Of Course, This Could Also Be “by Susan Coolidge” In The Sense Of “by V. C. Andrews”. This Would Certainly Explain A Lot.
I don’t know if girls still read “What Katy Did”. In my younger teenage years my best friend and I were absolutely obsessed with them, having both privately conceived the belief that we were awful, and that redemption through the power of severe spinal injury was a realistic and desirable option. But while “Little Women” and the “Little House” books – with their heroines who actually work for a living and their no-holds-barred accounts of pig butchery – have aged pretty well, re-reading the “Katy” books does make me squirm a little bit. I don’t want my daughter to fall for the same trick I did, and spend her teenage years privately convinced that a widowed father putting his thirteen-year-old daughter in charge of running the household (following the tragic death of his domestically-enslaved sister) is a better solution than, say, letting one of the servants do it, or even springing for a freakin’ housekeeper or something.
However, as I said, at fourteen I was obsessed with the “Katy” books. I made my friends play that mad Blind-Man’s-Buff-In-The-Dark game at my birthday party (just like the Carrs, we got into terrible trouble and were banned from ever doing so again). I tried to make them play strangely literary paper-games, SSUC-style, only they rebelled and insisted we experiment with make-up instead. (In hindsight, they were right to do this.) I even wondered if my hair, like Amy Ashe’s, might grow back curly if it ever had to be cut off because of fever. (Maybe one day I’ll try this and see.)
What I didn’t know at the time was that there were not one, but two sequels, which have been out of print for years (it may rapidly become clear why), but have now been re-issued as FREE KINDLE EDITIONS. Seriously. All you have to do is give Amazon £111 and your immortal soul, and you can have “Clover”, which I’ve reviewed below, and “In The High Valley” which I’ll get to next time, FOR FREE. How could you not?
Well, I couldn’t not, anyway. I have both of them, and I have to say I really do sort of love them. However, in the interests of fairness, I must say I love them in the same way I love Fan Fiction. They’re dreadful, but in a strangely endearing way. Also like Fan Fiction, they give the impression of having been written by a completely different author.
“Clover” begins where “What Katy Did” left off, with the preparations for Katy’s wedding. Despite the fact that Katy is qualified for absolutely no other life whatsoever (except possibly following in Aunt Izzie’s footsteps and becoming the harassed domestic slave of some widowed family member), all of her family are weirdly jealous of her impending marriage, and clearly feel that Katy Leaving Home is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime disaster on a scale no family should suffer more than once. Which is a nice festive note to open on. Katy, meanwhile, is making her own wedding-dress out of her mother’s old shawl (srsly) and a sash Aunt Izzy gave her.
Incidentally, during the wedding-dress conversation, Clover claims in passing that she can hardly remember Aunt Izzie. It’s not a big thing and it doesn’t matter to the plot, but when Aunt Izzie died, Clover was twelve. Unless Clover has some unusual sort of amnesia going on, that seems like a bit of a mistake to me. The kind of mistake you make when, say, you’re not working with your own material and are not entirely on top of the details. Just saying.
At this point it also becomes clear that Whoever Wrote This Book, Could Have Been Susan Coolidge For All I Know, But Anyway, Whoever Wrote It, they have a massive downer on Ned Worthington. When we last saw him, Ned was the prize hunk Katy snatched from beneath her cousin Lily’s nose. These days, he feels like a trial and a nuisance, and an encumbrance to the plot. If it’s possible to have a wedding without a groom, Katy’s wedding is it.
First, the congratulatory letters start to pour in. We get the text of everyone else’s letters, from Rose Red to Miss Jane; but not Ned Worthington’s letters. Clearly, they’re not worth our time. Maybe he just sent crayoned drawings of his boat, with a big arrow pointing to the stick-man in the prow and a label – “THiS iS MEEE”. Then, all the guests arrive, and so does Ned. We hear a lot from Rose Red, a little bit from Cousin Helen, more than anyone would ever want to from Rose Red’s sickening daughter Roslein, and, and – and practically nothing from Ned. He gets one line of dialogue. It is not spoken to Katy. Just saying.
Oh, and Clarence – remember Clarence? Lily’s horrid younger brother who was hated by everyone but Clover, including his parents? – is apparently in Colorado. This will be important later.
Katy gets married, disappears with Ned, and spends six months gadding about various ports in his wake (incidentally, these six months take about a quarter of one chapter to describe. Seriously, a lot of passive-aggressive ignoring of Ned going on here). Then Ned is recalled to duty, so he brings Katy back home and leaves her with her family while he clears off to China for a year and a half. From this point on, Ned practically disappears from the narrative and is never seen in person again. My personal belief is that he died and was buried quietly at sea, and no-one liked to own up.
Incidentally, when Katy gets back, she has stopped being plain. Remember how even Ned Nice-But-Dim Worthington told his sister that he didn’t find her beautiful, because “I’m not as far gone as all that”, just before he proposed to her? Well, now she is beautiful. “Better-looking than ever”, in fact. Incidental detail, but, you know, JUST SAYING.
Then Phil goes skating, gets wet and gets ill. And nearly dies. But doesn’t die. All in the space of one paragraph. Which makes this feel less like a real thing that really happened to real characters in a real story, and more like a plot device to allow the entire story to make a dramatic shift in direction, which is as follows. Phil’s weak chest means he has to be sent away somewhere with Good Air (okay, I’ll actually buy this. This genuinely was cutting-edge medical thinking at the time) so he can get better. After reading every quack pamphlet he can lay his hands on, Dr Carr decides that Phil will go to St Helen’s, in Colorado.
Hang on. Didn’t we read something about Colorado a few pages ago? Oh yes, Horrid Cousin Clarence is out there in Colorado already. Still, unless this Fan Fiction is going to be a Slashfic (my very favourite kind), which seems unlikely for the late nineteenth century, something tells me we won’t be seeing any –
Oh, no, no, no no nonononononononoNO! Apparently Phil can’t go out to Colorado on his own. Clover’s going with him. And that means – that means –
Oh please Father Christmas, don’t make Clover marry Horrid Cousin Clarence.
From this point on, the book begins to feel like it was actually written by the Colorado Marketing Board. Let me say at once that within about five chapters or so, I really, really wanted to go to Colorado, because it sounds beautiful. What I can’t quite get my head around, however, is why – after three hefty wedges of New-England gentility and ladylike manners – the books suddenly take this dramatic swerve into Pioneer Country. What’s this all about, then? Why have we suddenly departed from the canned oysters of Burnet and the cake-stands of Hillsover, and come out West to Cowboy Country? It’s almost as if it was written by somebody entirely different who just happened to enjoy the first few books but thought they could do something much more interesting with the characters, isn’t it? JUST SAYING.
From the moment Phil and Clover set off aboard the Dayton’s private railroad car –
Incidentally, can I just point out that we have never met the Daytons before, and never will again? Which is seriously sloppy craftsmanship from Someone Who Might Or Might Not Be Susan Coolidge. If the Daytons had been replaced with the sentence “And then Dr Carr got heinously drunk one night and played a fantastically successful poker-game in which he managed to win a private railroad car, which he deployed to send Phil and Clover out to Colorado”, the book would make just as much sense. Literally the Dayton’s only function is to own a railroad car and take Phil and Clover to Colorado in it. This sentence has now been entirely taken over by its subordinate clause. Let’s start again, shall we?
From the moment Phil and Clover set off aboard the Dayton’s private railroad car, then, the entire book morphs into an extended love-in for the American West. The scenery is epic, the mountains are ace, the flowers are Heidi’s-mountain-meadow gorgeous, the people are charming, the air is elastic (no, I don’t know either). On the downside, we have to endure Mrs Watson. The simplest way to describe Mrs Watson is to say that Coolidge(???) has clearly just read “Emma” and taken a real shine to Miss Bates. However, she doesn’t have Austen’s immaculate ear for dialogue (indeed, who does?), which makes every scene with Mrs Watson in it very, very annoying. Why would one successful writer steal from another so blatantly? And why steal such a famous and instantly recognisable character? Unless maybe the person who wrote this book was already stealing from a famous and recognisable author, and thought that one more little theft wouldn’t make them any more morally bankrupt than they already were…just – you know – just saying…anyway…
Having settled into a boarding-house, made her room look nice by covering it with towels and fallen in love with Cheyenne Mountain (not a metaphor), Clover inevitably runs into Horrid Cousin Clarence, who has a cattle-ranch. Because, with the whole of the American West to choose from, it’s still practically inevitable that they will both end up living in the same small town in Colorado. Well, if Captain Kirk can be marooned on the exact right part of the giant frozen ice-world that happens to contain an aged out-of-time Mr Spock, I suppose I can let this one go.
Clarence has two partners in his cattle-ranch. Bert Talcott comes from New York, lives in New Mexico, and, in Clarence’s words “does not count”. (Brilliant.) Geoffrey Templestowe comes from “Devonshire” [sic] in England, and, presumably, does count. Guess where this story is going. (Hint: she doesn’t marry Clarence.)
We are then treated to a lot of Colorado propaganda. Clover walks the earth having adventures, being amazed by how much good stuff they have in the shops, being asked to nice social occasions and meeting people who tell her how splendid Colorado is in every possible way. Clover’s brainwashing clearly goes well, since she’s soon capable of inanities like these:
“It’s very superior, of course, to have rains; but then at the East we sometimes don’t have rain when we want it, and the grass gets dreadfully yellow.”
Um, yeah. Because a consistently low annual rainfall is nothing like as annoying as grass that goes a bit yellow sometimes.
Also, all the young men start falling for Clover and sending her flowers. Well, of course they do.
There is then a simply brilliant episode in which Clarence invites Clover and Phil up to stay with him and Geoffrey-from-Devonshire in their ranch-house. This feels weirdly like Clover and Geoff moving in together before getting married, only with less sex, more housework and an audience. Clover and her chaperone have a jolly good laugh at the pathetic men’s pathetic attempts at housekeeping (I especially like the floor strewn with Fox and Coyote skins), before taking over and doing it themselves. Or rather, Clover sweeps the floor and cooks the dinner and arranges flowers and makes soft furnishings, and Mrs Hope puts on pretty dresses and pours the coffee. There’s never any doubt about whose audition this actually is.
Finally we get to the proposals. Clarence goes first, and is turned down. (Thank God. He’s an idiot.) Next, it’s Christmas, and Geoffrey-from-Devonshire sends Clover a wagon-load of wood as a Christmas present, which Clover is delighted by. Well, I suppose it’s better than an ironing-board. Thurber Wade – who I haven’t mentioned before because it’s an entirely correct reflection of how much he’s featured in the book up until now – proposes off-screen, is turned down, and leaves the area without ever breaking his record of No Direct Speech Whatsoever. Clover, displaying a worrying lack of self-knowledge, mopes around the house wondering why she is so sad to be leaving Colorado when she should be thrilled. After all, as the oldest unmarried daughter, she will soon go back home and become her family’s latest resident domestic slave for ever and ever and ever, hoorah!
Then, on the last day before she leaves, Geoffrey-from-Devonshire rides in to the rescue. He asks Clover to marry him, because she makes excellent soft furnishings and knows how to arrange Mariposa lilies in vases. Also, he loves her. But the soft furnishings and the Mariposa lilies also seem pretty important to him. Clover is going to live in Colorado, hooray! Like there was ever any doubt. Cue wailing and gnashing of teeth from her family at the loss of another
domestic slave daughter to the vile institution of marriage. (Seriously, Dr Carr, if it bothers you that much you could have helped them get educated for a career or something, right?) The end.
But no, I hear you cry! This can’t be the end! There are so many unresolved questions! Who will Elsie marry? Who will Clarence marry? Who will John marry? Who will Dorry marry? Will Dr Carr ever retire and where will he live? Was Lily’s marriage a success? What did Geoffrey’s family back in England think of Clover? Will we ever see Ned Worthington alive again?
Okay, clearly I can’t hear you cry that, because nobody sane would be interested. Nonetheless, there are answers. The sequel, “In the High Valley” covers all this and more, and is even more like Fan Fiction than its predecessor. However, I’ve already gone on for far too long about this, so in order to avoid everyone here losing the will to live, I’ll just answer the two questions that genuinely are important. One, is this book worth reading? and Two, is it or is it not the work of Mary Chauncey Woolsey, p.k.a. Susan Coolidge?
Oh, you know what? I know perfectly well that the question of who wrote it it doesn’t matter really. It was a long time ago, and I’m probably the only person who cares any more. I might have discovered some sort of discreet publishing fraud (although since “Susan Coolidge” was a pseudonym, I suppose even that’s open to question); or I might just have noticed that sometimes, we forget the exact details of stuff we wrote between four and sixteen years before.
Onto the last question; is it worth your time reading it? Here’s a little test.
1. Do you know the rules to the game “Kikeri”?
2. In your teenage years, did you ever secretly fantasise about achieving domestic sainthood after a severe and disabling accident?
3. Did you ever beg your mother to make you Beef Tea?
4. Can you recite the words to any of the poems in the “Katy” books from memory?
5. Have you got a Kindle?
If the answer to three or more of these questions is yes, then congratulations! You, like me, are a closet What Katy did Superfan, and are highly likely to enjoy this literary curiosity.
“Clover” is available from Amazon as a free Kindle download. If you haven’t yet sold your soul to The Man (but do have an e-reader of some description) you can also get it from Project Gutenberg. This is probably much better for your Karma, and will help preserve the world from total cultural domination by Amazon thanks to idiot Kindle-owners like me.