Thursday, July 7, 2011

Should Girls Read Boys' Books?

One day in conversation I recommended a whole squad of books to a young lady. John Buchan would certainly have featured among them, but I'm sure others would have included The Prisoner of Zenda, Journey Through the Night, Biggles or even some Chesterton or Scott. Her reply amazed me. She would love to read all those books, she told me. There was nothing she loved as much as tales of thrilling adventure in far places. Unfortunately, her mother didn't wish her to read many books like this and preferred her to read mainly 'ladylike' books like those of Louisa May Alcott.
Since I never had any reading guidelines, I was surprised to hear about this one. However since then I've noticed that lots of parents are trying to guide their children into good reading that will, in the short years of their youth, prepare them well for the days ahead of them.

The question parents ask is this: What kind of reading will help my daughter to develop a godly femininity? What kind of reading will best develop a quiet, gentle spirit? What kind of reading will prepare her best to love home, husband, and children and make her a fruitful vine?
I can tell why a mother might prescribe a course of Louisa May Alcott, or LM Montgomery, or Elsie Dinsmore: old-fashioned books depicting an old-fashioned femininity for the readers to take as an example, what could be better?
But then, I'm not so sure that this kind of book actually does provide a good example of femininity. For one thing, the usual type of 'old-fashioned girls' books' we're talking about are the mid-to-late Victorian variety. And it pays to be aware of the shortcomings of the Victorian feminine ideal. Around this time religion was becoming both feminised and sentimentalised. Yes, mothers were honoured, but they were honoured exclusively; fathers were often ignored, absent, ineffective, or not Christians at all. In the otherwise good book The Rosary, the characters have profound relationships with their mothers, but their fathers are hardly even mentioned. In the otherwise great book The Dove in the Eagle's Nest, the young widowed mother brings up her twin sons to be paragons of manliness with very little masculine input.
In Victorian books, the mother, the woman, is the ideal of piety. Men who are Christians are Christians because of a woman's influence. Men who become more pious often also become less manly. The role of the father is minimised. At worst women become priestesses of Christianity, channels of grace for their men.
There's something terribly wrong with this picture, this reversal of Christian roles. The Bible tells us that the father is the spiritual head of the home; that the woman was created to be his helper. Christianity is a religion for men to be priests, heads, kings, prophets, ministers, elders, fathers, and leaders in.
There are also specific objections to some Victorian lady novelists. Louisa May Alcott was not in fact a Christian at all; she came from the Transcendental strain of Unitarianism, and her books contain some really noxious feminism and bad theology. LM Montgomery, bless her, really liked her implausibly melodramatic romantic stories. And even better writers like Florence L Barclay or Charlotte Yonge were women of their time.
So if Victorian women's lit doesn't always show good or complete examples of godly femininity, what does? The answer may surprise you, but first we have to define godly femininity.
When God created the woman in the garden, He gave her the job description of help meet (i.e., a suitable or comparable helper). Then God gave mankind a dominion mandate: to go out into the world, fill it, subdue it. Nothing was said about the woman's place being in the home. Now I'm not knocking the home; Titus 2 tells us that wives should be keepers at home, which is nice work if you can get it; but think about where that home could be. John G Paton's wife Maggie made her home in the Pacific islands, with cannibals round about! A wife's fundamental orientation is not to her home, but to her husband.
Biblical femininity is not about embroidery samplers and frilly dresses. It's about helping men fulfill their dominion mandate. So if you want reading that will foster real femininity in your daughter, you're going to need to find books that show women doing just this for their husbands, brothers, fathers, or sons. And this is far more likely to be found in books about godly men doing things, than in books about women interacting with other women.
GA Henty's books, of course, are a perfect example. I really enjoyed the character of the Countess de Laville in Saint Bartholomew's Eve, a chatelaine who holds her castle against oppressors, supports the Huguenot cause, and makes her home a refuge for Huguenots of the humbler sort. Though she doesn't of course take up arms in the war, her wise actions enable her son to do so and ensure his financial stability. That's the useful, tent-peg kind of femininity I'm talking about.
Other good authors include RM Ballantyne, JRR Tolkien, RL Stevenson, and of course John Buchan. Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene has great examples of femininity in ladies like Una, Britomart, and Amoret. Henryk Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis, Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur, RD Blackmore's Lorna Doone, even the more recent ND Wilson's 100 Cupboards series—any good book about manly men will necessarily include womanly women, women who take—in every sense—a supporting role.
Girls need to read boys' books, because they need to learn what boys are interested in. They need to know what godly men look like. They need to understand what it might look like to help a man called to a career of danger and exploration. They even need to know what a good man looks for in a woman. There are a hundred things a girl can only learn from a good adventure yarn for boys.
To go even further, I believe it's actually more feminine to be interested in masculine things than to be fascinated by the 'girly'. If your daughter prefers tales of peril and adventure to tales of domestic tranquillity, so much the better! Your daughter needs to cultivate a real love of true masculinity. That is the test of true femininity, because true femininity looks outside itself to bless others.
Great article by the Botkin sisters: Why Girls Should Read Boys' Adventure Stories
And here's a great site for book suggestions: Ballantyne the Brave.


Anonymous said...

I like this, and agree with you!
I, as you know, have four boys and one girl.
I have one reader who is 7 years old. The 5 year old is desperately trying to read...
I've never really thought 'boys books' and 'girls books'.
My oldest boy loves Beatrix Potter, The borrowers and The mice at Brambly Hedge. I guess they could be 'girly'. He certainly doesn't think so!

Hoping you are well!

Kathleen Tully

Suzannah said...

I never really thought along the lines of "boys' books" and "girls' books" either when I was little. My brothers enjoyed reading LM Montgomery, LM Alcott, and Jane Austen as much as (sometimes even before) I did.

I've read Beatrix Potter and The Borrowers and I certainly wouldn't classify them as girly. Regardless, if he likes reading gentler stories, good on him! Manly doesn't mean uncivilised!

Deborah said...

Awesome~!! I shall be adding a slew of "boy" books to our list of read alouds. :o)

Suzannah said...

That's the spirit. I've a list of recommendations here:

And of course, don't miss the books I recommend for girls either:

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

As a kid, I inhaled books regardless of the gender they were "supposed" to be for. Which is probably why I've developed a "stories are for people, not for girls OR boys" attitude toward not only the books I read (and movies I watch), but the ones my kids to read (and watch).

I think you make some excellent points here regarding Victorian morality -- I've noticed some of the same issues with their literature as well, which trickles down into the "bumbling dad" stereotype in much of children's literature (not to mention sitcoms) of today.

Suzannah said...

Hamlette, for a terrific discussion of the shortcomings of Victorian femininity, there's a chapter all about it in Nancy Pearcey's book TOTAL TRUTH. I can't recommend it enough.

And of course Victorian ideas of masculinity and femininity have trickled down today. I think there are actually two streams involved. One is the "bumbling dad" stereotype but the other is definitely the "brooding romantic hero" stereotype, because as Pearcey explains, if you say that a woman's role is all about feelings and morals and self-control, then you end up saying that a man's role is about competition and primal urges. The man becomes something to be tamed ("boys will be boys") and managed, rather than someone capable of self-control and temperance on his own. So you get all those bad-boy romances where the guy is always pushing the heroine's boundaries in a borderline creepy way.

I do think there's a difference between masculine and feminine forms of storytelling--even Austen and Trollope have differences--but I am against segregation. Men need to learn to appreciate women just as women need to learn to appreciate men.


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