, but hey, I wish something I'd written had generated that level of excitement! And one of my best readers told me she had never read anything at all till discovering Twilight in Grade 5. Another, an ESL student, read the series in four weeks and went up four reading levels in our literacy program in a year. She had wanted so badly to read it that she made herself learn the words she needed.

    Girls will be girls, they want their romance, but rarely take it too seriously, in my experience. Never did. the worst quality romances are read once and forgotten. Harry Potter isn't as popular as it was in my library, but they still read it. The best-looking boy in the series is dead by the end of Volume 4, and only one girl, the shallowest, mourns him as anything but a kind, decent young man. They're reading, right now, Morris Gleitzman's Once quartet(no romance), David Levithan(gay romance, if any), Hunger Games(yes, romance, but the heroine is strong and intelligent and brave), Deborah Ellis's Parvana books...a variety.

  9. ...and by the way, I discovered, recently, that an early teen romance series published in Australia had been written by some of our top children's writers, mostly under pen names. This was also the case recently with a series called Girlfriend Fiction, which featured some books by our top MALE children's writers. So if they were reading romance, it was good quality romance and had more in it than one girl+two gorgeous boys=ooh!

  10. "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?"
    Because it was the 1950s and post-war when Blyton was writing. That doesn't mean girls have to do those things now - it's slightly unfair to judge Blyton by modern standards. Though in general, I agree with your excellent post, Katherine, I do think it's unfair to read old books and then say they don't offer good roles models for modern girls. Neither do they suggest children of either sex pursue careers as programmers or telecomms engineers, or suggest that having domestic servants might be morally dubious.

    I never suggested my daughters read books like Little Women or Anne of Green Gables - there are so many good modern books that refelct modern roles that are more accessible (which there weren't when we were young). Of course, I wouldn't stop them reading them - they are available for choosing. But Clara Bean and Coraline are better role models.

  11. It was a rhetorical question, Anne, and of course I understand why: but I remember feeling as a child that boys were considered somehow 'better'- or certainly more adventurous, and feeling passionately that it wasn't fair. Not every book reflected that attitude, of course. As I said in my last post, I loved CS Lewis's Lucy and Jill, whome he obviously preferred to the boys in his books - and Lewis Carroll's composed and competent Alice.

  12. I don't object to romance in teenage fiction per se - I spent much of my teenage in love with one or other fictional character - I think it's just I've read a few too many recently where ALL there is is the stereotypical breathless boy thing, with no humour, no really interesting characters, no plot to speak of. But maybe they're outliers, and hopefully, as you say, Sue, the girls don't really take them very seriously...

  13. This was an interesting post, Kath - I feel much as you do, in that I loved George of the Famous Five and Anne of Green Gables and Lucy of the Narnia books because I identified with them so much - I remember grumbling to my sister once, after reading Tom Sawyer, why are the girls in books always so boring? I think things are very different now - we can have sensitive boys and feisty girls, or vice versa, in a way that is much more inclusive. I'd love another post on a few modern-day writers that do this well.

  14. Like Sarah, Beth was always my favorite and each time I read the book I'm sure she won't die!
    I loved Anne as a girl, but love the books even more as an adult. Such good writing.
    And lately I've been reading a couple Trixie Belden books and have been very impressed. She's a great character.

  15. That's interesting, Nan. Reading LM Montgomery as an adult, I realise just how much of the social comedy I missed, as a child. I keep finding passages that make me laugh out loud. They really are excellent books - sentimental in places, but not too badly.

  16. Hello Katherine, I'm not sure I've commented here before but I always enjoy reading your posts and this one was no exception.

    I must say, I wasn't terribly surprised at the paucity of female heroines before 1918, sad though it is. But perhaps popular children's novels with central female characters from the nineteenth century have fallen out of favour somewhat, because of the 'type' of female character they championed (I'm thinking here of say 'The Wide, Wide World' which was once pretty well known but has now unsurprisingly become obscure. I'm not sure this is really a viable theory though, what do you think? And then again, some of the fairy tales written by writers like Christina Rossetti are actually quite complex and angry, never likely to capture wide interest.

    Slightly in the same vein, I must respectfully disagree with you that the Princess Irene is not a heroine in 'The Princess and the Goblin'; it's true she isn't terribly feisty and does need rescuing by Curdie, but she's also brave, wise and kind, a heroine of a different sort. At least, that's how I see her.

  17. You are right, Helen, I was being somewhat unfair to Irene - who is also quite a little girl, at least in the first book. My point was that with a book entitled 'The Princess and the Goblin', you might expect it to be a bit more about Irene than Curdie; but it's true that Irene is very like Lucy Pevensie, now I come to think about it. Both of them and see something extraordinary which other people cannot see, and both of them stick to their guns and maintain the truth if their positions in the face of downright scepticism.

  18. And I don't know where that unwanted 'and' strayed in from!