Review: Catherine Called Birdy, Karen Cushman

I am about to move away away to the barbaric South of England and I am reliably informed that There Be Dragons.  Maybe.  Also the place I am moving to is in Essex and although I’ve only ever seen the adverts for TOWIE, it worries me.  In the process of preparing for this, I have been unearthing the most peculiar old relics from my past – old photos, letters, souvenirs, random bits of paper that could only ever be of any value to me because I remember everything.  Along the way, I also uncovered my old battered and much loved copy of Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman.  I feel that this is a regrettably neglected classic of the genre, I read it aged nine and for several years wanted to be Catherine.  For me, she made being a teenager seem like something I could actually do and she lived in the year 1290.  Or rather she didn’t, because she is fictional but as a character she seemed very real to me at the age of nine and that is why my copy of the book has to be held together by sellotape.

Catherine is very probably the first fictional character I ever slightly wanted to be.  She is the thirteen year-old daughter of a minor knight, she lives in a manor with her parents and her Nurse Morwenna.  She has three older brothers, Vile Robert, Monk Edward and Thomas who she never thinks much of.  Her best friends are Perkin the goatherd, Meg the milkmaid and Aelis, daughter of a neighbouring knight.  She hates spinning, sewing and most other lady-like pursuits and Monk Edward has advised that Catherine be told to keep a diary to help her become less childish.  Catherine finally and with poor grace agrees to do this with the understanding that she can be excused from spinning.  The joy of Catherine comes mainly from the energy of the writing, even when she’s sulking she is hilarious.  Catherine is not so very different from teenagers today, she complains about how she will never be able to think of anything to write about when her parents do not let her go anywhere, specifically a recent hanging, “My life is barren”, she laments.  In the next breath though, she triumphs over how many fleas she has got rid of that day.  This is medieval Britain if not in gritty detail, at least in its grubby glory.  

Things get very complicated for Catherine when she realises that her father has begun husband-hunting on her behalf.  Catherine is On The Market and she does not like it at all.  I am always a bit cynical about historical fiction about women and girls who are ‘terribly advanced in their attitudes’ – all too often it’s just anachronistic and jars terribly.  I felt that this worked though because Cushman never suggests that there is a legitimate alternative for Catherine.  There is none.  And Catherine knows this, she’s just being naughty – a stroppy teenager and a very convincing one at that.  In her Author’s Note, Cushman muses on whether or not we can ‘really understand medieval people well enough to write or read books about them’ and states that she believes that we can ‘identify with those qualities’ we all share’ – and we definitely sympathise with Catherine’s disgust about her prospective husbands- she christens one Sir Lack Wit and then she “accidentally” sets fire to the privy while another of her suitors is in there.  

Yet still, Catherine knows that she is going to have to do as she is told eventually.  Unfortunately, the offer which Catherine’s father accepts is from Shaggy Beard, the worst one of them all.  Having already got drunk at Vile Robert’s wedding and tried to kill one of Catherine’s puppies, Shaggy Beard does the worst thing of all and asks to marry Catherine.  He is ugly and old and Scottish and Catherine is horrified and petrified all at once.  The final third of the book deals with her desperate schemes to get out of the situation.  

Catherine finally comes to accept her fate in much the same way that many medieval ladies would have done.  At an earlier stage of the novel, she meets a group of Jews who are being banished from England and disguising herself, tries to run away with them but she is gently reminded by one of them that in the next life, God will not ask her why she was not her brother Robert, or her brother Edward or not Perkin but why was she not Catherine?  I still remember the simple beauty of this phrase which expresses very clearly that no matter what your circumstances, being untrue to yourself will only lead you further into difficulty.  I also liked the way that she came to see another side to her brother Vile Robert who married her friend Aelis in a love match and also saved a performing circus bear that Catherine had grown attached to.  For someone so decided in her opinions, it was good for her to realise that at times she could be mistaken.

This is a wonderful book, not only did I learn lots about medieval daily routine and beliefs but also because I don’t believe that women only started caring about their futures at some point in 1960.  Feminism is not some airborne disease that suddenly hit – women have always cared what happens to themselves.  In her novel, Cushman puts this feeling of uncertainty about a future beyond one’s own control into an accessible context.  Although the book is light-hearted, the story behind it is not.  At one point, Catherine gets into an argument with a girl staying in their house and the two of them face off using proverbs about womenly virtues – so Catherine states that “Be she old or be she young, a woman’s strength is in her tongue” while Agnes retaliates “One tongue ought to be enough for two women”.  Another more didactic passage has Catherine listing all the virtues her mother and nurse claim are essential to be a true lady, despite many of them being contradictory.  I loved Cushman’s dedication to the ‘hope, imagination and tenacity of all young women’ – it’s that word tenacity, to stick always to your purpose and never give up and it’s a wonderful value to model for children.  You can call it stubbornness but I disagree, tenacity is the value to hang on when it seems much easier to flee for the hills.  It is that value that makes Catherine decide to embrace her fate and to make the very best of it.  As a reader, I truly wished her well.  

If ever I were to have a child of the female persuasion, I think I would make this required reading.  It is hilarious, it is poignant and it wonderfully written.  Cushman has managed that most difficult of things, historical fiction which is readable, accurate and actually uplifting.  Even now women struggle with what is expected of them – in this post-feminist society, women who stay at home are sneered at while those who do not are frowned upon – there is no perfect solution and that is why the conversation is still worth having.  In Catherine Called Birdy, we are given a fairly light-hearted glimpse of a medieval world, an enjoyable story and an endearing heroine but this is also Good Feminist Children’s Literature – no wonder I read it to bits.



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Catherine, called Birdy by Karen Cushman
Published by Macmillan Children's Books on 1994
Genres: Diaries, England, Middle Ages, Young Adult, Historical, Medieval
Pages: 232
ISBN: 9780330345248

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