Summer Conversational Series 2014 – “Navigating the Vortex: Creative Genius in the Time of the Alcotts” – Is it Talent or Genius?

Jan Turnquist, Executive Director, introducing the speaker.

Jan Turnquist, Executive Director, introducing the speaker.

I am grateful to be able to attend again the annual Summer Conversational Series at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House this year. The theme concerns talent versus genius, and the abundance of genius that existed in Concord, Massachusetts in the 19th century.

I was not able to take in all five days of the series but I will present the speakers that I was fortunate enough to see.

Was Louisa a genius?

Was Louisa May Alcott a genius or merely a crackerjack professional writer? Was she both? These questions and more were explored during Monday’s session.

Cathlin Davis, Ph.D

560 cathlin1

Cathlin Davis, Ph.D on Talent versus Genius

The first speaker was a perennial favorite, Dr. Cathlin Davis, professor of Liberal Studies at California State University, Stanislaus. Dr. Davis probably knows Louisa’s juvenile canon better than anyone with a particular emphasis on her numerous short stories.

Louisa’s breakthrough work in children’s literature

Dr. Davis is passionate about elevating children’s literature to the level of respect it deserves by highlighting its most prominent authors. Dr. Davis maintained in her presentation “Is it Talent or Genius?” that Louisa’s unique genius was the ability to get inside the mind of the child and voice that child’s thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears. Before Louisa, children’s literature presented all-too-perfect children presenting moral teaching through stilted dialog. Dr. Davis compared a sample from Nathanial Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales of a twelve year old’s conversation (stiff, formal, full of long words and complex sentences) to Louisa’s An Old-Fashioned Girl featuring childish conversation laced with slang and grammatical errors; in other words, the way children of that era really talked.

Examples from Louisa’s stories

Dr. Davis spelled out the qualities of talent and of genius, displaying them on a poster (see photo). She then took several examples from Louisa’s books and short stories to illustrate. These included Amy and Laurie from Little Women, Rose, Charlie, Phoebe and Mac from Rose in Bloom, Psyche and her little sister from the short story “Pysche’s Art,” Clara from “A Bright Idea” (from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, Volume V), and Diana and Persis. As you can see from the photo, she listed who she thought had talent and who possessed genius.

560 talent versus genius


Louisa herself is on that list.

Louisa’s genius was her genuine love of children, her commitment to truthfulness and accuracy, and her passion. She respected children, never writing “down” to them. These qualities were instantly recognized by her adoring public with the first publication of volume one of Little Women.

Much to find in Louisa’s stories

Dr. Davis concluded that Louisa wrote extensively on the subjects of talent and genius. She remarked that preparing for this presentation, she realized that Rose in Bloom is not just about romance but about discovering one’s talent, determining whether or not it is genius, and using it to benefit others. While Louisa did often focus on the fine art talents of music, acting, dancing and painting, she also pointed out those talents which often go unnoticed – the talents for helping others which Rose displayed so well in the story.

True confession

rose in bloomI have a confession to make which has probably been obvious to you who read this blog regularly: I enjoy writing about Louisa more than writing about her books and stories. It is an odd disconnect, one that I am seeking to correct. Having listened to Dr. Davis’s presentation (and later having the pleasure of conversing with her over dinner), I have a better sense of what to look for when I read Louisa’s juvenile works. Dr. Davis is convinced that in spite of the infamous quote (which she is loath to use) of writing “moral pap for the young,” Louisa was in fact proud of her juvenile writing and poured herself into her writing.

You all of course have always known that. I felt that way about Little Women despite Louisa’s protestations about having to write it. Perhaps the author doth protest too much?

Needless to say, I have much catching up to do and a pleasant task it will be!

More to come …

In my next post I will present more about the other presenters in Monday’s session.

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Talking about Louisa on the radio!

Last week I was invited to be interviewed by the Extreme Writers Now forum on Blogtalk radio. The interview took place on Sunday night and we had a free-for-all discussing Louisa’s works and legacy. It was great fun and I was honored to be a part of it.

You can listen to the interview here (click on the picture):

We talked about Little Women, Moods, A. M. Barnard, men, women and
An Old-Fashioned Girl, and Louisa’s poignant writings about dying in Hospital Sketches.

I love spreading the word about Louisa’s wonderful life, work and legacy! My thanks to Karen Weil who wrote the wonderful post on Louisa’s poetry; she made the connection.

Click to Tweet & Share Got to talk about LMA on the radio! Listen to interview on Blog Talk Radio (Extreme Writing Now) @Drifter0658

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My 3 days with Louisa May Alcott (part four): connections between Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller

Note: This post is longer than usual. I had considered running it in two installments but thought it would lessen the impact of its message by doing that.

So sit back with a cup of coffee, relax and read. :-)

Two ladies,
same vision

Two New England feminists, both heavily influenced by transcendentalism.

Both in the company of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott.

Both very reform-minded.

Both would forever change history for women.

Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller were neither friends nor colleagues yet they shared a similar passion for women’s rights, believing it was best for society.

Continuing with the theme of yesterday’s post, Pulitzer prize-winning author John Matteson drew connections between these two women while highlighting their different approaches.

What was Margaret Fuller’s vision for women?

Margaret Fuller, much like Bronson, believed in attaining spiritual perfection. She was the most passionate of the transcendentalists, that passion often spilling over to the individuals themselves.

Much more than a flirt …

Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

It is titillating to read about her intense relationships with Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne (not a transcendentalist, but he did base the heroine of The Scarlett Letter on Margaret – see Wikipedia on Margaret Fuller) but it is also distracting. Margaret may have been a flirt but she was brilliant.

Living her words

A woman’s voice was needed in the Transcendentalist movement and she brought it. While Bronson and Emerson talked a great game regarding the value and worth of women, Margaret lived it, educating women through her writing and her brand of “conversations.”

The vision laid out

Women in the Nineteen Century is Margaret’s tour de force, where she lays out her vision for women.

Matteson laid out Margaret’s demand for full rights for women, well beyond the political and economic; this would include equality spiritually and intellectually.

Bringing virtue to the marketplace

A reformer at heart, she believed that women needed to be in marketplace in order to bring about reform. Taking the traditional role of the wife leading the husband to greater virtue, she extends it out to the greater society: women in business would lead the marketplace (and the men in it) to greater virtue.

Man versus Men, Woman versus Women

Margaret was a philosopher greatly influenced by Transcendentalism. She, like Bronson Alcott, believed in attaining spiritual perfection. Part of that perfection involved gender. Daily reality had placed men and women in narrow roles and neither gender was free because of what she called, “debased living.”

Note that the original title of Women in the Nineteenth Century had been “The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women”; it was originally a series of essays serialized in The Dial, the Transcendentalist magazine that Margaret edited for Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Effects on marriage

The distortion of the genders in turn, warped the institution of marriage Margaret believed that the dependency of women on men had debased marriage and sex. She remained single for several years until she had a child with Italian revolutionary Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, a marquis who had been disinherited by his family. While it is assumed they were married but there is no hard evidence that they did (source: Wikipedia).

Lead by deeds

Placing reform above all else, Margaret felt that women did not necessarily need to rule but to lead by example. In order to do that, it was imperative not to impede the soul. Each man and woman had to be free to realize their full potential, be who they were meant to be.

Benefits to society

This freedom, however, was not meant just to satisfy individual wants. Here Margaret led by example. She denounced not only the treatment of women but African and Native Americans as well. She advocated for reform in prisons, visiting women in Sing Sing in October of 1844 and even staying overnight (source: Wikipedia). She raised concerns for the homeless, especially in New York (Ibid).

On the same page

If you are familiar with Louisa’s beliefs on women and reform, you can see in similarities already between the two women from Matteson’s description of Margaret’s vision.

Louisa’s vision for women and society

Spiritual father …

Louisa came from one of the founders of Transcendentalism, Bronson Alcott. He was all about spirituality, perfection and becoming divine.

… and reformer mother

But she also came from her mother Abba, a pragmatic reformer. Unlike her philosophical husband whose head was in the clouds, Abba practiced her Christianity day to day, often giving to others out of her family’s own want (Bronson practiced this also, believing that God would always provide).

Bronson exuded serenity as he sought to perfect himself. Abba passionately wrestled with life and others to bring forth reform. Her most noteworthy efforts were in Boston in the 1840s as one of the first social workers.

Societal change needed

Coming from such a background, it is no wonder that Louisa felt that society must be reordered. It began with freeing the slaves.

Belief coming from experience

Matteson noted an incident when Louisa was 3 which most likely opened her eyes to African Americans as equals. While living in Boston, she fell into the Frog Pond; she was rescued by a black boy. She notes in her writings that this boy lit the flame of abolition in her heart.

Living out that belief

Throughout her life, Louisa helped her parents shield and transport runaway slaves to Canada; their home in Concord, known then as Hillside, was on the underground railroad.

Illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard.

With pride, Louisa notes that she served tea to John Brown’s widow at Orchard House.

An rare open statement

Louisa didn’t usually state her feminist views blatantly in her fiction writing. One exception was Hospital Sketches where she writes, “I’m a woman’s rights woman, and if any man had offered help in the morning, I should have condescendingly refused it, sure that I could do everything as well, if not better, myself.” (from Chapter 1, Hospital Sketches)

Another was a short story, “Happy Women.” This excerpt explains in a nutshell Louisa’s vision for womanly happiness:

This class is composed of superior women who, from various causes, remain single, and devote themselves to some earnest work; espousing philanthropy, art, literature, music, medicine, or whatever task taste, necessity, or chance suggests, and remaining as faithful to and as happy in their choice as married women with husbands and homes.

Subterfuge in her writing

Most of the time she teased out her views in her writing. She would describe the lives of purposeful women who earned their keep and remained independent. Matteson described the importance of work to Louisa saying that life was full of work that needs to be done, and it needs to be done by both sexes.

Becoming the best she can be

Louisa believed as did Margaret that women needed to develop themselves for if a woman developed her talent fully and used it for others, she would be happy. And just as Margaret led by example, so did Louisa, becoming a best-selling author.

Using her bully pulpit

In that position, Louisa could wield a lot of influence and she took every advantage to use it. While Jo March is often cited as the best example of an independent woman, Matteson used the example of Polly from An Old-Fashioned Girl who takes her well-off, bored and disgruntled friend Fanny to visit her sisterhood of working, purpose-filled women. Fanny’s life is changed forever after seeing that life could be so much more than the emptiness of parties and fashion.

Giving your best

Louisa was also greatly valued sacrifice. Like Margaret, a woman’s right to reach her potential was not just for herself; she was to give her best to those around her. This belief plays out again and again in her books.

Duty’s faithful child

Bronson distrusted Louisa’s selfless intentions until she became a nurse. When he saw how she was willing to give up her own life for others by nursing, he wrote his famous sonnet to her, “Duty’s Faithful Child.”

Using her right to vote

Matteson ended his lively presentation with an ironic anecdote. Noting that Louisa was the first woman to register and then to vote in Concord, he quipped that the registrar gave her a literacy test! She also was required to sign her name to prove she could write.

It was the one time in her life that she was in a hurry to pay her taxes so she could qualify. :-)

Click to Tweet & Share: Two ladies who would change the lives of women forever: Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller

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Eight Cousins: the value of fatherhood

Illustration by Robert Doremus (1955)

Greetings to the Poet’s Corner Virtual Book Club: Eight Cousins

Eight Cousins (or The Aunt-Hill) introduces us to a new kind of heroine from Louisa May Alcott. Rose, blond and blue-eyed, comes from wealth. In past stories, it’s been the wealthy girls who have proven to be the antagonists (Sallie Moffat from Little Women, Fanny Shaw from An Old-Fashioned Girl); now that Louisa herself is wealthy, she is perhaps more comfortable in having her main character enjoy the same.

Was Rose based upon a real person?

It’s been suggested by Clara Gowing (The Alcotts as I Knew Them) and Katharine Anthony (Louisa May Alcott) that Rose was based on May.  Certainly in appearance this is so, but the character is nothing like the spoiled and headstrong Amy. Rose is meek, timid and decidedly sad being without a mother for some time and having recently lost her dear father.

Illustration by Robert Doremus (1955)


The story begins with Rose living in the mansion with her 6 aunts after coming back from boarding school. Her father has been dead for a year and Rose is in the throes of grief.

The Aunt-Hill

Henry James criticizes Eight Cousins for its “smart, satirical tone” and you can immediately see this in both the title (Aunt-Hill) and the plethora of aunts in this story. It’s almost allegorical in nature with each aunt representing, as Charles Strickland puts it, “the failing of American mothers” (Victorian Domesticity, p. 126).

“Rose and her Aunts”, frontispiece illustration to the first edition, Roberts Bros, Boston, 1875 (Wikipedia)

We have:

  • Aunt Jane, severe to a fault
  • Aunt Myra, morbidly sentimental, convinced that Rose is dying of some mysterious malady and dosing her with medicines
  • Aunt Plenty, bustling, generous and old-fashioned, she resembles Martha of the Martha and Mary story from the Bible
  • Aunt Peace (representing Mary from the same story), a loving and tragic character whose husband-to-be died hours before the wedding years ago
  • Aunt Clara, the quintessential “fashionable mother” whose only aspiration for Rose is that she attend finishing school
  • Aunt Jessie, the common-sense Aunt but definitely outgunned

Rescue from Aunt-Hill

Enter 40 year-old Uncle Alec, Rose’s legal guardian, who immediately recognizes the plight of his ward in the midst of the Aunt-Hill and swoops down to rescue her.

Bronson Alcott Pratt portraying Mr. March in 1932 in Concord’s production of Little Women.

Louisa is pointedly affirming the need for and value of men in the raising of their daughters. She has, of course, already made the case for mothers in Little Women with Marmee. What’s interesting is that I’ve yet to read a book where both father and mother have an equal hand in child-rearing (although I haven’t read her entire library yet). Mr. March is nearly invisible in Little Women although Louisa makes a case for his quiet ruling presence:

“To outsiders the five energetic women seemed to rule the house, and so they did in many things, but the quiet scholar, sitting among his books, was still the head of the family, the household conscience, anchor, and comforter, for to him the busy, anxious women always turned in troublous times, finding him, in the truest sense of those sacred words, husband and father.” (from chapter 24) (photo from

Strong father figure

Uncle Alec, however, intends to be front and center in Rose’s life, making sweeping changes in her diet (taking away her precious coffee as a start, ouch!) and routine. He is convinced that the influence of the Aunt-Hill has created a near invalid in Rose and he seeks to change her into a vibrant, healthy young woman.

Timely story

As always, Louisa’s stories transcend time. Certainly the value of fatherhood needs to be preached as more and more women are raising their children alone. It’s often been suggested that women end up marrying a prototype of their father – how vital then that the father provide the right role model!

I’m up to chapter 4 in Eight Cousins, how about you? What do you think of the story so far? What do you think of Rose?  Can you imagine having to live with 6 aunts? Goodness! How about her 7 boisterous male cousins who seem to overwhelm her?

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What was the 19th century equivalent of the Ladies Home Journal?

I’m in trouble. There’s an antique store right down the street from my house and already I’ve found two big thick books, one dated 1866 and the other, 1878. The bug of collecting antique books is beginning to take hold!

As I read more and more about Louisa May Alcott, her family and her works, I have become increasingly interested in what made the typical 19th century woman tick.

Of course, there are many versions of “typical.” You have:

  • wealthy women of the Gilded Age (much like the Shaws of
    An Old-Fashioned Girl)
  • poorer women (like Polly of An Old-Fashioned Girl and the March sisters of Little Women)
  • immigrant women
  • black women
  • European women . . .

It’s hard to nail down the “typical” woman. Yet there were publications that depicted the ideal woman and taught women how to emulate that model. And there were how-to books on how to achieve perfect womanhood.

I found two very different books which tackled this issue. They are Godey’s Lady’s Book for 1866 and The Mirror of Womanhood (second edition 1878) by Rev. Bernard O’Reilly. One book addresses the image of the perfect woman through fashion and culture while the other through religion (in this case, Catholicism).

As I deepen my knowledge of Louisa’s work and life, I look forward also to deepening my understanding of 19th century women.

Godey’s Lady’s Book 1866

Godey’s Lady’s Book was probably the Ladies Home Journal of its day (or perhaps all those types of magazines combined). Wikipedia describes it in this way:

The magazine was published by Louis A. Godey from Philadelphia for 48 years (1830–1878). Godey intended to take advantage of the popularity of gift books, many of which were marketed specifically to women.[1] Each issue contained poetry, articles, and engravings created by prominent writers and other artists of the time. Sarah Josepha Hale (author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) was its editor from 1837 until 1877 and only published original, American manuscripts. Although the magazine contained work by both men and women, Hale published three special issues which only included work done by women.

At its zenith, the publication boasted having 150,000 subscribers. It was the most popular journal in its day, even at a pricey $3 per issue.

Godey’s Lady’s Book refused to get involved in any way with politics and thus made the mistake of totally ignoring the Civil War. This decision cost the journal one third of its subscribers.

Godey's Fashions for January, 1866

Gorgeous fashions

What immediately struck me as I flipped through the book was the beauty of the illustrations – gorgeous full color foldout fashion plates protected by onion skin paper, and detailed black and white engravings. It is a treasure trove of lovely artwork with exquisite detail, showing off the beauty of the fashions of the day. It made me wonder what our legacy will be, what with emails, photographs and videos replacing these carefully drawn illustrations.

It will be interesting to thumb through the various articles, poems and music that Godey’s offers. At some point Louisa and her sisters probably thumbed through these journals, desiring the dresses, bonnets and jackets (we know that Meg desired finery). Louisa made no secret of the fact that she appreciated fashion, often window shopping when she was in Boston.

I think of Louisa using Godey’s to describe the fashions worn by the Shaws and all the ladies of privilege in An Old-Fashioned Girl.

The Mirror of True Womanhood gilded cover

The Mirror of True Womanhood

I often read that Beth in Little Women was the quintessential 19th century Victorian woman, a model of moral perfection. Amy, of course, worked so hard at becoming a true lady, exhibiting grace, taste and little kindnesses towards others.

The Mirror of True Womanhood - beginning of the Table of Contents

Religious themes

This made me want to find out more about what made the perfect woman. It was with that thought that I picked up The Mirror of True Womanhood, published in 1878. I didn’t realize at the time when I purchased it that it was actually geared towards Irish Catholic women and therefore would have a lot of religious overtones (of which I am familiar with, being Catholic).

Hard to be different

But undoubtedly there are universal themes in this book that would apply to the idea of perfect womanhood, the kind that Beth and Amy epitomized. Louisa exhibited ambivalence towards this model, especially in the character of Jo March. She herself grappled much with being a working spinster, sometimes reveling in the independence, while at other times feeling left out and lonely.

Models from the past, and present

At any rate, reading sources from the day about what makes the perfect woman should prove interesting. I shall keep in mind what today’s magazines and media offer as images of the perfect woman. While women have certainly come a long way from the 19th century, I have a feeling I will find many similarities with regards to attitudes about fashion and appearance. We shall see.

In the meantime, enjoy the slide show of the fashion plates and contents of these books.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Abba Alcott’s contribution – behind every great woman stands a mother

You know how they say that behind every great man is a great woman? How about behind every great woman? In studying the life of Abba Alcott through the reading of Marmee, the Mother of Little Womenby Sandford Meddick Salyer, there indeed was a great woman behind Louisa May Alcott. She was a mother whose vitality, intelligence, resourcefulness, support and example shaped one of the great authors of our time.

Excellent lineage

Abba, coming from May, Sewall and Quincy stocks, possessed great intelligence and a fighting spirit. She had a heart for others and their plights. These traits served her well through her difficult life.

Louisa of course, immortalized Abba as Marmee in Little Women and she was all those things. But Abba was also a pioneer in many ways, paving the way through her example of womanly autonomy and independence, all motivated by love.

Talent passed down

Louisa came by her writing talent honestly. Salyer describes Abba as a gifted wordsmith in her own right with a rich background of storytelling in her family:

“Abba was a born storyteller. She had once had aspirations to be a writer. Perhaps she should have been. It was her talent that Louisa inherited, her ingenuity, the vigor and dash of style which Abba could show at times but seldom did. It was certainly Abba’s suggestions and encouragement that helped make Louisa’s books. Alcott has told us that many of Louisa’s plots were suggested by her mother’s recital of incidents she recalled. Abba knew, too, many of Colonel May’s stories; and after her mother’s death Louisa sent Sam for her grandfather’s notebooks, from which she derived many more suggestions.” (page 75, Marmee, the Mother of Little Women).

Budding actress

Abba also had a flair for the dramatic and even nursed ideas of becoming an actress when she was a child (pg. 110). Anna and Louisa, of course, loved to stage plays and Abba fully supported them, knowing it was a good way to channel energy and imagination as well as stress. Undoubtedly, this proved to be an important coping mechanism through the difficult early years the family faced.

The May household was always filled with friends and neighbors eager to listen to Colonel May weave his stories. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!

A mind for reform

A lesser known facet of Abba’s life is her pioneering work as a relief worker. With Bronson unable (or unwilling) to work for a living wage, she became one the first modern social workers out of necessity. Her family was often nearly as poor as the people she served. Salyer writes glowingly of  her work which showed a marked flair for organizing while caring for the poor from her heart. :

“For two years Abba continued her noble work. How noble it really was, only those could tell to whom she personally ministered. Her reports, vivid and vigorous as they are, cannot begin to show all she accomplished and all she learned. She came to know how true had been some of the portrayals of London slum life which she had before thought overdrawn and oversentimentalized. Louisa saw some of what to her mother had become familiar, and Abba later recalled scenes and incidents that Louisa used freely in her books, notably in Work[: A Story of Experience]” (pg. 148)

From mother to daughter

Louisa learned from her mother’s example and developed a passion for reform, seeking pragmatic rather than philosophical solutions. She worked for women’s suffrage both on a national stage and in her hometown of Concord (being one of the first women to vote). She would visit prisons and homes for orphans. She often signed her letters, “Yours for reform always.” And her writing, especially on the juvenile level, sought to expose young people to reformist ideas, especially about women (see post on An Old-Fashioned Girl).

These are just a few examples of the profound nature of Abba’s influence on Louisa.. She is the finest example of a mother who poured herself into her children and saw great results. Abba was very gifted and in today’s society could have enjoyed great success professionally. However, she used her gifts just as well, if not better, by pouring herself into her family.

Is there someone in your life who has stood behind you and made you great? “Great” has many definitions . . . think about it. :-)

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Controversy wrapped in sentiment: Louisa May Alcott’s genius

(Disclaimer: Admittedly I’ve only just started pouring over Louisa’s works, and I haven’t yet ventured into her “blood and thunder” tales, so my comments here are limited to the later stage of her writing which proved to be the most successful).

Louisa’s genius

I’ve often said that Louisa May Alcott’s genius was twofold. She crafted stories of realism, sometimes poignant, often humorous, always entertaining. They were filled with very human characters who seemed as familiar as our neighbors.

And ever pragmatic, she also was willing to learn and adapt herself to new genres, mastering several.

Louisa may have lamented the fact that she wasn’t recognized in her time as a “serious” writer but she was a voice of her era with a modern twist, thus making it a voice that resonates today. In the words of the late Madeleine Stern, considered the preeminent Alcott scholar, Louisa was the consummate professional.

Pioneer as a professional

It’s ironic considering that Louisa had no formal training and did not go to public school or university. She was never mentored by a more experienced writer but instead was totally self-taught. There were precious few role models. In a time when there were virtually no women “professionals,” Louisa learned how to be one.

She was a pioneer, and that to me is genius.

Other layers to genius

Now I’m beginning to believe there is another layer to this genius. Louisa had a rare ability to take controversial ideas and wrap them up sweetly in children’s stories. It’s rather like the pill you have to feed to your dog – you wrap it up in something he loves like a piece of cheese, and he downs the pill without incident (unless your dog is too smart for his own good!). He doesn’t even realize he’s downed the dreaded pill and his ailment is taken care of.

In the same way, Louisa “wrapped” issues concerning the autonomy of women, the state of the family, and the care of children in sentimental tales like An Old-Fashioned Girl.

Victorian Domesticity

Charles Strickland’s book, Victorian Domesticity: Families in the Life and Art of Louisa May Alcott, points out many of the ways Louisa inserted these topics into this story.

Work versus Fashion

Polly was a woman with purpose.

He refers first to Chapter 13 which I thought was a particularly compelling chapter. Here Polly introduces Fanny to her circle of friends, a “sisterhood” of working women. Following the life of fashion, Fanny has been feeling empty and depressed, her life lacking purpose. Although held in esteem by society, Fanny is bored and miserable while the “lowly” working girls are happy. Polly exhorts Fanny to search herself and find what she can do well so she can give of herself to others:

“If ever a girl needed work, it’s you!” cried Polly. “You began to be a young lady so early, that you are tired of everything at twenty-two. I wish you’d go at something, then you’d find how much talent and energy you really had.”

A Sisterhood

Polly then proceeds to show Fanny what she means through the lives of her working friends (Miss Mills (the landlady), Becky (an artist), Bess, Rebecca, Kate (an author)).  Fanny not only experiences their happiness through sense of purpose, but she notes the authenticity of their friendships which were based on the real rather than the perceived.

Strickland describes what I alluded to in the last post concerning Polly’s life as a working girl, affirming my theory:

“This episode is remarkable . . ., that such radical feminism found expression in one of Alcott’s juvenile books, going beyond, in fact, the sentiments expressed in her literary fiction [such as Work: A Story of Experience, Louisa’s other significant adult novel] . . .” (pages 87-88, Victorian Domesticity)

Polly’s Temptation

Chapter 15 suggests that Polly was tempted, for a moment, into a life of fashion when (Arthur) Sydney (aka “Syd”) showed an interest in her. Syd was the apple of Fanny’s eye but he was attracted to Polly. Although an upright and fine young man, perfect for marriage, Polly turned him away because she knew she didn’t love him and feared tiring of him. Syd was well-off and would have presented Polly with a life of ease and security (i.e. beginning her own family of fashion), but she resisted the temptation, remaining true to herself. She retained her autonomy.

Indicting the Family of Fashion

The Shaws were a family of fashion.

Polly had experienced the family of fashion in the Shaws and found that life empty and wanting with its endless parties, love of money, concern over appearance and distinction of classes. It was an shallow life that robbed the Shaws of meaningful relationships with each other and those outside their family.

She preferred her own old-fashioned family – although poor, there was a deep sense of warmth and caring, along with a the need for work which provided purpose. Louisa’s sweeping indictment of families of fashion is summed up by Strickland in this way:

“The world inhabited by families of fashion is one devoid of warmth, justice, or charity, and it corrupts all whom it touches – men and women, rich and poor, old and young.” (page 92)

How the Family of Fashion affected women (and children)

Strickland maps out how Louisa used the first half of An Old-Fashioned Girl to lay out her case against the family of fashion, culminating in a stinging indictment most especially of Mrs. Shaw:

Women of fashion, and a woman of purpose

” ‘a pale, nervous woman,’ [from An Old-Fashioned Girl] who has made herself into an invalid at the age of forty. Having nothing to do, she is much preoccupied with her imagined aliments, and presides over a household in which there is little affection between parents and children. She encourages Fanny to copy her fashionable follies and has not time for younger daughter Maud: ‘When Mrs. Shaw came home that day in her fine visiting costume, and Maud ran to welcome her with unusual affection, she gathered up her lustrous silk and pushed the little girl away, saying, impatiently, ‘Don’t touch me, child, your hands are dirty.’ ‘[from An Old-Fashioned Girl] ” (pages 99-100, Victorian Domesticity)

The high price of fashion

I had noticed too how Fanny had begun to develop these “aliments” and I could see why so many women became invalids during the Victorian era. One cannot deny their authentic self forever and not feel the affects; the body has a way of acting out what the mind and heart will not admit. Thoreau certainly understood that.

Plenty of meat

I had read most of An Old-Fashioned Girl before I came upon Strickland’s book and was pleased to see so many of my thoughts verified. He analyzes other Alcott books such as Work, Moods, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom and Jack and Jill. I had had my doubts as to whether I would find any meat in Louisa’s juvenile works.

Obviously I have a lot to learn! And a lot more reading yet to do.

Click to Tweet & Share: Was Louisa May Alcott a genius? See how she wraps controversy in sentiment in “An Old-Fashioned Girl” …

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