Archive for the ‘Louisa May Alcott’ Category

An Old-Fashioned GirlLate on Christmas Day, I picked up An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott.  I’d just finished watching the excellent 1994 version of Little Women and was feeling deeply nostalgic for Alcott, whose books (both the good and the very, very bad) I’d devoured as a child.  I’ve never particularly liked Little Women and its sequels (the rare case of the movie being more palatable to me than the book) but I’ve held on to my favourite Alcott books into adulthood.  I revisit them occasionally but it had been a few years since my last Alcott encounter, when I reread (with some reservations) Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom.  On Christmas Day, I was in the mood for something old-fashioned and comforting and An Old-Fashioned Girl more than satisfied.  It, alongside L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books, is one of the rare volumes that delight me as much now as it did when I first read it twenty years ago.

The story begins when fourteen-year old Polly Milton comes to Boston to stay with her friend, sixteen-year old Fanny Shaw.  Though the two girls had become fast friends when they met the previous summer, Fanny’s city life is a surprise to country-bred Polly.  Polly is amazed by her friend’s grown-up ways and very grown-up clothes.  Amazed but, to Fanny’s bewilderment, not particularly envious.  Though younger than her friend, Polly is in no particular hurry to grow up.  Not if it means wearing fussy clothes, never being able to run or toboggan, or being too sophisticated to play with Fanny’s younger siblings, fourteen-year old Tom and six-year old Maud, or be petted by the very loveable Mr. Shaw and his sweet mother, known to all as Grandma.

This is familiar stuff for Alcott fans: she loved to moralise about the virtues of wholesome innocence versus the corrupting effects of high society and vanity.  She just didn’t always do so persuasively.  Why couldn’t Meg March have one fun, guilt-free evening of flirting and pretty dresses?  Why did Rose Campbell have to be so violent in her disdain for “fashionably fast girls”?  And, most melodramatically of all, why did Charlie Campbell have to die to prove his creator’s point that frivolous pursuits are poisonous?  She takes a thankfully less heavy-handed approach here and it makes for a much better book.  Polly may be a little more prim than her friend (as Grandma Shaw says, Polly hasn’t “yet learned that modesty has gone out of fashion”) but both girls are kind and loving and generous.  The important difference Alcott shows us is that Polly, by embracing her true age, is free to have more fun and develop more meaningful relationships than Fanny can experience in her guise as a proper young lady of fashion.   Polly need not substitute sweets for meals, gossip instead of learn while at school, squeeze and stuff herself into a decorative but impractical dress, or put on airs when introduced to a young man.  She eats well, moves freely, and is able to enjoy the company of everyone she meets, young or old, male or female.

On top of all this, Polly has a gift for living: she appreciates all the opportunities that come her way and, most of all, she values the people in her life.  In the first section of the book, that is her main value: she teaches the Shaw family to show their affection for one another.  They had been a loving family before but in a more distant, absentminded way.  The siblings squabbled, all three were relatively thoughtless when it came to their parents, and, with the exception of Tom, they took their grandmother for granted.  With Polly as a gentle example, Maud and Fanny find themselves spending more time with their grandmother, all three begin to think more about how to lighten their father’s cares, and they even attempt to make friends with one another (not always successfully, but they get credit for trying).

This first visit cements Polly’s friendship with the Shaw family.  Four years later, when the story resumes, the relationship is just as strong.  Now a young woman of twenty, Polly has moved to Boston, found a room in a boarding house, and is teaching music to help pay for her younger brother’s university education.  Her days are busy between her teaching and her new friendships, but not too busy to see her old friends.

Grown-up (or, given that they are all still very young, more grown-up) Polly, Tom, and Fanny are more interesting than they ever were as children, perhaps because they all have more problems.  Fanny is languishing at home, with no purpose and no prospective husband in sight; Polly is busy all the hours in the day, between her teaching, her charitable efforts, and her new friendships with other young, determined, independent women (a fascinating group, particularly when you consider that the book was published in 1870); and Tom, poor, loveable Tom, has, I’m sorry to say it, turned into a bit of a dandy.  He spends too much, doesn’t take his schooling at all seriously, and has gotten himself engaged to a singularly awful girl.  Tom has always been my favourite Alcott character, so kind and big-hearted but full of reassuringly human failings, that his struggles pain me as much as they do Polly.

After a number of ups and downs, there are happy endings for Polly, Fanny, and Tom (little Maud, however, gets completely betrayed by her creator and is sentenced to a life keeping house for her father).  I’ve read this book so many times I’ve lost count but this was the first reading where I really appreciated the strength of the romantic relationships Alcott creates.  Fanny’s match is somewhat fairytale-esque but Polly’s feels excitingly real.   So many books glamorize the idea of an alpha hero, someone to take charge of situations and, all too often, the heroine.  Here, we have instead a healthier, more equal model for a marriage: a true partnership between two young people, just starting their lives.  Even before their marriage, we see Polly comforting and advising her future husband, pushing back when she disagrees with or is disappointed in him.  Polly doesn’t choose a husband who is perfect or who can rescue her and solve all her financial concerns: she chooses one who she will work hard beside to build the life they want.  And that is a rather lovely, special thing to see.

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Like Eight Cousins, I had such fond memories of Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott.  I remember reading and rereading it and my poor battered copy bears proof of my enthusiasm.  Though I’d grown fond of Rose and her cousins in the first book, it wasn’t until Rose in Bloom that I really came to love them.  I adored Rose and Phebe, admired Archie, Uncle Alec and Mac, and cried for poor, wayward Charlie.  I remember all this fondly, mentally classing the novel with other unchallenging childhood favourites such as Anne of the Island and Pollyanna Grows Up (I was a romantic child – sequels with grown up heroines always held much more appeal).

What could I possibly have been thinking?

Even more than Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom is compulsively preachy.  I adore a good, morally upright novel but so much here is over the top, though I love it nonetheless.  For all my eye-rolling over the didactic passages, I still adore this novel and love it as much as I did as a child though in a very different way – certainly, I can no longer class it with the titles I mentioned above. 

Uncle Alec who had seemed so appealing in Eight Cousins now comes across as rather tyrannical though his intentions are good.  To want to shelter a girl of thirteen from the foolish fads of society women is one thing but to control the reading material of a twenty year old woman, to be disappointed in her when she wishes to attend balls and parties is too much.  In aiming to shelter Rose and keep her innocent and wholesome he is infantilizing her in the most infuriating manner.  Occasionally, Rose seems poised to rebel but inevitably she yields to his judgment.  And that’s where the real conflict for me as a reader comes in: I want Rose to rebel, just a little, even as I’m going the same way as she in agreeing with Uncle Alec’s views.  I suppose Rose has her minor rebellion in a three month whirl of gaiety – a period during which she does all the normal social things young, wealthy unmarried women did.  And her reaction, her distaste for such a frivolous lifestyle, perfectly echoes my opinions on the topic:

 ‘I don’t wish to get used to being whisked about a hot room by men who have taken too much wine, to turn day into night, wasting time that might be better spent, and grow into a fashionably fast girl who can’t get along without excitement.’

How can I be disappointed in a character for rejecting that which I too reject?  I think because she does it with such force, with such a clear idea of what is right and what is wrong.  Her view of acceptable behaviour seems very narrow and unyielding.  Rose has energy and spirit enough to help as many errant souls reform as will offer themselves up but she is not particularly strong on acceptance or tolerance for those who wish to remain as they are.

And yet I still love Rose.  Her actions may be directed by Uncle Alec but her emotional dramas are very much her own and it is through these that we finally see her weaknesses and flaws, her frailty, as she struggles to understand what it means to love, to be loved, and to be worthy of love.  As a reader, it was these disappointments and revelations that finally made Rose a sympathetic, human character.  Also, an unexplained mystery of my life has been solved: her reflections very clearly reveal the origins of my own views on love:

‘I don’t know how others feel, but, to me, love isn’t all.  I must look up, not down, trust and honor with my whole heart, and find strength and integrity to lean on.’

Unlike Rose, it is easier to respect characters such as her cousins Mac and Archie for their successes; although each struggles with what is right and good versus what is thrilling and enjoyable, they triumph over these temptations on their own while Rose always has the controlling hand of dear Uncle Alec guiding her.  In some ways, yes, this is a clear example of the freedom many parents gave and continue to give their sons while cosseting their daughters but I think it’s also a reflection of the parenting styles examined in the novel.  Aunt Jessie, Uncle Alec’s staunch ally in the experiment of raising Rose, seems to lack his heavy-handedness when it comes to the raising of her sons.  The same values and morals were instilled but Jessie seems to understand that her adult son must stand on his own and must know himself in order to face the world proudly.  Mac’s mother just appears to have yelled at him and his brother a lot, beating sense into them when it was necessary.  Not a soft maternal figure by any means but still a loving one, doing her best to raise two fine young men.  Alcott treats both with respect.  Aunt Clara, on the other hand, mother to Charlie, the black sheep of the family, does not get off so easily. 

Poor Charlie, ruined by late nights and drink.  Most of the blame is placed on silly Aunt Clara, which hardly seems fair.  The entire family watched her spoil and indulge him as a child and no one did anything to intervene in a meaningful way until it was too late.  By the time Rose in Bloom begins, Charlie is a grown man, surrounded by uncles and cousins enough to show him what a good man looks like.  But Charlie gets his just desserts, as judged by Alcott, though I have despised since my first reading how neatly and simply everything is tied up.  Charlie is allowed undeserved dignity and nobility, redemption that all previous allusions to his character would decry as implausible.  And that is all I have to say about that, without spoiling it.  But, regardless, I still always cry.

One of the central questions Rose in Bloom raised for me is: to what extent should we let ourselves be guided by the good advice of those who love us?  It’s a complicated question and one I certainly don’t have an answer to.  In the novel, you have both Rose and Charlie as foils, one following the exact wishes of her guardian, the other ignoring or unable to follow the advice of those who love him and all too easily follows in the footsteps of those who lead him astray.  And then you have Mac…

Mac develops into the most independent of the cousins, the one who listens to everything his parents and aunts and uncles say and then goes off into his books or into the wilderness seeking his own answers.  He is rather magnificent, actually, even if he did turn out to be a poet.  He is clearly a man, not a boy, and one of principles and patience.  Like Rose, he can at times seem almost too good to be true.  In Eight Cousins, Mac had been the most human of the children to me, the best written and most life-like.  Here, even more attention is devoted to him and while he’s certainly appealing I’m not confident that he’s as true to life.  It is, however, through Mac that Alcott begins to introduce the transcendentalist beliefs that so strongly influenced her own life, which was terribly fascinating (though paragraph after paragraph on the genius of both Thoreau and Emerson does grate).  When Mac finally falls in love, he does it not at a ball or a party but through correspondence on the essays of Emerson, letters that show him the “beautiful soul” of his beloved.  He is also a bit of a feminist, winning me over with this little speech to his brother and cousins:

‘It is very unreasonable in us to ask women to be saints and then expect them to feel honored when we offer them our damaged hearts or, at best, one not half as good as theirs.  If they weren’t blinded by love, they’d see what a mean advantage we take of them and not make such a hard bargain.’

It might not have been the book I remembered but I appreciate it far more now as an adult than I ever did as a child.  Yes, there are things I dislike about it but it’s still an excellent story written by a wonderful, intelligent author who made it engaging for audiences of all ages.

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When I sat down with Eight Cousins by Lousia May Alcott I was so excited to reread it after a gap of many years.  After the death of her father, orphaned Rose Campbell is sent to live at ‘Aunt Hill’, so termed by the Campbell clan, with her great-aunts and to await the arrival of her new guardian, Uncle Alec.  Uncle Alec, once arrived, proves to be a most eccentric guardian for a young girl, disregarding most of the advice of Rose’s aunts and great-aunts as well as societal conventions.  No corsets or hobble skirts for Rose, just exercise, fresh air, and high ideals!  And under his wing, along with the assistance of her seven rambunctious male cousins, Rose grows from a pale little shadow into a girl possessed of health, vitality and, because Alcott will not let us forget this even for a moment, moral fortitude.

But oh, what a preachy book this was!  I didn’t remember its righteous tone but then I always preferred its sequel, Rose in Bloom; that was the volume I read and reread, not this.  When Eva reviewed Eight Cousins last month I commented to say that I ‘rather like the moral tone of her [Louisa May Alcott’s] more preachy novels’ and I stand by that.  I’d far rather read a children’s novel with an excess of morals rather than one without and if you’re going to preach morals, Alcott’s are as fine as any.  Being reminded of the importance of charity, good sense, and self sacrifice does no one any harm but the way it is gone about, with Rose giving little or no resistance to the chidings of her elders, made me almost wish to smack the dear girl.  She is too perfect too quickly.  Rose is a very instructive heroine, to be sure, but not always a sympathetic one.

Rose is frequently held up as a model of decorum and virtue for her assorted male cousins while Rose’s paragon is Phebe, a servant girl at Aunt Hill who Rose ‘adopts’.  The friendship between Phebe and Rose never seems quite developed in this novel and Phebe is used primarily not as a person in her own right but as a device to allow Rose to improve herself as she seeks to be as industrious and appreciative as the divine Phebe.  The boys are equally vague as characters, with only the three eldest (Archie, Charlie, and Mac) getting any particular attention.  Archie, as the eldest of the eight cousins, is their natural leader, the Chief of the young clansmen.  He’s flat but in a kind and inoffensive way.  Charlie and Mac, however, are both memorable, though it is for their flaws rather than their virtues.  Charlie, beautiful and spirited, is egotistical and vain, by far the most outgoing and daring of the cousins, while the studious Mac, cast down by a serious ailment for much of the novel that Rose helps nurse him through (of course), comes across as cross and superior.  And even though I describe him that way, Mac was always my favourite of the boys when I was younger.  His illness and his very human reaction to it made him real in my eyes.  He didn’t suffer nobly or bravely but reacted just as you’d expect a teenage boy to do – very natural behaviour in a book not particularly noted for its natural characters.

Uncle Alec’s experiments in raising a young girl were delightful to read even if my unresolved issues with him from Rose in Bloom make it impossible for me to like him.  The equally enlightened, equally even-tempered Aunt Jessie is the perfect maternal counterpart to Alec.  I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or not.  Aunt Jessie lost me by doing what Uncle Alec does in Rose in Bloom: censoring the reading material of the younger generation.  In this family, the focus is very much on keeping the children innocent and idealistic, an aim which I can admire but by means which I cannot.  When Aunt Jessie finds her young sons reading trashy novels she is most disappointed (so much worse than when a parent is upset, as I’m sure we can all remember) and gives them a quite impassioned speech on the evils of their chosen reading:   

‘It gives boys such wrong ideas of life and business, shows them so much evil and vulgarity that they need not know about, and makes the one success worth having a fortune, a lord’s daughter, or some worldly honor, often not worth the time it takes to win.  It does seem to me that some one might write stories that should be lively, natural, and helpful, – tales in which the English should be good, the morals pure, and the characters such as we can love in spite of the faults that all may have.  I can’t bear to see such crowds of eager little fellows at the libraries reading such trash; weak, when it is not wicked, and totally unfit to feed the hungry minds that feast on it for want of something better.’ (p.203) 

I am of the belief that censorship accomplishes nothing and that children, and adults, need to see and sample the worst of what is out there, if they feel drawn to it, in order to appreciate the best.  How much more impressive to develop your natural tastes on your own, to learn to discern and to reject that which is, to use an Alcott phrase, unwholesome by means of your own reasoning and moral code rather than to have someone else decide for you!  And Alcott, through Uncle Alec and Aunt Jessie, does make you want to be as wholesome as Rose, to run and play, to wear only clothes that allow you to do so, and to study that which is good and useful.  Chief among these good and useful subjects is the art of housekeeping, which might raise the ire of many a feminist, but not this one – how I wish that could have been my chosen area of study!

But children are not the only ones being instructed here.  There are just as many edicts for how adults should behave; indeed probably more for the failure of any child to mature into a steady and virtuous adult is placed on those who raised him.  Alcott’s cautionary asides to adults take up a number of passages but, again, though I don’t always agree with the tone or the phrasing I do think she was correct in essentials:    

Fathers and mothers are too absorbed in business and housekeeping to study their children, and cherish that sweet and natural confidence which is a child’s surest safeguard, and a parent’s subtlest power.  So the young hearts hide trouble or temptation till the harm is done, and mutual regard comes too late.  Happy the boys and girls who tell all things freely to father or mother, sure of pity, help, and pardon; and thrice happy the parents who, out of their own experience, and by their own virtues, can teach and uplift the souls for which they are responsible (p. 227-228)

When I finished reading this, I immediately picked up Rose in Bloom and had an equally passionate response to it.  Hopefully I’ll be able to get my review of it up later this week – stand by!

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