Finishing up Eight Cousins: Your own worst enemy

Having finally finished Eight Cousins, it amuses me that an overarching theme of this book is that women can be their own worst enemy.

Who comes out well …

eight cousins under the mistletoe rose and uncle alecFor Rose, Uncle Alec is the hero and the boys are her true friends. Anyone who knows anything about Louisa May Alcott knows her penchant for boys (and how she longed to be one herself) so it’s no surprise that the male characters come out smelling sweet.

… and who doesn’t

The female characters do not do as well. Had the aunties had their way, Rose would have been a weak, neurotic, totally trussed-up caricature of a woman, lacking intellectual curiosity (let alone ability), unable to move even a step forward without great effort, either physically or emotionally.

eight cousins annabel bliss and rose chapter 15

And what of female friendship? Louisa’s offering was Annabel Bliss: a shallow, frivolous gossip with a slavish attachment to fashion.

There are always exceptions

eight cousins rose and phebeNow granted, we do have Aunt Peace, Aunt Plenty and Aunt Jessie, the only grown women who show character. They are quiet and unassuming, generous in their love of Rose. But even Aunt Peace and Aunt Plenty misread what Rose needed by introducing her to Annabel.

There is Phebe the maid whose sharp mind and desire to better herself make her and Rose fast friends. And Rose is eager to pass down to Phebe everything she has learned, not from her aunts, but from her uncle.

Rose and Phebe are the only female characters to come out looking good. And it’s mainly because of the influence of Uncle Alec.

Nobody’s perfect

eight cousins the clanThe boys have their faults to be sure. The older ones smoke and the younger ones read trashy books. They are impulsive, boisterous and willful. They tease Rose and pull pranks on her. Charlie (aka the Prince) has a falling out with Archie because he wants to follow a fast crowd of boys; all Archie can do is preach at him. At one point Mac’s thoughtlessness caused Rose to wait in vain for him in the bitter cold and become quite ill as a result.

Faults? Yes. But these characters redeem themselves over and over again because of their buoyant spirits, generous love and their desire to better themselves, often due to Rose’s influence. They are alive, they move, they grow.

The real sin

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

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

Most of the women, however, are stagnant. There is little to no growth for any of them with the exception of Rose and Phebe. Some not only don’t wish to grow but they want to deny that growth for Rose. They are small-minded, horrified that Alec would teach Rose about her body, deny her the wearing of corsets, allow her to run about outdoors, or wear comfortable clothes that would actually serve a function.

Quite a damning portrait of women. Louisa knew her foes well. Women would never achieve true autonomy on their own. A male element was necessary, whether it be physical, such as Uncle Alec, or simply in the way of thinking.  Since Louisa always thought like a man, it was natural to her that women should be free to be everything they were meant to be. She had little patience for the Aunt Janes and Myras of this world.

Meant for children …

the eight cousinsNow granted, Eight Cousins is a children’s book and the characters are drawn in broad strokes of black and white. In fact, there’s nothing much in this book that is subtle but children are not interested in subtly. Children over the years have loved the warm and fun relationships between Rose and the clan. I certainly enjoyed the special relationship Rose had with Mac, seeing him through his ordeal with his impaired eyesight. There’s tenderness and respect in the relationships between Rose and her cousins.

Knowing Louisa as I do, however, I cannot help reading between the lines and seeing what lurks beneath. Eight Cousins is a stinging indictment of 19th century women. It is also a celebration of enlightened men, many of whom Louisa had the privilege of growing up with.

… yet something for adults too

So times I regret that I never read these books as a child. I would love to read them not knowing what I know about Louisa or as a 50-something woman in the 21st century. I do, however, find comfort in these books as I’m sure many children have over the years. Louisa serves up great comfort food for the soul.

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Eight Cousins and Little Men: The art of domesticity

I am finally getting around to finishing Eight Cousins. I admit this book has not held my interest like I hoped it would but now that I’m getting closer to the end, I’m enjoying it more. Perhaps I know too much back story (such as the fact that Louisa didn’t really enjoy writing this type of book). Perhaps I needed to read it when I was a kid. The book has a “formula” feel about it but it has its charming moments.

One of those moments occurred in the reading of Chapter 16, “Bread and Buttonholes.”

Giving value to domesticity

As much as Louisa held to feminist ideals, she never dismissed the importance of the family, the home and its care. In this chapter (as she also did in Little Men, Chapter 4, “Patty Pans”), she raises domesticity to a higher level.

A surprising choice . . .

eight cousins bread and buttonholesAs Chapter 16 opens, Rose approaches Uncle Alec with regards to finding a trade to learn. She has no special talent in the arts so she is seeking guidance as to what to learn. When Uncle Alec recommends “housekeeping,” Rose is surprised, asking “Is that an accomplishment?” I appreciated Uncle Alec’s response:

 “Yes; it is one of the most beautiful as well as useful of all the arts a woman can learn. Not so romantic, perhaps, as singing, painting, writing, or teaching, even; but one that makes many happy and comfortable, and home the sweetest place in the world. Yes, you may open your big eyes; but it is a fact that I had rather see you a good housekeeper than the greatest belle in the city. It need not interfere with any talent you may possess, but it is a necessary part of your training, and I hope that you will set about it at once, now that you are well and strong.”

. . . and an unexpected teacher

When Uncle Alec announces that Aunt Plenty will be her teacher, Rose offers the common perception of housewives:

“Is she accomplished?” began Rose in a wondering tone, for this great-aunt of hers had seemed the least cultivated of them all.

It is here that Louisa, ironically through Uncle Alec, lifts domesticity to a higher plane:

“In the good old-fashioned way she is very accomplished, and has made this house a happy home to us all, ever since we can remember. She is not elegant, but genuinely good, and so beloved and respected that there will be universal mourning for her when her place is empty. No one can fill it, for the solid, homely virtues of the dear soul have gone out of fashion, as I say, and nothing new can be half so satisfactory, to me at least.”

Rose’s achievement

Rose goes on to learn how to cook from Aunt Plenty with her crowning achievement being a perfect loaf of homemade bread for her uncle, made with great care and presented with love.

Appreciating the art of domesticity

chapter 16Having no natural talent in all things domestic, I envy those who have that talent. Matters of the home are often dismissed today (as it was beginning to be back in Louisa’s time) as lowly, commonplace, even demeaning: definitely not a worthy pursuit for today’s liberated woman.

Louisa, however, brings out the intrinsic value of housekeeping, that of creating a welcoming environment where all family members feel loved and cared for. She equates good housekeeping with love.

Family example

I only began to understand that very recently with my sister-in-law. Cynthia is an accomplished gourmet cook (in the school of Julia Child, her idle; she has a recipe card with Julia’s autograph, framed on her stove) and is also talented in knitting and crocheting. She always creates a theme for the meal, complete with music, and at a birthday get-together back in March we were treated to an authentic French dinner. After stuffing ourselves with nine pounds of mussels smothered in butter and crème sauce and other goodies, we sat back, allowing the inevitable food coma to engulf us. I leaned back in my chair, too sleepy to talk, and began to observe, for the first time, how much love Cynthia put into the preparations and presentation. When dessert of delicious chocolate-coffee mousse was served, she declined eating hers, declaring that she’d rather watch everyone else enjoy theirs. It was at that moment that I had my epiphany, understanding my sister-in-law for the first time. She lavished her love generously through her cooking. In that moment, domesticity became art to me.

Eight Cousins shows this too. Rose is proud of her loaf, made with such love for her dear uncle after much trial and error. Uncle Alec receives the loaf with true appreciation of the care that went into its making.

Make homemaking fun

little men patty pansIn Little Men, Louisa shows a different side to domesticity, making it fun for the one little girl at Plumfield. Daisy was feeling left out because the boys would not allow her to join in their football game even though she and Demi would play on occasion. She begged Aunty Jo for a new game (or “play,” as she called it) and Jo, inspired by Daisy’s interest in making gingersnaps with Asia, the cook, outfitted her with a complete toy kitchen!

Playing cook

kenner easy-bake ovenReading the description of the child-sized stove and dishes, I thought back wistfully to the fun so many girls my age had with the Kenner Easy-Bake Oven. What a thrill it was to bake our own cupcakes, tiny as they were, in our own ovens. And then there were the Girl Scout cooking badges you could earn by learning how to prepare meals for your family. Never being good at cooking, I didn’t learn much but it was a lot of fun.

A balance of ideas

Eight Cousins in particular offers many different ideas about raising a girl to be a good woman that were considered peculiar or even radical in Louisa’s day. Rose, after all, was taught never to wear a corset as it was better for her health, was encouraged to run, jump and be active outdoors, and was shown how her body worked as seen in Chapters 18 and 19, “Fashion and Physiology” and “Brother Bones.” Her great aunts often grumbled about Uncle Alec’s strange ideas of raising a girl.

Yet Louisa, career woman and spinster, never turned her back on the value of the family and home life. Kitchen duty may not have been her favorite thing to do, but she understood how all the pieces of domesticity worked together for the whole – a happy, well-loved and well cared-for family. In later years she would welcome her sister’s child, Lulu, into her home as her own.

Louisa presented a balanced view of a woman’s life, understanding that the many pieces could work together in harmony so long as the men in her life allowed it. Uncle Alec was one of those men.

P.S. I have just started Little Men and will write more about it over the coming weeks and months. I realize that the posts I do about Louisa’s books don’t always come in a consistent manner. I have however, gathered up and organized all the posts I’ve done so far on the books covered in this blog so that you can find them. Visit the menu at the top of the page, select “Her Writing,” and from the drop-down menu, choose the book you’re interested in to see all the posts.

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Louisa May Alcott Summer Reading Challenge – What I’m reading

2012 Summer reading challenge hosted at www.inthebookcase.blogspot.comThe In The Bookcase blog is holding a Louisa May Alcott summer reading challenge so you know I have to participate! :-)

Here’s what I plan on reading:

1. Finish my re-read of Little Women
(and Little Women (Norton Critical Edition) edited by Gregory Eiselein and Anne K. Phillips)

2. Finish my re-read of Louisa May Alcott:
A Biography
* by Madeleine B. Stern
(Also Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passion by Madeline B. Stern and Leona Rostenberg since Leona’s discovering of Louisa’s alter ego, A. M.  Barnard, was made while Madeline was researching her biography)

3. Finish Eight Cousins

4. Read Work: A Story of Experience

5. At least start Louisa M. Alcott, Her Life, Letters and Journals,
edited by Ednah Cheney

Come and do this with me!

Just click on the picture above to find out more about this challenge. It’s really easy and should make for a nice summer. And, it’s a very appropriate way to celebrate the centennial of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House as a museum. :-)

What do you plan on reading?

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Eight Cousins: “Tomboys make strong women”

Chapter 14 in Eight Cousins, “A Happy Birthday” lays out Uncle Alec’s strategy for Rose’s upbringing: she is to run, jump, climb trees and play with her cousins, and she is to ride horses, all in an attempt to strengthen her physical and emotional health. Mrs. Jessie compares the Rose she sees now with the Rose of before:

” ‘ … when I contrast that bright, blooming face with the pale, listless one that made my heart ache a while ago, I can believe in almost any miracle,’ as Rose look round to point out a lovely view, with cheeks like the ruddy apples in the orchard nearby, eyes clear as the autumn sky overhead, and vigour in every line of her girlish figure.’ “

A wistful memory

Eight Cousins was published in 1875, years after Louisa had returned home from the Civil War, deathly ill with typhoid. She never did regain the good health she enjoyed as a girl when she could outrun any boy she meet or beat them at hoop rolling. I imagine her writing with great wistfulness (and a touch of irony) the following words about Rose:

” ‘She has broken out in the most unexpected way, and frisks like a colt; for she says she feels so full of spirits she must run and shout whether it is proper or not,’ added Mrs. Jessie, who had been a pretty hoyden years ago herself.”

from Bette’s Movie Blog

About being a tomboy

Although Abba and Bronson believed in fresh air and play for their girls, still, Louisa was reminded often of her tomboyish ways by her parents and sisters. In Little Women, Louisa echoes this in the exchange between Jo and Amy:

“Jo immediately sat up, put her hands in her pockets, and began to whistle.

‘Don’t, Jo. It’s so boyish!’

‘That’s why I do it.’

‘I detest rude, unladylike girls!’

“I hate affected, niminy-piminy chits!’ “

Remaining true to herself

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

Louisa was reminded often, especially as a teenager, that it was time to put away being a tomboy and act like a lady. For Louisa to “put away being a tomboy” was like denying her very self. Suppressing the enormous energy of her true self in the physical realm (except for morning runs, even in her later years when her health was a problem) was difficult; instead she redirected it to merge with her creative force, producing a seemingly endless flow of writing. Undoubtedly that physical force fueled her marathon periods of writing, also known as her “vortex.”

Outlet for affirmation

While Louisa didn’t enjoy full acceptance from her family, she was able to affirm her own sense of self in her writing in this passage as demonstrated by Alec’s plans for Rose:

” ‘Let the girl run and shout as much as she will it is a sure sign of health, and as natural to a happy child as frisking is to any young animal full of life. Tomboys make strong women usually, and I had far rather find Rose playing football with Mac than puttering over bead-work like that affected midget, Ariadne Blish.’ “

It must have felt good to write that line.

And there’s no doubt that all that tomboy energy made tomboy Louy a very strong woman indeed.

Regarding cats

As a postscript, I must comment on the passages about Kitty Comet. As an avowed cat lover (my kids would call me a cat lady!), I love the descriptions of Kitty Comet, a kitten who was given to Rose for her birthday:

“ . . . she was awakened by a soft tap on her face, and opening her eyes she beheld a little black and white figure sitting on her pillow, staring at her with a pair of round eyes like blueberries, while one downy paw patted her nose to attract her notice. It was Kitty Comet, the prettiest of all the pussies, and Comet evidently had a mission to perform, for a pink bow adorned her neck, and a bit of paper was pinned to it bearing the words, ‘For Miss Rose, from Frank.’ “

My Bacci used to do that. He had enormous double paws like mittens and he would tap me on the shoulder in the middle of the night.

If Louisa and I had nothing else in common, we surely would have had animated discussions about cats!

Where else in her writing have you seen Louisa affirm her toyboyish ways?

Do you share her love of cats?


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Join in the group read/re-read of Little Women

Because of all the upcoming events in Concord with regards to the centennial of Orchard House as a museum (many of the directly related to Little Women), I’ve started re-reading Louisa’s classic. Jillian from A Room of One’s Own is also re-reading (I actually got the idea from her). I invite you all to join in and we’ll share our thoughts.

I have not, by the way, abandoned  Eight Cousins – I am still reading that too but have been terribly busy of late.

Looking forward to our conversations!


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Eight Cousins: What would you do if you couldn’t read?

illustration by Robert Doremus

“Now, Mac, listen to me,” Rose said very earnestly, though her voice shook a little and her heart ached. “You know you have hurt your eyes reading by fire-light and in the dusk, and sitting up late, and now you’ll have to pay for it; the doctor said so. You must be careful, and do as he tells you, or you will be blind.”

This is the setting for chapter 11 (Poor Mac) of Eight Cousins. Mac is the book worm cousin. He first was struck down by sun stroke becoming very ill, and then suffered serious eye strain from his constant reading. He is now confined to a dark room, possibly for a year, to recover his eye sight: “He was forbidden to look at a book and as that was the one thing he most delighted in, it was a terrible affliction to the Worm.”

Rose reaches out to Mac, visiting him and reading to him each day. Mac is slow to warm up to Rose as he was slow to accept the seriousness of his condition, but he comes around to appreciating her.

Dark rooms

I thought about how difficult it would be to be confined to a dark room with no activity, especially the one you love the most. While I have only read a handful of books from Louisa’s time, I do see a distinct pattern of dark rooms and invalidism (sometimes imposed, sometimes not).

The common cure-all

I found this method of cure specifically for eye strain rather interesting and tried to find out more about it but struck out. One of our readers, Nancy from the Silver Season blog mentioned to me that time in dark rooms devoid of all activity was seen as a common cure-all for many maladies. (basically it’s the medical profession throwing up their hands and saying there’s nothing more they can do.. She mentioned different examples including Rochester in Jane Eyre and I loved her comment, “Why does his eyesight slowly recover? Rest and a good woman I suppose.” That certainly is the case for Mac and Rose.

Medicine was in its infancy and certainly reflected what Abba Alcott lamented regarding daughter Lizzie’s last illness: “… the system of medicine is a prolonged Guess.”

from the Duke University production blog

One woman’s reaction to the “rest cure”

Often these guesses took a tragic turn. Nancy referred me to a famous short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Written as a series of journal entries. “The Yellow Wallpaper” concerns a woman whose physician husband prescribes a “rest cure” , a common method of treating nervous disorders in women. Deprived of all activity and totally isolated from others, the writer becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in her room. She writes secretly in her journal of the wallpaper’s colors and pattens and begins to imagine seeing a woman trapped inside. She seeks to “free” the woman by ripping down the wallpaper. Becoming fearful of her husband and generally paranoid, she ends up locking herself in the room so she can finish ripping off the wallpaper and freeing the phantom woman. Her husband, upon finally gaining entry into the room faints when he sees how insane his wife has become. She crawls over him to continue her task.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Wikipedia)

Autobiographical in nature

Gilman was a patient herself and wrote the story specifically “to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell (the proponent of the rest cure), and convince him of the error of his ways” (Wikipedia). Suffering from depression, Gilman nearly went insane herself after three months of the rest cure. She fought against it by taking up her activities again, and writing “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Danger in isolation

There is much that could be discussed here regarding the implications for women regarding these “rest cures.” Certainly the power wielded by her husband over this woman was disturbing. I was intrigued by this story,

from the Duke University production blog

knowing first hand the damage that isolation and lack of purposeful activity can do. I’ve witnessed members of my own family suffering from depression and the damage that isolation (usually self-imposed) did to them. I can’t even imagine how difficult it would be to have such isolation forced upon you, especially if no one listened to your concerns.

Lucky Mac!

Mac was certainly lucky to have Rose and so many other members of his family to take care of him through this difficult time. He may still have been deprived of reading, but he had the social interaction that is so life-giving. He was one of the lucky ones!

I encourage you to read “The Yellow Wallpaper” (it’s available online) and to read the fascinating history of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Postscript

I have to admit, reading about Mac reminded me of this classic Twilight Zone episode:

What would you do if you couldn’t read anymore?

UPDATE: Nancy posted something on her Silver Seasons blog about this subject, great post – you can read it here.


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Eight Cousins: Educating Rose

Uncle Alec affected big changes in Rose’s life as chapters 7 and 8 of Eight Cousins demonstrate.

Joy lacking

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

Early in the book, there were several reasons why Rose was a timid, teary child (the untimely death of her dear father, too many “cooks in the kitchen” with all her aunts, etc.). Much of the joy had been taken out of her life and most especially in her education.

Too preachy?

Bronson Alcott’s presence is strongly felt in Louisa’s commentary on Rose’s education. Eight Cousins seems to be full of such commentaries (remember chapter 5, A Belt and a Box). I can see why readers complain about the preachy nature of her books for children.

The “Miss Power” approach to education

Illustration by Robert Doremus

Rose loved studying with her father but found the boarding school and Miss Power oppressive:

“I used to understand a great deal better when papa taught me a few lessons than when Miss Power hurried me through so many . . .”

Uncle Alec chose a wonderful way to describe the problem:

“ . . . I find and I dare say it would be if the benighted lady did not think it necessary to cram her pupils like Thanksgiving turkeys, instead of feeding them in a natural and wholesome way. It is the fault with most American schools, and the poor little heads will go on aching till we learn better.”

The voice of Bronson

Uncle Alec is obviously the mouthpiece of Louisa’s own father who proposed many educational reforms. Louisa has a talent for taking the often obtuse way Bronson would record his ideas and making them understandable for children.

A gift of gab

Fred Willis & Louisa; Illustration by Flora Smith

A frequent boarder with the Alcotts, Frederick Llewellyn Willis (who became like a brother to the girls) wrote in his Alcott Memoirs that “Mr. Alcott’s table talks were constantly delightful . . . he took especial care to so discourse that the youngest listener might comprehend and fully understand.” He quotes a child as saying, “I love to hear him talk. He is so plain and tells me so much I didn’t know, fastening it on to what I know.”

Talk doesn’t translate into writing

Perhaps this is how Louisa was able to distill her father’s philosophy of education into simpler form. It’s a shame that Bronson’s writing could not capture the magic of his dialog with children!

Everyday lessons

Like Bronson, Uncle Alec uses the experiences of everyday life to teach Rose her lessons:

  • A boat trip out on the harbor ends with a visit to a ship in from Hong Kong where Rose meets two men from China and soaks up the local color.
  • Alec helps Rose sort through her account book to teach her how to manage her financial affairs. Rose has a terrible time with figures but swears she will “hunt up her old arithmetic and perfect herself in the first four rules, before she read any more fairy tales.”
  • Rose reads aloud to her uncle who feigns tiredness; he is so enchanted with her skill that he asks her to read some more.

Enter the dreaded Aunt Jane

When Aunt Jane stops in to visit, she is very critical of Alec’s methods (although she is judging without having actually seen them). Jane is the very strict member of the Aunt-Hill; she is a great believer of the Miss Powers method of teaching, bragging that her sons hit the books all day long.

Rose shows her!

Jane assumes that Rose has been petted to death by her uncle and wasting her time reading “trash” with him, but Rose has the last laugh when asked about her lessons:

“I’ve had five to-day, ma’am . . . Navigation, geography, grammar, arithmetic, and keeping my temper.”

Aunt Jane blown away!

She then proceeds to show off her knowledge of China after her visit to the boat from Hong Kong which shocks Jane:

“The effect of this remarkable burst was immense . . . it entirely took the wind out of Aunt Jane’s sails; it was so sudden, so varied and unexpected, that she had not a word to say. The glasses remained fixed full upon Rose for a moment, and then, with a hasty ‘Oh, indeed!’ the excellent lady bundled into her carriage and drove away, somewhat bewildered and very much disturbed”

A triumph indeed!

Needless to say, Alec and Rose enjoyed their triumph thoroughly:

“She would have been more so if she had seen her reprehensible brother-in-law dancing a triumphal polka down the hall with Rose in honour of having silenced the enemy’s battery for once”

Bronson, I’m sure, would have been quite pleased as well.

This book is fun but . . . do you find Eight Cousins to be preachy? Does it bother you?


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