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.
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.
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.