What Katy Did - To All Of Us

I have been sick in bed for some days now.

I fell asleep and woke in a sweat, and it had nothing to do with the forty degree heat.

Let me explain.

I am forty six years old, and a casualty of the years of death-by-Enid-Blyton - Secret Seven and the Famous Five, the Folk of the Far Away Tree, a bunch of stories created in the sixties and seventies that no doubt shaped my viewpoint and imagination into whatever it is today.

But until I slept, I had almost forgotten this book - What Katy Did.

I don't think I dreamed - I just remembered. Katy, inspired by Cousin Helen - poor brave Cousin Helen - suffering patiently through three books. Katy the invalid. Katy, who I had not realised until now, was disabled.

Disclaimer: What Katy Did was written in 1872. It was full of outdated ideas about disability and sickness and bravery and women's place in society.

Why, then, was I reading it? Because in the 1970s, it was badged as a 'children's classic'.

I think I may just have found the secret of why society's attitudes towards disabled people are so negative and perverse. Check out these gems; Aunt Helen, Katy's crippled aunt, comes to visit.

'Cousin Helen coming! It seemed as strange as if Queen Victoria, gold crown and all, had invited herself to tea. Or as if some character out of a book, Robinson Crusoe, say, or "Amy Herbert," had driven up with a trunk and announced the intention of spending a week. For to the imaginations of the children, Cousin Helen was as interesting and unreal as anybody in the Fairy Tales: Cinderella, or Blue-Beard, or dear Red Riding-Hood herself. Only there was a sort of mixture of Sunday-school book in their idea of her, for Cousin Helen was very, very good.

None of them had ever seen her. Philly said he was sure she hadn't any legs, because she never went away from home, and lay on a sofa all the time. But the rest knew that this was because Cousin Helen was ill. Papa always went to visit her twice a year, and he liked to talk to the children about her, and tell how sweet and patient she was, and what a pretty room she lived in. Katy and Clover had "played Cousin Helen" so long, that now they were frightened as well as glad at the idea of seeing the real one.

"Do you suppose she will want us to say hymns to her all the time?" asked Clover.

"Not all the time," replied Katy, "because you know she'll get tired, and have to take naps in the afternoons. And then, of course, she reads the Bible a great deal. Oh dear, how quiet we shall have to be! I wonder how long she's going to stay?"

Holy fuck. And on it goes.

"Papa," she said, after dinner, "who is Alex, that you and Cousin Helen were talking about?"

"Why, Katy? What makes you want to know?"

"I can't exactly tell – only Cousin Helen looked so; – and you kissed her; – and I thought perhaps it was something interesting."

"So it is," said Dr. Carr, drawing her on to his knee. "I've a mind to tell you about it, Katy, because you're old enough to see how beautiful it is, and wise enough (I hope) not to chatter or ask questions. Alex is the name of somebody who long ago, when Cousin Helen was well and strong, she loved, and expected to marry.

"Oh! why didn't she?" cried Katy.

"She met with a dreadful accident," continued Dr. Carr. "For a long time they thought she would die. Then she grew slowly better, and the doctors told her that she might live a good many years, but that she would have to lie on her sofa always, and be helpless, and a cripple.

"Alex felt dreadfully when he heard this. He wanted to marry Cousin Helen just the same, and be her nurse, and take care of her always; but she would not consent. She broke the engagement, and told him that some day she hoped he would love somebody else well enough to marry her. So after a good many years, he did, and now he and his wife live next door to Cousin Helen, and are her dearest friends. Their little girl is named 'Helen.' All their plans are talked over with her, and there is nobody in the world they think so much of."

"But doesn't it make Cousin Helen feel bad, when she sees them walking about and enjoying themselves, and she can't move?" asked Katy.

"No," said Dr. Carr, "it doesn't, because Cousin Helen is half an angel already, and loves other people better than herself. I'm very glad she could come here for once. She's an example to us all, Katy, and I couldn't ask anything better than to have my little girls take pattern after her."

I'm twelve and on Chapter Seven and already I have learned that in the future, I am expected to be a saint and a martyr. No wonder I had a rebellious childhood.

I read on -

"She met with a dreadful accident," continued Dr. Carr. "For a long time they thought she would die. Then she grew slowly better, and the doctors told her that she might live a good many years, but that she would have to lie on her sofa always, and be helpless, and a cripple.

"Alex felt dreadfully when he heard this. He wanted to marry Cousin Helen just the same, and be her nurse, and take care of her always; but she would not consent. She broke the engagement, and told him that some day she hoped he would love somebody else well enough to marry her. So after a good many years, he did, and now he and his wife live next door to Cousin Helen, and are her dearest friends. Their little girl is named 'Helen.' All their plans are talked over with her, and there is nobody in the world they think so much of."

"But doesn't it make Cousin Helen feel bad, when she sees them walking about and enjoying themselves, and she can't move?" asked Katy.

"No," said Dr. Carr, "it doesn't, because Cousin Helen is half an angel already, and loves other people better than herself. I'm very glad she could come here for once. She's an example to us all, Katy, and I couldn't ask anything better than to have my little girls take pattern after her."

A crippled, angelic, saint, and a woman who would never marry, nor have children. Half an angel. The pressure is on.

"Isn't it horrid?" sighed Katy, as Cousin Helen looked around. "Everything's horrid. But I don't mind so much now that you've come. Oh, Cousin Helen, I've had such a dreadful, dreadful time!"

"I know," said her cousin, pityingly. "I've heard all about it, Katy, and I'm very sorry for you! It is a hard trial, my poor darling."

"But how do you do it?" cried Katy. "How do you manage to be so sweet and beautiful and patient, when you're feeling badly all the time, and can't do anything, or walk, or stand?" – her voice was lost in sobs.

Cousin Helen didn't say anything for a little while. She just sat and stroked Katy's hand.

"Katy," she said at last, "has Papa told you that he thinks you are going to get well by and by?"

"Yes," replied Katy, "he did say so. But perhaps it won't be for a long, long time. And I want to do so many things. And now I can't do anything at all."

"What sort of things?"

"Study, and help people, and become famous. And I wanted to teach the children. Mamma said I must take care of them, and I meant to. And now I can't go to school or learn anything myself. And if ever I do get well, the children will be almost grown up, and they won't need me."

"But why must you wait till you get well?" asked Cousin Helen, smiling.

"Why, Cousin Helen, what can I do lying here in bed?"

"A good deal. Shall I tell you, Katy, what it seems to me that I should say to myself if I were in your place?"

"Yes, please," replied Katy, wonderingly.

"I should say this: 'Now, Katy Carr, you wanted to go to school, and learn to be wise and useful, and here's a chance for you. God is going to let you go to His school – where He teaches all sorts of beautiful things to people. Perhaps He will only keep you for one term, or perhaps it may be for three or four; but whichever it is, you must make the very most of the chance, because He gives it to you Himself.'"

"But what is the school?" asked Katy. "I don't know what you mean."

"It is called the School of Pain," replied Cousin Helen, with her sweetest smile. "And the place where the lessons are to be learned is this room of yours. The rules of the school are pretty hard, but the good scholars, who keep them best, find out after a while how right and kind they are. And the lessons aren't easy, either, but the more you study the more interesting they become."

"What are the lessons?" asked Katy, getting interested, and beginning to feel as if Cousin Helen were telling her a story.

"Well, there's the lesson of Patience. That's one of the hardest studies. You can't learn much of it at a time, but every bit you get by heart, makes the next bit easier. And there's the lesson of Cheerfulness. And the lesson of Making the Best of Things."

"Sometimes there isn't anything to make the best of," remarked Katy, dolefully.

"Yes there is, always! Everything in the world has two handles. Didn't you know that? One is a smooth handle. If you take hold of it, the thing comes up lightly and easily, but if you seize the rough handle, it hurts your hand and the thing is hard to lift. Some people always manage to get hold of the wrong handle."

I am clearly a failure at being disabled. I am not patient, cheerful and I am certainly not making the best of things.

It is funny, reading this long lost prose and remembering how enraptured I was with these books. Not a thought that Katy would have ever become 'cross', despite the lengthy descriptions of her 'trials' - much clapping of hands and quaint turns of phrase like 'How delicious!' and 'cunning bronze slippers'. I think that was part of the charm of the book, aside from the strong message of the saintly invalid. But I wonder, now, how forgotten Katy and her 'trials' were, given that I had woken with a start and remembered her from my sickbed.

We are shaped by what we see, hear, read, and so are our attitudes. In future, when a middle aged woman calls me 'brave' or 'inspirational', I shall smile, and say brightly, in my best Katy voice, 'Why, did you ever read 'What Katy Did?'

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