Literary Tomboys in Classic Coming-of-Age Novels by Women Authors
By Francis Booth | On January 16, 2021 | Updated November 1, 2022 | Comments (0)
According to the dictionary, a tomboy is “an energetic, sometimes boisterous girl whose behavior and pursuits … are considered more typical of boys than girls.” The insightful musing on literary tomboys presented here is excerpted from Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in mid-20th Century Women’s Fiction by Francis Booth, reprinted with permission:
The word tomboy goes back to the sixteenth century in England; it was first recorded in 1553, when it meant a ‘boisterous boy,’ but it soon changed its meaning.
The Oxford English Dictionary of 1579 defines it as a ‘bold or immodest woman;’ perhaps from the word ‘tom,’ which had the implication of a prostitute for centuries. Shakespeare used tomboy in this sense in Cymbeline, 1611, as did Thomas Middleton in A Game at Chess, 1624.
Tomboy then seems to have gone back to its original meaning and was at one time almost interchangeable with the wonderful word hoyden, of Dutch origin, also originating in the sixteenth century.
Hoyden was almost entirely unused in the twentieth century, except by the wonderful Maude Hutchins, but George Eliot (a female author using a man’s name) has a hoyden in Middlemarch (1872): ‘Mary was a little hoyden, and Fred at six years old thought her the nicest girl in the world.’
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Miss Matilda of Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey
In Agnes Grey, 1847, Anne Brontë (who published under the male name Acton Bell) has “Miss Matilda, a strapping hoyden of about fourteen, with a short frock and trousers.”
Miss Matilda Murray was a veritable hoyden, of whom little need be said. She was about two years and a half younger than her sister; her features were larger, her complexion much darker. She might possibly make a handsome woman; but she was far too big-boned and awkward ever to be called a pretty girl, and at present she cared little about it… still less did she care about the cultivation of her mind, and the acquisition of ornamental accomplishments.
… As an animal, Matilda was all right, full of life, vigour, and activity; as an intelligent being, she was barbarously ignorant, indocile, careless and irrational; and, consequently, very distressing to one who had the task of cultivating her understanding, reforming her manners, and aiding her to acquire those ornamental attainments which, unlike her sister, she despised as much as the rest …
As a moral agent, Matilda was reckless, headstrong, violent, and unamenable to reason. One proof of the deplorable state of her mind was, that from her father’s example she had learned to swear like a trooper.
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Jo March of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
The most well-known and well-loved tomboy in the novel is also the earliest fully-realized example: Jo March of Little Women. Although she is only one of the sisters, she is undoubtedly the best loved.
Of all the March sisters, Jo is deliberately the strongest and most sympathetic as a literary character; as with other novels we will look at, her author clearly loves her. With her gender-neutral name, she embodies many of the elements of the heroines of later female coming of age novels.
Like many of Jo’s successors, she finds that, as she is growing older, and changing from a girl into a ‘little woman,’ it is becoming hard to hold on to her tomboy ways, which seem to come from her physical as much as her mental attributes.
Fifteen-year-old Jo was very tall, thin and brown, and reminded one of a colt; for she never seemed to know what to do with her long limbs, which were very much in her way… Round shoulders had Jo, big hands and feet, a fly-away look to her clothes, and the uncomfortable appearance of a girl who was rapidly shooting up into a woman, and didn’t like it.
In her case the pressure to become more feminine is not so much from the adults around her as from her sisters.
“I hate to think I’ve got to grow up and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China-aster. It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys’ games, and work, and Mellors. I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy, and it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with papa, and I can only stay at home and knit like a pokey old woman.”
Girls in coming of age novels often keep diaries: it is a very good device for an author to let us in on the girl’s feelings, and in this case for the author to enjoy herself playing with ideas of fiction, style and truth. The authors themselves had in many cases kept diaries as a teenager: as a fourteen-year-old, Jo March’s author Louisa May Alcott wrote in hers:
“I have made a plan for my life, as I am in my teens, and no more a child. I have not told anyone about my plan; but I’m going to be good.”
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Rose of Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins
Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins, (1875) has ‘Mrs. Jessie, who had been a pretty hoyden years ago herself,’ but who worries about the tomboyishness of young Rose. The doctor tells her not to.
“Let the girl run and shout as much as she will, it is a sure sign of health, and as natural to a happy child as frisking is to any young animal full of life. Tomboys make strong women usually, and I had far rather find Rose playing football with Mac than puttering over bead-work.” Mrs Jessie objects that “she cannot go on playing football very long, and we must not forget that she has a woman’s work to do by and by.”
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Laura of Wilder’s Little House Books
Also a frontier tomboy was young Laura from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series of nine novels set in the 1870s and running from 1934 to 1943 which became two different TV series and a planned movie, which at the time of writing had run into difficulties.
The casting team for the movie, inviting girls aged from ten to fourteen to audition for the part of Laura, described her as the classic Midwestern tomboy who also has brothers and a more ‘feminine’ older sister:
The smart and spirited middle child of Charles and Caroline Ingalls, Laura is a tomboy and adventure-seeker living in the Prairie Lands in 1870. Laura is the type of girl who marches to the beat of her own drum and prefers the outdoors to reading and homework.
She has a close relationship with her family and dearly loves her ‘Pa’ and older sister Mary. When her family moves from their home in the Big Woods of Wisconsin to Independence, Kansas, she embraces the adventures she encounters on their journey. Life is not easy, but Laura rises to the challenge.
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Sally of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia
Staying in the Midwest, in Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (1918) another frontier novel, the narrator has a similar character for a neighbor:
‘Sally, the tomboy with short hair,’ who is fourteen. ‘She was nearly as strong as I, and uncannily clever at all boys’ sports. Sally was a wild thing, sunburned yellow hair, bobbed about her ears, and a brown skin, for she never wore a hat. She raced all over town on one roller skate, often cheated at “keeps,” but was such a quick shot one couldn’t catch her at it.’
How does a literary tomboy come of age?
This description contains many of the elements of the tomboy in women’s fiction: bobbed hair, dark skin, frenzied behavior and skill at traditionally male sports. In some later novels, a girl who is labelled a tomboy may willingly adhere to the stereotype to take off the pressure of having to be attractive to boys, for example the sixteen-year-old Rette in Betty Cavanna’s A Girl Can Dream, 1948 (later called Girls Can Dream Too).
‘The tomboy type’— how Rette hated that phrase! Yet she felt compelled to continue the pose because it at least accounted for her not having dates like the other girls. It had become a shield to hide behind, and, though Rette despised herself for using it, she couldn’t seem to let it drop.’
So how do these literary tomboys come of age? In most cases they don’t: the children in children’s novels never grow up so we never find out whether they become ‘normal’ women as they mature.
There is never the slightest hint in any of the many such novels that a girl with short hair, a boy’s name and boyish interests might come of age as lesbians; there were a number of books from the 1950s, however, about girls who do.
More literary tomboys to explore in Girls in Bloom
- Charlie Laborde (Charlie by Kate Chopin, 1900)
- Peggy Vaughan (A Terrible Tomboy by Angela Brazil, 1904)
- Irene Ashleigh (A Modern Tomboy: A Story for Girls by LT Meade, 1913)
- Petrova Fossil (Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, 1932)
- George Fayne (The Secret of Red Gate Farm by ‘Caroline Keene’, 1931)
- George Kirrin (Five On a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton, 1942)
- Mick Kelly (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, 1940)
- Frankie Addams (The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, 1946)
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Contributed by Francis Booth,* the author of several books on twentieth century culture:
Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde; Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938
Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. He is currently working on High Collars and Monocles: Interwar Novels by Female Couples.
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