What was it like to be a nineteenth century woman who bucked the system?
Suppose she didn’t want to marry right away but instead, preferred to seek independence and meaning through work?
What if her world didn’t revolve around a man, but herself? How would she fare?
Does the answer lie in Jo March?
At first, readers thought that Jo March from Louisa May Alcott’s classic, Little Women, would provide answers to these questions. After all, Jo was fiery and independent, determined to make her mark in the world:
“I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, something heroic or wonderful that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous, that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream.” (from Chapter 13, Little Women, “Castles in the Air”)
Would Jo break the mold of the nineteenth century girl?
Or was it all just a tease?
Little Women was a book for girls and pressure to “marry Jo off’ forced Louisa to compromise her vision of Jo as a literary spinster to please her public, and her publisher.
The compromise was shared however: Jo married an unconventional husband in Professor Bhaer and the two enjoyed marriage based on love, companionship and the shared work of the school at Plumfield.
A grown-up approach
Enter Christie Devon, the heroine of Work A Story of Experience, Louisa’s semi-autobiographical account in adult form.
In the Penguin Classics version of Work, Joy S. Kasson writes in the introduction, “Work … illuminates the issue of women’s work and the struggle for success – both on a personal level for Alcott and on a more general level for American culture in the years immediately following the Civil War.”(pg. xii)
Written over several years
Begun in 1861 and not completed until 1872, it was originally released in serial form in The Christian Union (published by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother Henry Ward Beecher) and appeared in novel form the following year.
Author in demand
According to biographer Martha Saxton, after The Christian Union made a handsome offer to publish Work as a novel after its serialization, Louisa nearly jumped ship from her current publisher, Roberts Bros. because she was “fed up with [Thomas] Niles’s cheapness.” Niles wooed her back after he “bombarded her with frantic letters” (pg. 350, Louisa May A Modern Biography by Martha Saxton).
The structure of Work
The first six chapters are episodic in nature (like Little Women); Louisa wrote them in the early 1860s when she was in her twenties, struggling for work in Boston.
After putting the manuscript away for awhile, she returned to it, transforming the story into a full-blown narrative.
It is here that the book really begins, with a “more complex and ambiguous exploration of the deeper meanings of work, not as ‘employment’ alone but as spiritual sustenance.” (Sasson, pg. xv, introduction to Work).
The nice, neat package that was the first six chapters now becomes more ambivalent; the black-and-white turns to gray, the book matures.
Alcott scholar Sarah Elbert describes Christie as Alcott’s “most complex and sustained heroine.” (pg. 192, Critical Essays on Louisa May Alcott edited by Madeleine B. Stern – “Introduction to Work: A Story of Experience” by Sarah Elbert).
I look forward to getting to know Christie and discussing her with you!
Click here to read part two of this series on Work.
Reading Work by Louisa May Alcott is part of my Louisa May Alcott Summer Challenge - are you a part of this challenge and if so, how are you doing?
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