The Little Women Letters promises to be a great summer read!

Summertime is here and I’ve lucked into some wonderful summer reading. I just started The Little Women Letters, the fifth novel by Gabrielle Donnelly, a British writer. The story is set in modern day London and tells the story of three sisters (Emma, Lulu and Sophie) who are direct descendants of Jo March. The middle sister, Lulu (guess who she’s modeled after) discovers a treasure trove of letters from and to Jo. Apparently these letters have a profound affect on her life and the lives of her sisters, but I’ve only just started this book. I do know that it’s been a long time since a book captured my imagination so much that I lost track of time at the gym! Definitely a fun read.

I’m always amazed at how an author can muster up the confidence to attempt to write authentically in the voice of another. So far Donnelly is doing this really well. She perfectly captures the style and sentiment of Louisa May Alcott’s writing and as a result, the letters whisk me back to Little Women in a flash (so glad that I read that book recently so that it’s still fresh). It’s great to be back with Marmee, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy and Laurie.

I have to get this book back to the library in 2 weeks so I need to read fast! I’ll let you know how it goes. I think I’m going to feel sad when it’s done.

Polly finds the palace not so beautiful after all

In chapter 3 of An Old-Fashioned Girl, it’s obvious that the newness of living the privileged city life has grown old for Polly:

Polly soon found that she was in a new world, a world where the manners and customs were so different from the simple ways at home, that she felt like a stranger in a strange land, and often wished that she had not come. In the first place, she had nothing to do but lounge and gossip, read novels, parade the streets, and dress; and before a week was gone, she was as heartily sick of all this, as a healthy person would be who attempted to live on confectionery.

Even Fanny’s little sister, 6 year-old Maud, was caught up in this life:

But Miss Maud was much absorbed in her own affairs, for she belonged to a “set” also; and these mites of five and six had their “musicals,” their parties, receptions, and promenades, as well as their elders; and, the chief idea of their little lives seemed to be to ape the fashionable follies they should have been too innocent to understand. Maud had her tiny card-case, and paid calls, “like mamma and Fan”; her box of dainty gloves, her jewel-drawer, her crimping-pins, as fine and fanciful a wardrobe as a Paris doll, and a French maid to dress her. Polly could n’t get on with her at first, for Maud did n’t seem like a child, and often corrected Polly in her conversation and manners, though little mademoiselle’s own were anything but perfect.

Eeesh!

It certainly sounded like an empty and shallow life, not unlike what I read in Little Women in the chapter, “Vanity Fair.”  Meg was very drawn in by all the finery but soon came to her senses thanks to Laurie. Polly was also attracted to the wealth and fine clothes, but definitely not to the lifestyle.

Why would girls live like that?

I found myself wondering how anyone could live this way and obviously author Louisa May Alcott thought a lot about it too. It’s a stinging indictment of how women could prove to be their own worst enemies. Perhaps it was because there were so few meaningful opportunities for women in Louisa’s day but to surrender to a “confectionery” life (love that analogy) seemed akin to intellectual and emotional death. My impression is that although Susan B. Anthony and her cohorts had a hard time with men trying to convince them of the need of rights for women, they had a much harder time with their own!

Polly runs outside to escape

In an effort to fight against this “confectionery” lifestyle, Polly slipped out when she could to take a run (Louisa, by the way, loved to take runs as a way of working off her excess energy). On one occasion she found herself at a hill where other children were sliding in the snow. She joined in the fun and found that Fanny’s “horrid” brother Tom was there as well so they joined forces for a wonderful day of fun. I admired Polly’s nerve (as did Tom) to fight convention but unfortunately, she gave in when she faced the disapproval of Fanny and her mother. She caved in, vowing not to go out sledding again (heaven forbid a young lady should engage in such a physical activity in public, and with a boy!). Tom, who had been warming up to Polly, promptly dismissed her. Poor Polly!

Can one be a rebel alone?

It reminded me of the one time I took a public stand against being forced to do something with the girls when I wanted to do what the boys were doing instead. In 6th grade, the girls were assigned to read Jane Eyre while the boys were to read Treasure Island. I protested, asking why I had to read Jane Eyre just because I was a girl. I was then allowed to join the boys in reading Treasure Island. However, it’s hard to be a rebel alone – I felt so uncomfortable with the boys that I caved in and joined the girls to read Jane Eyre. The book didn’t really do anything for me at the time. :-)

Giving into temptation – will the formula wear thin?

Back to Polly who then goes down that “dark path” of caving in to pressure to buy something expensive and fashionable for herself (bronze boots) rather than use the money as it was originally intended (to buy gifts for her family). Here’s where An Old-Fashioned Girl begins to feel like Little Women, falling into the familiar pattern of teaching a moral lesson as was done so many times in Little Women. This, of course, was Louisa’s trademark, and was something readers either loved or found fault with. I personally find it comforting though I wonder if I will find the formula wanting as I continue reading.

Polly is an easy character to like and I find the study of privileged girls interesting. I look forward to the continual building of Polly’s relationship with Tom – that is obviously leading somewhere. :-)

Was Thoreau a romantic? Final thoughts on “Walking”

Much has been said about how unconventional Henry David Thoreau was. Although brilliant he was solitary, decidedly different, very blunt, not especially attractive physically, and he was prone to “queer” habits such as climbing trees, imitating bird calls and the like.

Yet women did find Thoreau attractive. Louisa May Alcott had a schoolgirl crush on him, and based characters in her books on him, most especially Adam Warwick, her doomed lover in Moods, and David Sterling in Work: A Story of Experience.

Sophia Foord, a naturalist and boarder at Hillside, the Alcott family home during Louisa’s teenage (and happiest) years, actually proposed marriage to a horrified Thoreau who brushed her aside.

Except for a failed attempt at love with Ellen Sewall (where he competed with his brother John for her affections), and a possible romantic interest in Lidian Emerson, Thoreau was not a ladies’ man. But I do maintain that he was a romantic.

Thoreau wrote passionately in his essay,  “Walking,” about traveling west, commenting that he usually positioned his feet west to south-west because “The future lies that way to me, and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side.” He adds, “We go eastward to realize history, and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race, — we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure.” While Thoreau protested the idea of Manifest Destiny (the 19th century American belief that the United States was destined to expand across the North American continent, from the Atlantic Seaboard to the Pacific Ocean – Wikipedia) especially because of the Mexican-American War (which annexed Texas and permitted another slave state), it does seem that at least philosophically, he embraced the idea of heading west. And here’s where the romantic in him showed its face:

Every sunset which I witness inspires me with the desire to go to a west as distant and as fair as that into which the Sun goes down. He appears to migrate westward daily and tempt us to follow him. He is the Great Western Pioneer whom the nations follow. We dream all night of those mountain ridges in the horizon, though they may be of vapor only, which were last gilded by his rays. The island of Atlantis,and the islands and gardens of the Hesperides, a sort of terrestrial paradise, appear to have been the Great West of the ancients, enveloped in mystery and poetry. Who has not seen in imagination, when looking into the sunset sky, the gardens of the Hesperides, and the foundation of all those fables?

Not to be a killjoy, but what about all the hardships pioneers faced going out west? Many many thousands of people died from disease, starvation and battles with Native Americans. It was a tremendous struggle just to survive. I was surprised  in the romanticism and naivety that Thoreau seemed to exhibit but I was glad to see that he had such an optimistic spirit. He cites Sir Francis Head, an English traveler:

 “The heavens of America appear infinitely higher — the sky is bluer — the air is fresher — the cold is intenser — the moon looks larger — the stars are brighter — the thunder is louder — the lightning is vivider — the wind is stronger — the rain is heavier — the mountains are higher — the rivers larger — the forests bigger — the plains broader.”

This line made me laugh:

” . . .  the traveller can lie down in the woods at night almost anywhere in North America without fear of wild beasts.”

Um, ever hear of black bears?? Or bobcats??

It got me to thinking about the experiment at Walden. I still think it was a noble experiment but isn’t it true that he brought his laundry to his mother at the family homestead in Concord? :-)

I know that going west for Thoreau was as much about allegory as it was about actually traveling there. The east represented the Old World and Old World (e.g. old ideas and narrow-minded and conventional) thinking whereas the west represented a broadening of one’s horizon and the possibility of reconnecting again with Nature – Sir Francis said it perfectly.

What’s the point of all this? Just that Thoreau was many things: brilliant thinker and writer, transcendentalist, abolitionist and government protester (and willing to go to jail over it), surveyor, pencil maker, innovator, naturalist – a man who said much and truly walked the walk. I would just like to add that he was also a romantic. Bombastic at times, but definitely a romantic.

Continuing “Walking” with Henry David Thoreau

Listening to “Walking” while I walked (see previous post) only whetted my appetite to dig deeper into this amazing essay. The more I read, the more the text opened up like a flower early in the morning, each truth displaying itself in the light of a new understanding. I feel akin to Thoreau and I attribute it to my recent exploration into the contemplative life. I daresay that Thoreau thinks much like religious contemplatives and monks that I’ve read about, but without the overt mention of religion. Still, to me anyway, the suggestion is very much there. What makes Thoreau so amazing is that he lays out the map of where you should go but allows you to choose how you will get there. It makes his thinking universal, applicable to anyone who wants it, in any time and place.

Learning to understand Thoreau:
Nature

Ken Kifer wrote that “Thoreau based his philosophy on ageless truths from the past and looked into the future.” In describing Walden, he wrote that “its logic is based on a different understanding of life, quite contrary to what most people would call common sense.” I felt like he was describing my life. I have always walked to the beat of a different drummer.

So I already knew that “Walking” was far more than a description and appreciation of nature. There is no doubt that Thoreau had a deep connection with the out-of-doors and contributed greatly to the study of the natural world with his observations and insights. I think specifically of a section near the end of “Walking” where he describes climbing a pine tree only to discover “on the ends of the topmost branches only, a few minute and delicate red cone-like blossoms, the fertile flower of the white pine looking heavenward.” He was so taken with this discovery that he actually cut off the top of the tree and took it into town to show anyone who would look at it!

Many people love Thoreau because he was a naturalist and he certainly lifted the experience to a higher plain. But Nature (note the capital N which he always used) was far more than what was seen. I believe he used it as an allegory to challenge people to think beyond their narrow, conventional lives of commerce and work. He felt it essential to move beyond conventional and shallow thought, and to dig much deeper into the meaning of life. No doubt his thinking was influenced by the dehumanizing influence of the new industrial age. It’s amazing that he could see it even then, with industrialization in its infancy. I can only imagine how he would see our world today..

Learning to understand Thoreau:
Silence

Thoreau valued walking greatly, making it a rather spiritual experience. He called it sauntering (“which word is beautifully derived ‘from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre” — to the holy land . . .) and declared that he couldn’t preserve his health and spirits unless he spent at least 4 hours per day sauntering through Nature, free from worldly entanglements. Someone who is able to spend that much time alone and walking obviously understood the value of silence. I have a feeling Thoreau was an expert at quieting himself, ridding himself of those useless thoughts that race through the mind, and allowing higher thought to rise to the surface. This is something I am learning how to do with contemplative prayer. It’s like entering the innermost chamber of yourself and meeting someone you love there. I’ve only succeeded once or twice to get there but once you’ve been there, you hunger to go back and stay. Thoreau knew how to enter that chamber and silence is the way. It wasn’t always easy for him (“I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit”) but he knew the way.

Digging deeper

Thoreau uses much of the essay to challenge us to dig deeper, broadening our horizon, and opening our hearts and minds to other realities. I feel like his writing is practically shouting at me because I see so much narrow-mindedness, such a lack of creativity in the way people think, and a general blindness to what makes life truly worth living. Although I feel I have a gift for insight, I also sense a barrier inside of me preventing me from digging deeper myself, and then learning how to express it in words. I think that with Thoreau’s help (and further time inside my chamber with my Beloved) I can break down this barrier, stone by stone.

There is so much more to say about “Walking”; I will continue in future posts.

 

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Some people have studied for an
online
PhD
in order to fully understand Thoreau.
His words about nature are beautiful.

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Louisa creates the perfect man for Jo (and herself?)


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Reading Louisa May Alcott’s next-best book, “An Old-Fashioned Girl”

Summer is such a great time – life is finally slowing down and now I can get back to reading for fun. I’ve been dying to read An Old-Fashioned Girl since I found the 1926 Brown and Little copy that I so foolishly deposed of the first time. I found an audio version on Librivox.org so I started listening last Thursday.

Although I’ve been hesitant to read Louisa May Alcott’s juvenile books, An Old-Fashioned Girl reminded me of why I shouldn’t. Since she is writing for young girls, Louisa’s style is very straight forward and I like that. It’s very enjoyable (and relaxing) to hear/read something that doesn’t required tremendous amounts of thought but rather, stirs memories and engages you with concrete characters.

The summary of the story (from Wikipedia) is this:  Polly Milton, a 14-year-old country girl, visits her friend Fanny Shaw and her wealthy family in the city for the first time. Poor Polly is overwhelmed by the splendor at the Shaws’ and their urbanized, fashionable lifestyles, fancy clothes and some other habits she considers weird and, mostly, unlikable. However, Polly’s warmth, support and kindness eventually win her the hearts of all the family members. Six years later, Polly comes back to the city to become a music teacher.

Polly is a spirited girl and very likable from the get-go: ” . . . a fresh-faced little girl running down the long station, and looking as if she rather liked it . . . Up came the the little girl, with her hand out, and a half-shy, half-merry look in her blue eyes . . .”

Chapter One opens with Polly being met at the train station by Tom, also 14, described by his sister Fanny as “an awful boy . . . the horridest one I ever saw.” Of course, it’s not hard to imagine that Tom will figure in Polly’s life most prominently and I look forward to seeing how that unfolds.

I had two favorite parts of this chapter. Firstly, I enjoyed how Fanny’s grandmother took Polly under her wing. Madam Shaw perceives Polly’s purity and innocence saying, “You mustn’t mind my staring, dear,” said Madam, softly pinching her rosy cheek. “I haven’t seen a little girl for so long, it does my old eyes good to look at you.”

Polly doesn’t understand what Madam means until Madam explains that Fanny acts like a grown-up already at 14, and Maud, her little 6-year old sister, is a “spoiled brat.” Madam appreciates the intrinsic value of Polly’s “old-fashioned” manner of holding on to her childhood just a bit longer.

My other favorite part was the last two pages of the chapter – I particularly related to it and decided that Polly and I had a lot in common. At this  point in the story, Polly accompanies Fanny and her family to the theatre. Being a country girl, Polly has little experience with the theatre and it quite put off by what she perceives as very improper behavior by the actors and actresses in the play. Even though this play was the height of fashion (mirroring the French) Louisa writes, “Our little girl is was too innocent to understand half the jokes, and often wondered what people were laughing at . . .”

Louisa’s description of Polly’s discomfort (” . . . Polly did not think it at all funny, but looked disgusted . . . poor unfashionable Polly didn’t know what to do; for she felt both frightened and indignant, and sat with her eyes on her play-bill, and her cheeks getting hotter and hotter every minute.”) described how I felt when I saw “Bridesmaids,” a movie that came out this spring, with my sister and sister-in-law. “Bridesmaids” is one of those R-rated raunchy comedies and, like Polly, I squirmed through the whole thing, didn’t find it funny, and couldn’t wait to get out of there!  Guess I too am just plain old-fashioned. So it was nice to find a counterpart in literature even if she was 150 years before my time. :-)

Looking forward to reading more of this book!

Learn how author Anna Maclean reimagines Louisa May Alcott

from Cozy Corner: Anna Maclean Reimagines Louisa May Alcott

BY RT BOOK REVIEWS, JUNE, 15 2011

It is not easy to make a historical figure your own, but that is just what author Anna Maclean has done with the New England author Louisa May Alcott. In Maclean’s series, Alcott unravels mysteries that befall her friends and family. This series originally hit shelves in the mid-2000s from Signet and this month the series first, Louisa and the Missing Heiress, has been re-released by mystery publisher Obsidian. Today get Maclean shares a look at how she brought Louisa back to life to unravel these very unusual cozy mysteries!

Louisa May Alcott was so wonderfully complex! As a daughter she had to be loyal and useful; as a woman she had to follow the severe conventions of her time without losing her originality; as an author, she managed to find a way to work with so many different areas of her creativity!

Louisa, as I imagined her for my cozy mystery series, beginning with Louisa and the Missing Heiress, is a woman of her times: intelligent, well-bred, resourceful. Yet she has a shadowy side. She must, for the times themselves were often dark, brooding, dangerous.

Click here to read the rest of this interview

“Walking” with Henry David Thoreau

I don’t care what anyone says: I believe that Henry David Thoreau was a romantic. True, he certainly preferred his solitude over the company of others (although he and his brother at one time loved a woman named Ellen, enough to want to marry her, and it’s rumored that Thoreau loved Lidian Emerson), but I believe he was a romantic in the way he felt about nature.

At least he swept me away yesterday (probably not unlike the way he swept away Louisa May Alcott). On the way to the gym for my workout, I listened to his essay entitled “Walking” which prompted me to skip the gym and take a walk over at the dog field at Tufts  Veterinary School. Thoreau made the outdoors sound so compelling that I couldn’t imagine shutting myself up in a gym when I could experience the glorious outdoors. After all, I prided myself on being a lover of nature, right?

Ah, you have to love audio books! I strapped on my iTouch and began listening to part 2 of “Walking” as I began my walk. Everything was lovely at first – tall green grass with birds diving to and fro, cool breezes, this was living! Until, I stumbled on the rough path and fell down, nearly spraining my ankle! The reading of “Walking” was blaring in my head as I massaged both feet (both of which give me pain most of the time anyway) and wondered if I would be able to continue, let alone get back to my car! Under my breath I found myself muttering, “Thanks a lot, Thoreau!”

I did manage to continue my walk, trying to get back in the spirit of what I was hearing. All went well until I got into the woodsy part of the trip and the mosquitoes had me in their cross hairs!  At one point there was a swarm around me and I wondered what  Thoreau must have used to keep the mosquitoes at bay.

I got back to the meadow and completed my walk just as the audio book finished. My little excellent adventure! :-)

I must admit though, I enjoyed the walk and would like to do it again, feet permitting!

I’m reading through the printout of “Walking” now so I can take a closer look and will write more when I finish it.

I still think he’s a romantic and I’ll tell you why soon . . .

 

Getting to know John Matteson, author of “Eden’s Outcasts”

I’m about to treat you to a wonderful interview with John Matteson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts (one of the many books on my list begging to be read). Here’s a sampling to whet your appetite:

What drives the continued fascination with Louisa May Alcott?
Louisa combined the best aspects of both her parents. She was a moral idealist, like her father, but she was also a fighter like her mother. When she found a cause she believed in, she became a fury on its behalf. As with Harriet Beecher Stowe, you can’t read Alcott without feeling inspired to be better than you are. It’s remarkable to me to see how that legacy has been carried on in the people who work at Orchard House, the Alcott home in Concord, Mass. They are deeply kind and incredibly passionate about doing good in the world. It’s funny, by the way: many of the authors we consider great have a deep sense of moral ambiguity: Melville, Dostoyevsky, Goethe. Alcott never had much doubt as to right and wrong. Perhaps that makes her somewhat less of an artist, but reading her can be a wonderfully strengthening experience.

Be sure and read the rest (especially the part when he wins the Pulitzer) -
here’s the link.

Take a tour of the final resting place of the Alcotts

There’s a terrific article on the Concord Patch written by a licensed Concord tour guide, Harry Beyer. He takes you on a tour of the Alcott family plot at Sleepy Hollow cemetery. Here’s a teaser from the article:

Louisa May was an active abolitionist, helping to shelter runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. She was also an early feminist. Protesting the exclusion of women from Concord’s 1875 Centennial parade and ceremony at Old North Bridge (the celebration at which Daniel Chester French’s Minute Man statue was unveiled), she wrote “It was impossible to help thinking, that there should have been a place for the great granddaughters of Prescott, William Emerson, John Hancock, and Dr. Ripley, as well as for … the scissors that cut the immortal cartridges” for the shot heard round the world. “It seemed to me that … the men of Concord had missed a grand opportunity of imitating those whose memory they had met to honor.”

Here’s the link to the article where you can read more and see the grave markers for each family member.

I thought it was very curious (and very cool) that of all the biographies written about the Alcotts, Beyer recommends Madelon Bedell’s book, The Alcotts Biography of a Family. I’d love to know why . . . I left a comment on the post inquiring, hopefully he’ll answer.

Listen to Susan Cheever talk about her biography on Louisa May Alcott and other Concord Writers

Here’s a podcast where you can listen to Susan Cheever talk about her latest book, Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography, plus another podcast on her fascinating study on the Concord authors. American Bloomsbury. Read about and listen to the podcasts here.

What did I think about her books?

Read my review of Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography

Read my view of American Bloomsbury

Both books have a spot on my personal library shelf.