The Self-Possessed Girl in Golden Age Girls’ Books
This article explores the meanings of girls’ silence in three popular late nineteenth-/early twentieth-century novels: Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did (1872), Johanna Spyri’s Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi, 1880), and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908). These three classics of girls’ fiction are international bestsellers; all three novels are available in Nordic languages as well as their original English or German. Often read as taming narratives in which wild girls are forcibly shaped into compliant young women, these texts allow us to see how the girls’ book has struggled with conformity and agency since its beginnings. As influential early girls’ books, these novels help us disentangle the patterns early examples of the genre offer us as twenty-first-century readers and critics. Though a girl’s silence can indicate trauma and social repression (as we see in What Katy Did and Heidi), withholding speech can be a voluntary decision that girls make for themselves (as in Anne of Green Gables). In this article, we draw on disability theory to propose a model for thinking about the distinction between silence and silencing. While silence can be a form of repression, paralyzing the thoughts as physical injury paralyzes the body, it is also linked to prayer and the concept of self-possession. Silence is not always a marker of the loss of voice or physical autonomy; by appealing to the idea of self-possession, we can move beyond a dichotomy of speech as positive and silence as negative.
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