Children's books

13th April 2001 at 01:00
TAKE UP THY BED AND WALK: Death, disability and cure in classic fiction for girls. By Lois Keith. The Women's Press pound;11.99.

I have been teaching girls' fiction to undergraduates for more than a decade. Every year female students look forward to studying Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Susan Coolidge's What Katy Did. Year after year, they are surprised: these are not the tales of hoydenish heroines they remember so fondly, but studies of the painful stages by which charming, energetic and bold girls are turned into over-feminised women.

The sleight of hand that allows readers to forget that the whole point of Little Women is the March girls' struggle to become the kind of daughters their father would like them to be by the time he returns from attending soldiers in the civil war, or that two-thirds of Coolidge's book involves Katy's becoming a diligent pupil in the "school of pain" (with Christ as headteacher), invariably becomes the focus of our discussions.

It is precisely this recognition of the unhealthy - sometimes fatal - relationship between being female and becoming feminine that underpins Lois Keith's highly readable and informative study of eight classic girls' books.

Keith's book breaks no new ground in its feminist analysis of texts - as long ago as 1979, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's influential work, The Madwoman in the Attic, drew attention to the relationship between the cult of invalidism and the insistence that women conform to an impossible paradigm of ideal femininity widely known as the "angel in the house".

According to Gilbert and Gubar, the brand of patriarchy typical of late 19th and early 20th-century England actually promoted female sickness as a goal, surrounding women with "images of disease, traditions of disease and invitations both to disease and to dis-ease". Since then, many feminists have argued that works such as those featured inTake up Thy Bed and Walk do not coerce girls into illness and conformity, but provide vivid images of and metaphors for the price of conforming to the feminine ideal (as this study shows, those who embrace it most readily and thoroughly, like Beth March, tend rapidly to depart this world).

What is new in this study is its scrutiny of the way disability is represented medically and as a metaphor for the condition of the young female characters. A wheelchair user herself, and armed with the insights provided by modern medical technology, Keith is alert to the fictional misrepresentation, misunderstanding and manipulation of those whose bodies have become immobilised.

Her conclusion has little to do with the girls who are almost invariably the subject of such conditions and for whom invalidity is a prelude to being reborn as "proper little women". For Keith, what is significant about these books - still widely published and read - is that they promulgate a view of disability as "a dreadful, pitiable state, a life of 'wasted years'".

Moreover, as she shows in the final chapter, which looks at the way contemporary children's writing represents disability, and at the campaign by paralysed actor Christopher Reeve to walk again before his 50th birthday, this attitude is largely unchanged. Whether it be through divine intervention, the liberation of the psyche from trauma, self-healing, or medical intervention, readers are still encouraged to believe that the only satisfactory outcome for a disabled character is to be cured. Lois Keith's project is to make readers focus on the reality rather than the metaphoric value of disability, and she succeeds.

I will be adding this perspective to my discussions with students, and I suspect its impact will be powerful.


Kimberley Reynolds is director of the National Centre for Research in Children's Literature

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