Ireland and Australia II: Girls in Fiction
Despite the conservative roles for girls espoused in school textbooks, there are multiple examples of more positive and daring role models for girls in children's fiction. Outside the dominance of colonial adventure stories in Australia featuring male protaganists, the Thyne Reid Trust Collection also holds examples of stories that feature young girls at the centre of their plots, such as, the Carry Vance series by Mrs. George Cupples.
Australian women writers, like Ellen Campbell and Mrs. F. Hughes, also turned to memoir in composing books for children, where they related (usually for an English audience) their young lives in Australia. These texts sometimes describe a certain freedom in the true stories of young girls growing up in often rural and isolated farm stations across Australia. Gender and class conventions can be seen to break down in these environments. Just as women took advantage of these circumstances to enter into the profession of writing – guiding other women in similar situations on the education of their children – young girls also took advantage of the social and physical freedoms that such isolated living engendered.
These texts, however, often register an anxiety over the transition between girlhood and womanhood, an anxiety that can also be found in Irish literature by women of the same period. In An Australian Childhood (1890) by Ellen Campbell, her adventurous and mischievous childhood comes to an abrupt end once she is sent to a finishing school in Sydney. In her fictionalised version of this memoir, Twin Pickles (1898), an episodic novel for young children, her removal to school appears mid-way through the narrative and signals a kind of metaphoric death for the young girl.
Irish author, Maria Edgeworth, similarly registered coded anxieties in her texts for children over the maturation of young girls. ‘The Purple Jar’, which first appeared in The Parent’s Assistant in 1796, is one of Edgeworth’s most popular and enduring tales for children. While on the surface, the story attempts to educate young children about consumerism and desire, several critics have argued that the story also exposes a kind of social horror at the girl-turning-woman and the onset of menstruation.
There are much later examples of this type of children’s story in the Irish context. Irish author and illustrator, Edith Somerville, published ‘Little Red Riding-Hood in Kerry’ in 1936. The original manuscript of the story is held at Queen’s University Belfast and it is an Irish rewriting of the traditional European fairy tale. The ‘wolf’ in this story is Cornelius Wolfe, a local farmer’s son, who traps the story’s feisty young heroine, Moira Cloca-Dearg – Mary of the Red Cloak – into marrying him at the end of the tale. Catherine Spence also experimented with rewriting European and Irish folk tales, often inscribing them with strong, independent young heroines, such as ‘The Three Little Pigs’ and ‘The Wonderful Bottle’ – a revised version of Thomas Crofton-Croker’s ‘The Legend of Bottle-hill’ – published in the annual Christmas children’s column of The Evening Journal in the 1880s.
These stories offer to young girls alternative role models to the conventional narratives of the period’s school textbooks but they also implicitly expose the patriarchal and societal traditions that attempt to close off these alternative pathways on entering adulthood.