Catherine, commonly called Birdy or Little Bird, is in a bit of a fix. The daughter of a knight and a minor lady must marry, it seems, but each suitor is more unsuitable than the last? What’s a girl to do? Well, if she’s Birdy, the answer is to raise a ruckus in inimitable fashion, and along the way learn some valuable lessons about people, life, and just what it means to spread your wings.
It’s been years since I read this book, so long I’d almost forgotten why I loved it so much. But I remember!
Catherine is an amazing character, one who frankly reminds me of myself. Even when she isn’t causing trouble, she’s…well..causing trouble. There are just some occasions in which it’s an accident. She’s resourceful, defiant, imaginative, curious, strong-willed, rarely chastened, and never broken. She’s genuine and compassionate and kind, and if she whines about the sacrifices she makes for others, the impulse behind the sacrifices in sincere. She’ll consign herself to a dreadful fate to save a starving, beaten bear from being baited to death- just don’t ask her to share her blankets. She already shares them with the fleas.
Catherine’s story is laid out in a diary, written at the behest of her scholarly monk brother Edward. At first it’s a chore she hates as much as embroidery, hemming, or any of the other many ladies tasks to which she’s assigned, but then it becomes something wonderful- a way to get out of all the other hateful things for a little while each day. We follow the course of a year, each day with its patron saint (and why they’re a saint). This book is like a window into the 13th century. For some bizarre reason we frequently romanticize the medieval times, but there is nothing ideal about Catherine’s world, where the remedies are appalling, the bigotry institutionalized by Crown and Church, and bathing is something you do once or twice a year if you’re brave. It’s sweltering in summer and freezing in winter, clothing is a finite resource, and beds are packed tighter than sardine cans.
But there’s joy there too, a million tricks and jokes and mummer’s games, with festivities timed to the calendar of saints. Catherine, of course, provides a great deal of amusement (even if the privy fire really was an accident). There are weddings and gifts and plays, and if they’re twined through death and loss and cracks on the head, well, that’s all a part of life as well.
Catherine’s wish for flight isn’t a literal one, but it’s a very real one. Her story underscores how powerless most women- especially most upper class women- were during that time period, something that becomes a rather frightening parallel in the here and now. A woman must marry (or become a nun, and nuns have as many rules and chores as the daughter of a knight), and she’ll likely have no say in who her husband will be. She’s expected to obey meekly, first her father then her husband, and do all that could be asked of her. A girl cannot go on adventures or do dangerous things (excepting, of course, giving birth, which is as deadly as it is dangerous), she cannot be a great scholar or live in the woods. Catherine struggles against it, flailing against the bars of her cage, but still she progresses on a slow, inexorable march to the altar and a husband of her father’s choosing.
But there’s a very wise woman who gives her a key piece of advice, and when she finally understands what the woman means, her outlook changes. Her circumstances don’t- well, they do, in a rather too-neat ending, but she doesn’t know that when her outlook changes- but she comes to understand that whatever her circumstances, whatever her lot in life, the one thing that cannot be taken from her is who she is. She can be forced to be someone’s wife or someone’s mother, a lady of a manor, but the one thing she can always be, the one thing she can control, is being Catherine.
This is an amazing historical view, full of every range of emotion, and quite frankly, a lot of fun to read.
Until next time~