Little Women

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Simply charming, a must-read for anyone who has forgotten the power of Alcott’s storytelling. Harmless morality tales inside that teach without being overly preachy, resolve to be good, etc. etc. The unnamed Mrs. March, mother to the four sisters, reveals her own struggle to be good when Jo comes to her for advice for overcoming her temper: “I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo; but I have learned not to show it; and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.” The unnamed Mr. March is conveniently away from home fighting for the Yanks in the Civil War, but he does make an appearance later in the book after being nursed back to health.

Jo is the star, the independent whirligig of energy who channels her creativity into stories that she sells to make money for the family (and later hones to art after abandoning the cheap thrilling trash that she was paid to write). Amy is the visual artist, sketching and sculpting, lucking out into a European tour with her aunt after Jo rashly said she doesn’t enjoy taking favors from people. Meg is the oldest, settling into a family of her own way too soon for Jo’s liking. Beth is in the middle, the musician who dies early after being weakened by scarlet fever that she never truly recovers from. Jo discovers Laurie, her next door neighbor, is a capital chap, and they horse around for years until it seems likely that Laurie has fallen in love with her. Jo takes a governess job in NYC in order to create distance and possibly get Laurie to love Beth. In the end, Laurie and Amy start their own family, Jo marries her German friend, the professor.

Alcott was pressured into marrying Jo off, and did not want to. (From her journal in November 1868: “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please any one.”) She churned this off in ten weeks, ending part one with a plea, “So grouped the curtain falls upon Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Whether it rises again depends upon the reception given to the first act of the domestic drama, called ‘LITTLE WOMEN’.”

Parts of the book seem to spill directly from Alcott’s soul: “Then she tried a child’s story, which she could easily have disposed of if she had not been mercenary enough to demand filthy lucre for it.”

Despite Alcott’s loathing of marriage, her book isn’t quite the underground feminist novel that it could have been. While Jo cavorts around with the freedom of a boy, when it comes to describing Meg’s twins, Demi and Daisy, Alcott caves into the cultural baggage of the sexes by making Demi (the boy) precocious, adventurous, inquisitive, and educated while Daisy (the girl) learns to stitch and “made a galley-slave of herself and adored her brother.” Puke.

The version I read (Modern Library, pub’d 2000) had terrible notes compiled by Random House, and they truly were random. On one page, they’d explain a character name, but make no reference to who Madam de Stael was. But then they’d insert a footnote to explain something that was entirely clear by context, that Killarney was in Ireland. I did pick up that there was an earlier Speed the Plough play (Thomas Morton) by references to the frequently mentioned Mrs. Grundy. (I recently saw the Mamet play Speed the Plow and am getting a copy of Morton’s to compare/contrast)

An Old-Fashioned Girl

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Another solid tween book from Alcott, liberally sprinkling in the ideas of independent woman alongside the virtuous deeds of respecting elders, helping each other, doing charity work, not minding poverty. I do wish she didn’t lean so hard on the happily-ever-after wrap up always ending in marriage…. it wasn’t the path she chose for her own life so why perpetuate the myth for other ladies?

Polly is a simple, pleasant, respectful girl from the country who stays for a month at the rich Boston home of her friend Fanny Shaw, becoming a bosom member of the family by palling around with brother Tom, sister Maud, the grandmother, and meeting Mr. Shaw on his way home from work each night. Mrs. Shaw is a weak woman who suffers from nerves and has little say in the story. We skip ahead six years and Polly returns to town to set up shop as a music teacher, living in a rented room and sending her brother Will to college. There are some tidy scenes of the cozy house Polly makes in her small room, serving tea to Will each Sunday and Maud tagging along. The usual crossed-wire romances occur, where Polly loves Tom who’s engaged to Trixie, and Syndey loves Polly but Fanny loves Sydney. All’s well that ends well, although Alcott does save Maud from the maudlin ending by NOT marrying her off to Will.

Strongest chapter is the one where Polly introduces Fanny to her friends, women artists and writers, a sculptor, an engraver, an author. They picnic on shared goodies on a makeshift table in their studio and ogle the statue of Ideal Woman that Becky is shaping.

I should really go ahead and re-read Little Women since I seem to be making my way through her collected works.

Rose in Bloom

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Part two wraps up the story from Eight Cousins, picking up the thread a few years down the road as Rose, Phebe, and Rose’s uncle return from a few years traveling abroad. Once she sets foot onshore, Rose’s friends press her to have a coming out party appropriate for an heiress. Rose does enter society, telling her uncle that she’s going to experiment with it for a few months, then make her decision if she’ll continue or go back to more worthy pursuits. She finds her boy cousins much improved, and the handsomest (Charlie, or Prince) goes about trying to woo Rose with more of an eye to her fortune than anything. He’s unfortunately already an alcoholic, although he bravely tries to give it up for Rose’s sake. He ends up dying right on the cusp of leaving to live with his father in India, where he was sure to be saved from temptation. Luckily (as we suspected all along), bookworm cousin Mac blossoms into a hunky genius poet doctor and Rose finds that she can love someone as much as her uncle. Side plot is Phebe (the ex-maid turned singer) who cousin Archie falls for but the family rejects (no family! no money!), so she goes off to earn fame and fortune as a singer, returning with a hero’s welcome after she nurses beloved uncle back to health. This book has more of a feminist tone, where Rose continues to hammer on topics like the ridiculousness of women being educated for silly things and obsessed with fine dresses. Charlie’s unsuitability is early highlighted in his distaste for Rose’s strong mind, considers her “ruined” by the uncle’s teaching.

Eight Cousins

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A delightful book apologized for by Alcott for frailties due to the fact it was serialized, flaws she hopes to make up for in the sequel, Rose in Bloom. We find Rose as an orphaned thirteen year old living with her great aunts and expecting the arrival of her uncle at any moment. She meets her seven male cousins who jab and flaunt and tumble and cause a general ruckus. Uncle arrives and weens her off the ineffective potions and restrictive dress her aunts have put her in, letting her health get better with lack of coffee and increase in fresh air. Alcott takes great pains to describe the useless and constricting clothing women were asked to wear, the corsets and the heavy fabrics. One tragedy that hits near and dear to me was her cousin Mac (the bookworm) losing his sight for awhile after straining his eyes from reading too much, my own personal nightmare. Rose takes her maid, Phebe, who sings like a bird (phoebe! tricking Rose into thinking a mockingbird was in the house) under her wing, “adopting” her and giving her a 4th of July vacation where she stayed at home to care for the house. Cousin Steve/Dandy predates the current man-bun craze with a top knot of his own. It’s a happy and flimsy tale, and I’m gearing up for the sequel now.

Work: A Story of Experience

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Louisa May Alcott followed up the success of Little Women with this gem in 1873, dubbed Little Women for Adults by those less gifted with brains. We meet our hero, Christie, at the beginning of the book telling her aunt that she’s about to leave to make her own way in the world, to work for her living and be independent. From this cozy hearth, she sets out to the city and puts herself into service as a maid, then actor, then governess, then seamstress, eventually struggling with poverty and narrowly avoiding a watery suicide through intervention of her friend Rachel. She winds up in the countryside, living with David Sterling and his Quaker mother, learning gardening and welcomed into the bosom of their humble home. Love drama, rejected beaus, then David and Christie seem about to live happily ever after when you realize there are still 50 pages left. Enter Civil War, David wounded and dying on the front, Christie an expert nurse who can do nothing for him. Final scene is a group of women around the table watching Christie’s daughter Ruth and planning for their futures.