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. :-)

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Susan’s ebook, “Game Changer” is now available From the Garret – download for free!

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)

Setting

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 http://www.concordma.com/magazine/maraprmay02/littlewomenshow.html)

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.

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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.

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A continuing discussion on An Old-Fashioned Girl

Cover design by Kathryn Delaney, Painting by Edmund Blair Leighton, The Pink Bonnet

Better late than never, I finally finished An Old-Fashioned Girl! And I have lots to say about it through several posts in the next few days.

I have already written a few posts about this book which you can find here.

I have to admit that the book lost me somewhere in the middle, before the story transitioned into Polly’s adult life. What brought me back in was a combination of listening to chapters at work (thanks to Librivox), and the discovery of Victorian Domesticity – Families in the Life and Art of Louisa May Alcott by Charles Strickland at the Concord Free Public Library. This book was a godsend, filling in all those historical gaps which helped me to understand the context of this book, and all of Louisa May Alcott’s writing (I will be writing more about this book when I finish it).

In Chapter 7, Polly ends her long visit with the Shaw family and heads on back home. Louisa then moves the timeline up in chapters 8 and 9 by 6 years so that 14 year-old Polly is now 20 and a working girl. We find Fanny as a 22 year-old lady of fashion, somewhat dissatisfied with her life. Tom is off at college, and Maud has turned 12.

Here’s where the story got interesting. It was not hard to read between the lines and see what Louisa’s core beliefs were about women, men, and families both wealthy and poor. And Strickland’s book offered great background into life in 19th-century America.

From the 19th Century American Woman blog – click on picture to visit

Chapter 9 opens describing Polly’s life as a working girl, teaching music to individual students. Her days are long, and her life is lonely. The “friends” she made through Fanny shun her because she works. Poor Polly even believes that Tom has snubbed her although that was because of Trix, Tom’s fiance (and a classic portrait of the lady of fashion that Louisa so disapproves of – more about that in later posts).

Reading this chapter reminded me of the first time I saw a classic Joan Crawford movie, “Mildred Pierce,” made in the 1945. In the movie, Mildred has been dumped by her husband and must go out to work. She has a talent for cooking and eventually gets so good at it that she opens her own restaurant. By midway through the movie she is somewhat of a restaurant tycoon, owning a small chain. By today’s standards, she is a smashing success and worthy of praise.

But in the movie, she is treated as a second-class citizen by all who know her, most especially her incredibly spoiled and bratty daughter, Veda who believes her mother to be “common.” (There is much more to this movie and I highly recommend it – great film noir).

I was surprised at the parallels between Polly’s experiences in the 1870s and Mildred’s in the 1940s, telling me that not a lot had changed. It’s really over the last 50 years that women have begun to be regarded favorably because they work (that’s my generation!).

While the baby boomer generation has come under a lot of criticism of late (much of it justified), we did achieve much greater autonomy for women. My daughter’s generation is the first to truly benefit. Yet, they don’t know the history and the struggle that women have gone through to achieve these ends, and they take their new-found freedom for granted, even squandering it!

How ironic. And it’s ironic too that Louisa probably would not be pleased at the ways of society today. As women have been navigating that oh-so-tricky road of trying to “have it all,” the family has suffered. There is confusion for women and for men regarding their roles, and much still needs to be worked out.

Louisa, however, thought the nuclear family sacred. This belief runs through all of her juvenile writing as seen in Little Women and in An Old-Fashioned Girl.

She also, however, believed that women needed to find purpose in their lives, rather than live the life of fashion (as Fanny was doing, and she was increasingly unhappy with her rudderless life). Polly found that purpose in her work, and also, in her desire to do all she could to help the Shaw family discover what they were missing in their family – appreciation and love for each other. It was the perfect balance of Louisa’s beliefs –  work is good in providing purpose and meaning, and tending to the family with complete devotion also brings purpose and meaning.

According to Strickland in Victorian Domesticity, An Old-Fashioned Girl had some pretty radical ideas about women, albeit gently presented. It amazes me how Louisa’s juvenile works were so widely read and loved and makes me wonder if the public actually read between the lines. Yet I imagine the message got through in a subliminal fashion, which was her intention. And she called this moral pap! Louisa was pretty darn clever.

More to come . . .


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The core of Louisa May Alcott’s feminism explains her timelessness

After writing yesterday’s post on Polly’s modern sensibilities, I thought about what Louisa May Alcott’s core belief was which motivated her feminism, and why she was so effective in imparting it.

Autonomy

My conclusion? Louisa’s feminism was based on autonomy – the right of every woman to be autonomous,  the freedom for each woman to realize her true potential as a whole person. And even as I write this, I reflect back on Sarah Elbert’s essay on Moods where she incorporated Louisa’s transcendental upbringing into the mix.

Transcendentalism played a crucial role

As crazy as her father Bronson could be, he certainly associated with some very fine people (Thoreau, Emerson, Margaret Fuller, etc.). He also managed to have a brilliant idea or two. ;-)

Transcendentalism focused on individual development which involved introspection and scrutiny. Crucial to that development was the intimate connection with something greater than Self  by reconnecting with the natural world. God was to be found in that world but not as He had been traditionally understood.

But did Transcendentalism truly include women?

Since the vast majority of transcendentalists were male, they did not necessarily promote the same kind of individual development for women. It was probably too much to ask that they totally divorce themselves from the thinking of the day (especially when it benefited them so directly!).

A role model

However, Margaret Fuller spent many years giving ‘conversations’ to promote the idea of education for women. Her informal gatherings gave women some of the very few chances they had to learn, to reflect, and to share ideas on realizing their individual vocations. She presented quite a glamorous figure and was someone the then teen-aged Louisa admired and wished to emulate. Legend has it that when Louisa reflected on her life, making her 3 wishes at the wishing wheel located in the meadow above Hillside, that she wished for fame and travel – a life like Margaret Fuller’s.

Her upbringing influences her writing

So it makes perfect sense that all this seeped into Louisa’s writing, becoming an on-going theme. Much as she complained about writing “moral pap for the young,” these stories did much to promote her thinking that all women deserved a chance to be all they could be, leading deeper, more meaningful lives. It was far more than “moral pap”: it was a way of educating and influencing young girls, showing them that there were, in fact, choices they could make in their lives.

Timeless messages

Louisa did a lot of public campaigning for women through her attendance at national conferences, and she set the example by being the first woman to vote in the local Concord election. She courageously served as a Civil War nurse when the profession had just opened to women. And of course her tenacity in carving out a life as a best-selling literary spinster speaks volumes.

In the end however, it’s the simple and subtle messages inherent in her writing to children that continue to stand the test of time.  Just about every woman pioneer since Louisa’s era remembers reading Little Women and they point to Jo March as a pivotal inspiration.

Re-embracing feminism

Since I met Louisa long before I met Jo, Louisa is my pivotal inspiration. She was very much outside the mainstream and so am I (though in a quieter way); she gives me greater pride and confidence in that fact. Now that I am meeting her family of characters for the first time, I find it possible to re-embrace feminism; she has brought me back to its purer roots. Certainly the different political gains are important (the right to vote being crucial) but in the end, it’s really about a woman being given every chance to realize her full potential, just as every man is given that chance.

Louisa’s writing  makes me laugh, cry and think, and gives me a safe haven. This is one crazy and chaotic time that we’re living in – how wonderful that an author who lived 150 years ago could offer inspiration and safety to me, and to so many others too.

Was the “Old-Fashioned Girl” actually modern?

It’s interesting how the supposedly old-fashioned Polly is actually more modern than the sophisticated Fanny. That’s if you think in 21st century terms.

In the Shaw household, the acquisition of wealth and keeping up with fashion are both considered “sophisticated” and desirable, whereas purposefulness and little kindnesses are considered “old-fashioned.” Yet, as Louisa May Alcott points out in An Old-Fashioned Girl, these old-fashioned qualities are more consistent with a woman who knows who she is and how she should fit in the world.

A life of purpose

Louisa, of course, was very purposeful, perhaps to a fault. She was fortunate in knowing what she was meant to do at a very early age, and her unusual upbringing actually nurtured that vocation. She certainly was a woman ahead of her time.

It’s obvious that she disapproves of the idle and shallow lives she believes privileged (aka “kept”) women of her time are leading. Each time she writes of the privileged few who grow up with all the pretty things they could ever want, there is a decided air of disapproval hovering over them. This was true in “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair”, chapter 9  Little Women, where Meg learns that having many pretty things and being “dolled up” were not all they were cracked up to be.

This disapproval is also apparent also  in An Old-Fashioned Girl where Louisa describes a family (the Shaws) that is so wrapped up in material things that they forget how to be loving to each other. As a result, the family members are unhappy with themselves and each other, and have no clue as to why.

A self-absorbed family

In An Old-Fashioned Girl, Louisa describes a group of people who are self-absorbed, and each member acts out their self-absorption in various ways:

  • Mr. Shaw is so consumed with making money that he barely knows his children. He particularly ignores his son, Tom.
  • Tom, ignored by his father, creates constant mischief as it is the only way he can get any attention. Of course the attention is negative, only reinforcing Tom’s actions.
  • Little Maud is spoiled, whining and complaining about every little thing, taking to screaming when she doesn’t get her own way. As a result, she is a real irritant to the rest of the family.
  • Fanny is only interested in becoming sophisticated and leaving girlhood behind as quickly as she can. Her purpose is shallow and her days spent in idleness. From what I’ve read so far, her goal in life is to marry someone like her father who can continue to provide her with the privileged life she is accustomed to, and feels entitled to.

Polly’s presence and “old-fashioned” ways challenge this family. Louisa takes chapter 4, called “Little Things” to lay out her case.

A breath of fresh air

What does Polly do that is so different? She is not consumed with herself but reaches out to others. And this gives her purpose. In the course of the chapter she:

  • Plays with Maud who is bored (and acting out as a result); Polly ends up teaching her how to sew. This draws Fanny into the act as well even though she declares with a superior air that she hasn’t played with a doll for “ever so long.”
  • This act impresses Fanny who admits that life is pretty dull without Polly who seems to be busy all the time.
  • Seeing his daughters busy with purpose, Mr. Shaw is drawn out of himself, commenting that “Polly has been making sunshine for you to-day.”
  • Polly ends up reaching out to Mr. Shaw by showing affection. She walked with him on the way to his office, and at evening, would wait for him and have his slippers out. These little acts of kindness were not submissive acts, but acts of affection that succeeded in drawing Mr. Shaw out of his shell. As a result,
  • Mr. Shaw begins to pay attention to Tom and notices when he has done good work with his oratory homework. In turn,
  • Tom behaves better and thinks better of himself.

From the mundane to the sublime

This is one of the things that I love so much about Louisa May Alcott. She takes the mundane things of life (such as little kindnesses) and elevates them to the sublime. These kindnesses are no longer mundane because they improve the lives of those touched by them. They are not submissive acts because they are done out of free will with the purpose of bettering the lives of others.

Purpose and kindness

Purposeful and kind acts are done by a free and independent girl named Polly. This sense of independent purpose is hardly “old-fashioned” – it’s modern and has only been realized by women at large in the last two or three generations.

Polly’s purpose and kindness will save her from being a “kept” woman, bored and frustrated, with no sense of thought or introspection and therefore, no clue as to how or why she would feel that way.

Again I see that subtle mix of feminism and spirituality from Louisa. It’s a powerful combination, written nearly 150 years ago, that inspires even now in the 21st century.