In college, I ended up taking a class on Medieval women’s literature by accident. The class was simply called something like “special topics in women’s literature,” and I signed up because it was taught by a professor I loved. I’m not sure what I would have expected from the class if I had known what the “special topic” would be, but I loved it so much that I ended up writing a thesis about Joan of Arc and gender (with the same professor!). I’ve become completely fascinated by the lives and writing of Medieval women, who (to condense a thesis-worth of thoughts) were much more transgressive of gender boundaries than our Renaissance-fair stereotypes would lead us to believe. Pop culture contains myriad representations of this subject, and my professor recommended the children’s book Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman as an interesting, nuanced example. I’m so glad I finally took her up on it.
Catherine, Called Birdy is a children’s novel written as a fictional diary of the titular character, a young noble girl living in England in 1290. The story progresses mostly as an account of her day-to-day life, but the closest thing to a central conflict is Catherine’s resistance towards her expectations as a proper lady, including an impending marriage over which she has little control. It’s pretty surprising that I hadn’t already read this book as a kid. As a subgenre, “fictional diaries of children in different historical periods” was right in my wheelhouse (I consumed The Royal Diaries series voraciously), and I was (no shock) particularly interested in heroines who fought against their gender expectations. I feel pretty confident that child Haley would have adored this book; modern-day Haley certainly enjoyed it a lot.
My favorite part of this book is how fully-formed the character of Catherine is. In so many of the girl-power stories of my childhood, the protagonists were a bit one-dimensional. Catherine, instead, is a constant paradox. She resents the pressures and responsibilities put on her, but she is also not a cardboard-cutout tomboy character. She is wild and ill-tempered, but she is also incredibly compassionate towards animals. She has no desire to be married, but she does have crushes on some of the boys in her life. She wants adventure, but she changes her mind about exactly which adventure daily. She likes stories about saints and plays about terrifying demons. She is complex, and therefore, felt much more alive. As Catherine herself writes of her behavior in front of a potential suitor: “I had no forewarning of danger so I acted like myself, some good and some bad, like always.”
Catherine, Called Birdy would do interesting work in teaching kids more about the Middle Ages. The cast of characters in Catherine’s life represent a variety of lifestyles and professions, including for women. These characters are made real by Catherine’s unfiltered opinions of them, which shift and evolve realistically. Often, Catherine laments her restrictions as a noble woman compared to the women of the village, especially in choosing who they wanted to marry. Catherine sees the good and bad in all of her options though, ultimately deciding to live in the role she was given as authentically as she can. This book doesn’t end quite like an adventure story might, but the quiet observations feel real to life.
Catherine’s voice is also so funny and smart. It doesn’t surprise me that Lena Dunham plans to make a movie around this lively character. Even though the book is now over 20 years old, it seems to move towards a female protagonist we still don’t see enough of, one who is messy and layered and genuine. I really enjoyed this book, and I wish I had read it a long time ago.