We all know what the average boy is capable of; but what were their female counterparts up to the early years of the century? They may not have been knocking together home gymnasiums in their spare time, but if Jean Stewart’s excellent Three hundred and one things a bright girl can do (1912.8.329) is anything to go by, they were still impressively accomplished. The activities suggested are many and varied: golf, fortune telling, making hammocks out of barrels (provided you have a barrel spare which your parents don’t mind you dismantling, presumably). Reading the book, though, you occasionally come across some rather strange ideas, and there’s the same (frankly, worrying) emphasis on fire-based fun that Ros encountered in Harper’s indoor book for boys.
The book begins with a ringing endorsement of women’s “carriage, health and intellect”, and offers as proof the example of bicycle riding:
How gracefully and well does a woman ride a bicycle usually; how hump-backed and ungainly do most men appear upon the same machine!
(How very sexist.) Stewart has great faith in the abilities of girls: later on, she writes that “Almost every cultivated girl, at some period of her life, finds herself interested in Gothic architecture.” (Er … really? Oh dear. I feel sadly uncultivated now.) While some of the 301 things are, as you might expect, conventionally “feminine” – knitting, making sweets (there are recipes of 32 different types of toffee), needlework – others aren’t: there is a section devoted to the art of making and erecting a tent from scratch. (And two different kinds of tent, at that: “a simple shelter”, and a more elaborate one. I’ve always assumed that the whole business of tent assembly is beyond the wit of most mortals, but apparently I was wrong. This book isn’t good for my self-esteem.)
But, for all the good clean fun of camping and keeping pets, there are also things girls can do which are either weird, dangerous, or both. Take, for example, “coloured fires”. Stewart acknowledges, “It is perilous to make some coloured fires”, but goes on to list chemicals needed for the making of them, to be used “for charades or other home purposes”. (What purposes would those be, exactly? The mind boggles.) Pyrography is also suggested as something girls might like to try; and then there’s “Cremated alive”, which is possibly the strangest idea in the book. This is a magic trick involving the apparent cremation of a “young and beautiful girl, clothed in white”. A sack is lowered on to her, while flames and smoke “indicate to the terrified spectators that the fire is pursuing its destructive work”; when the sack is raised, “only a few bones and a skull” remain. It’s not a trick for the faint-hearted.
Anyway, for all that Three hundred and one things a bright girl can do made me feel hopelessly inadequate about my own capabilities, it’s an interesting read. Though, bizarrely (for me, at least) in a book about what bright girls can do, reading isn’t one of the suggestions …