As attitudes towards disability and the disabled show signs of changing, Lois Keith looks afresh at three classic children’s stories.
When I was growing up in the 1950s I was always reading. I don’t remember owning a lot of books and those I had were mostly given to me by my aunties for birthday presents. I read these books again and again, and when recently I came to share them with my own daughters, I was able to dig out my own slightly musty, much -loved copies. I didn’t own a copy of The Secret Garden but I remember being captivated by the black and white television series.
These novels were the ‘Domestic Dramas’ of the Victorian age. They were written for girls and more often than not contained the message that lively mischievous girls must grow into sweet, submissive women (boys had adventure stories about desert islands and war).
I don’t think I ever noticed that disability is central to many of these stories, but this isn’t really surprising since neither do the hundreds of literary critics and commentators who have written about them. My memory of these books was different. From What Katy Did I learned that swings are dangerous, that little girls should do as they are told and that poor Cousin Helen was good, beautiful and wore gorgeous nighties. My enduring memory of Heidi was of her going up the mountain shedding layers of clothes one by one and of her hayloft bedroom with a round window which looked up to the sky. My fascination with The Secret Garden was the idea of a private, walled place which only you knew about. I certainly didn’t remember that these three books all have a poor, unfortunate cripple who by the end of the story is frolicking about as happily as one of Heidi’s goats.
But when last year, I started reading them again, I began to look at them differently. So did my daughters. They loved the stories as much as I had done and for much the same reasons, but they brought a new knowledge too. Their mother uses a wheelchair. None of us see me as a poor invalid who has to be taken care of, but we are also aware that I am not going to get up and walk again like the characters in these books.
In What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge, tall, awkward Katy is a rather unconventional girl who wants to be good but is always getting into trouble. She has no mother and her father, Dr Carr, is a kind man but hardly ever at home. She is full of energy and ‘there were always so many delightful schemes rioting in her brains, that all she wished for was ten extra pairs of hands to carry them out!’ Katy is no Victorian namby-pamby, her ambitions are to ‘head a crusade and ride on a white horse with armour and a helmet on my head’.
Then one day, in a cross mood, Katy defies her aunt Lizzie and goes on a swing which needs fixing. She falls off and damages her spinal cord. We know from the beginning that the injury to her spine is one she will ‘out grow, by and by’ and that some day she will walk again but her father tells her that this may take a good while. In the meantime, Katy has many lessons to learn. She sinks into a fit of dark despair and is saved only with the help of saintly Cousin Helen. Helen will never walk again and has already learned the lessons she is about to teach Katy. She tells her ‘God is going to let you into his school – where he teaches all sorts of beautiful things to people…’ His school is ‘The school of Pain and the place where the lessons are to be learned is this room of yours.’ The lessons are those of Patience, Cheerfulness, Making the Best of Things, Hopefulness and Neatness.
Katy remains in her bed for some time. She has her bad days and sometimes becomes discouraged but her ‘long year of school had taught her self-control and as a general thing her discomforts were born patiently’. After two years she begins to use a wheelchair and has grown ‘accustomed to her invalid life and cheerful in it’. She has been transformed from a boisterous and lively girl to a mature, womanly housekeeper supervising the house from her room upstairs and managing the children. Her younger brothers and sisters adore her. Clover says, ‘Sometimes I think I shall be really sorry if she ever gets well. She is such a dear old darling to us all sitting there in her chair, that it wouldn’t seem so nice to have her anywhere else.’
The parallels between what disabled people are supposed to learn and what women are supposed to learn is clear. Katy begins to walk again only when she has lost the ‘dictatorial elder sister in her manner’ and has ‘none of her old imperious tone’. Cousin Helen’s final words to Katy are ‘You have won the place which you recollect I once told you an invalid should try to gain, of being to everybody “The Heart of the House”.’
Heidi by Joanna Spyri tells the story of another motherless girl who, at the start of the book, is going to live with her irascible, old grandfather in a remote mountain hut. Heidi is a loving child and is idyllically happy with her new found friend Peter, the goats and the beauty of the Alps. But before too long, her money-hungry aunt takes her off to Frankfurt to be a companion to invalid, motherless Clara who is confined to bed and her velvet-covered wheelchair. Heidi is desperately homesick and becomes so ill and unhappy that she does not eat and sleepwalks like a ghost. It is only then that she is allowed to return to Dorfli.
Clara is left behind but the two girls keep in touch and eventually she is allowed to visit, carried up the mountain in a sedan chair. Her doctor has permitted her to go because of `the mountains and the flowers and of the great silence up there far above the towns and villages and of the fresh delicious air’. He adds, ‘no-one can help getting well up there’. So the reader becomes aware that it is here Clara is going to walk again.
It happens when Peter, overcome with jealousy at Heidi’s attachment to Clara, throws her wheelchair down the mountain where it smashes into hundreds of pieces. He sees the chair as his enemy and thinks that now she will have to go away. But instead Clara, sitting alone with a little goat, suddenly feels ‘a great desire to be her own mistress and to be able to help others, instead of herself being always dependent’. With Heidi’s and Peter’s help she stands and ventures one firm step on the ground and then another until she can exclaim ‘I can do it, Heidi! Look! Look! I can make proper steps!’ She can think of no greater joy than ‘to be strong and go about like other people and no longer have to lie from day to day in her invalid chair’. Grandfather’s words on seeing her standing are ‘So we’ve made the effort have we and won the day!’
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is a more sombre book in many ways. Partly this is because it was published 50 years after the other two books, in 1911. Mary Lennox is an orphan, unloved and unlovable. ‘She has a little thin face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression.’ She has arrived from India to stay in a virtually unused mansion in Yorkshire, Misselthwaite Manor, where she discovers the key to the Secret Garden, unused for ten years since the tragic death of the wife of the land-owner. Through this discovery she starts to make friends with Dickon, a local boy who has a gift with plants and animals. She begins to take pleasure in the earth and making things grow and starts to look pretty and happy for the first time. One night she hears crying from far off along the corridor and although she is told by the servants that it is the wind, she doesn’t believe them. In this way she meets the other central character, Colin Craven son of the owner, who has been confined to his room more or less since birth.
Colin is impossible. He hates himself and everyone around him. His father hardly ever sees him and the servants must do whatever he tells them. He is certainly an invalid, but we soon learn that his fear and illness are self-created. He is terrified that he is going to be a `hunchback’ and is sure that he is going to die young. He believes that if one day he should feel a lump, he will go crazy and scream himself to death. Mary is more than a match for his hysterics and temper, and eventually he too is captivated by Dickon and the idea of the Secret Garden. It is here he realises he wants to live. Unexpectedly, they meet up with the crusty, old gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, who exclaims “`Lord knows how tha’ come here – But tha’rt th’ poor cripple”. “I’m not a cripple” he cried out furiously, “I’m not.”‘ When Ben asks him whether he has crooked legs or a crooked back, it is too much for Colin. There is a brief, fierce scramble and then `Colin was standing upright – as straight as an arrow and strangely tall. He walked to the tree and though Dickon held his arm, he was wonderfully steady. “Look at me!” he commanded. “Look at me all over! Am I a hunchback? Have I got crooked legs.”‘ As happens to Clara at the end of Heidi, Colin’s father returns and is overwhelmed with delight at the sight of his son, now completely cured.
Like all good children’s books of the time, there is a happy ending. But what messages about disability did I (and thousands of other girls over many generations) gain from these books? We learned (1) Disabled people have to learn the same qualities of submissive behaviour that women have to learn: patience, cheerfulness and making the best of things; (2) That disability can be a punishment for bad behaviour, for evil thoughts or for not being a good enough person; (3) That disability is curable. If you want to enough, if you love yourself enough, if you believe in God enough, you will get up and walk.
This is pretty strong stuff. The modern young reader is probably quite capable of reading these books, thoroughly enjoying them as great stories, but screening out old-fashioned or inappropriate messages. At least they will do if these values have been replaced by new ones. So, many girls who see their mothers working and being strong and who are taught to argue their case and stick up for themselves will probably identify more with the Katy who jumped over the school fence into the next-door playground to save her hat than with the sweet, tactful one.
The problem is that Victorian ideas about disability are not dissimilar to those of the 1990s. The message in these books, that disability is synonymous with being an invalid but that if you really want to cure yourself you will, is still part of popular thinking. The ‘Take Up Thy Bed and Walk’ fantasy still exists today. Desmond Wilcox in his W.A.L.K. programmes a few years ago asked the late P C Olds, who was supported by numerous metal calipers and frames, ‘Do you know where your wheelchair is? – I bet that feels great.’ And it is very common for total strangers to come up to wheelchair users and ask them pityingly if they will ever walk again. Most children today have about’ as much day-to-date contact with disabled children as Heidi or Mary Lennox did and have the same ideas about them.
My daughters and I have an on-going, bad-taste joke that one day we will all go to the top of a mountain and one of them will throw my wheelchair over the precipice and I’ll leap up and start dancing about. The truth is, of course, that even if they did that or if they called me ‘a poor half-witted thing without a straight bone in my body’ I would still be the same old me, cooking the supper, going to work, hugging them, losing my temper, being disabled. I’ll probably be reading them What Katy Did Next and Heidi Grows Up, too.
Details of books mentioned in this article:
The Secret Garden, ill. Graham Rust, Michael Joseph, 0 7181 2664 5, £13.99; ill, Shirley Hughes, Gollancz, 0 575 04168 4, £9.95; ill. Pamela Kay, Heinemann, 0 434 92989 1, £12.95; Dent, 0 460 05101 6, £8.50; Methuen, 0 416 02782 2, £10.95; Puffin, 0 14 035004 7, £2.50 pbk; Armada, 0 00 693033 6, £2.50 pbk
What Katy Did, Puffin, 014 035011 X, £2.50 pbk; Armada, 0 00 692868 4, £2.50 pbk;
Heidi, ill. Kate Aldous, Heinemann, 0 434 96423 9, £12.95; Beehive, 185155 028 3, £8.95; Benn, 0 5,10 00157 2, £5.95; Puffin, 014 035002 0, £2.50 pbk
What Katy Did Next and Heidi’s Children are available from both Puffin and Armada.
Armada produce trilogies of all the Katy and Heidi stories.
Lois Keith has been an English teacher for nearly 20 years and is currently working part-time at North Westminster Community School in London. She is also a freelance writer on issues relating to English teaching and disability, and among other things is at present editing an anthology of writing by disabled women.