Susan Coolidge, Clover

Look, I’ve tried. I’ve read the three Katy books, I’ve read Clover, and I just don’t get Susan Coolidge. Clover was my out-of-copyright book for review at the Kindle Magazine this month.


Most Indian children of my generation grew up reading English children’s books. This has changed to a great extent since. But even back in our time there were a few classics from North America that found their way into our libraries. Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, and Daddy-Long-Legs (discussed last month in these pages) were among them. Also in this little group of recommended classics were Susan Coolidge’s Katy books.

There were three Katy books: What Katy Did, What Katy Did at School and What Katy Did Next. I was not a fan of any of them.
What Katy does, if I remember correctly, is to go from being an absolutely normal child to a plaster saint. This is because she injures her back, and over years spent in the “school of pain” and unable to walk learns to be good and virtuous and motherly. When she goes to school in the next book, she continues to be a very good girl, and despite the inclusion of a few amusing side characters (I do not include the excruciatingly whimsical “Rose Red”) it’s all very dull. In the third book she is taken on a trip to Europe where she is once again good and cheerful, nurses a sick child, and attracts a husband by showing herself to be nicer than her more attractive cousin. This would be quite a satisfying story if Katy had any personality at all.
I only learnt recently that there were two more Katy books, Clover and In The High Valley, and that Clover (published in 1888) at least was considered better than the rest. Both were out of print and available for many years. Clover is Katy’s younger sister and the book focuses on her coming to terms with her sister’s marriage. A large chunk of the book is taken up with this wedding, complete with a visit from Rose Red plus one child who lisps in a way that the author probably thought was adorable (I cannot agree). One of Clover’s brothers falls ill and she accompanies him on his convalescence to Colorado where she goes sightseeing in canyons and accumulates suitors.
If Clover is better than the Katy books, the improvement is in the scenery. Coolidge seems to like Colorado, and some of the descriptions of trips are rather lovely. There’s also a strain of humour in the form of the passive-aggressive Mrs Watson who has been invited along to help Clover, yet seems to think things should be the other way around.
Unfortunately, Clover is even less of a person than Katy was. With Katy, one at least had a vague memory of her careless youth; Clover appears to have been saintly throughout. There’s nothing quite as unappealing as a flawless person.
I confess myself defeated where Coolidge is concerned. There must be something about her to make so many people claim to have loved the books in their childhoods, and certainly Clover is considered a particularly good example of her work among those who have read it. Clearly I am missing something, and if so I am missing it in all of Coolidge’s work. I don’t think I will be reading In the High Valley.


If you’re deeply fond of Coolidge, do feel free to express outrage or explain why.

6 Comments to “Susan Coolidge, Clover”

  1. I liked the Katy books. Never saw her as saintly somehow, but I see what you mean now that I think back.

    I think I saw her as the nice elder sister and daughter I would've wanted to be, but never quite managed to be :)

  2. I disliked Cousin Helen and Rose Red heartily (have a vague memory of reading Clover in India. I liked Elsie very much and related to the struggle Katie had in her relationship with her. I didn't like the metamorphosis into a saint. Also remember wondering why everyone was so obsessed with invalids (I was reading the Chalet School books too at the same time), but maybe in Collidge's days and later Brent-Dyer's days there were more invalids and they were expected to be saintly about it, especially if they were women.

  3. I don't like them either! But oddly, they are very popular indeed in the UK. Somehow some chord is struck, because on the School Girl Story list that I'm on, the books keep being mentioned lovingly by the UK members….

  4. Sorry that was full of typos.

  5. a traveller: I still occasionally have fantasies of being saintly, despite knowing it'd be horrendously boring in real life. :)

    U: Agreed – I find the trope of naughty girls becoming invalids and emerging saintly from the ordeal a bit off – though at least the Chalet School's Eustacia/Stacie had a personality. Coolidge's "school of pain" is just really creepy.
    (I did not notice the typos till you pointed them out. I must be a terrible editor)

    Charlotte: I assume you're on the GO list then? I lurk there! Coincidentally they've been discussing the books recently (I can't flatter myself that this column had anything to do with it.)

  6. I didn't think much about the unsubtle allusions to the 'good little girl' until much later. That was when I realised that Coolidge had done a smart job of wrapping up the Katy series as an appealing package about boarding schools and fascinating middle class girls who make up interesting poems to those girls (like me) who think such girls don't exist.

    Confusing, but that's what it felt like after realising that a character in a much-loved book from your childhood was preaching to you all along.

    Even then, I think I have a better understanding of it's appeal now.

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