Are you taking part in the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge, sponsored by this blog and In the Bookcase? It’s not too late to jump in! After reading this post, head on over to In the Bookcase and read all about it.
My choice is Rose in Bloom and here is my third post on it:
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I have often found Louisa May Alcott’s books to be fairly predictable. While some of her potboilers consider cruel twists (as in Rosamond’s death in A Long Fatal Love-Chase), even then, it wasn’t that much of a surprise.
However, the tragic life and death of Charlie Campbell in Rose in Bloom really through me for a loop!
Charlie was a man who seemingly had it all: talent, promise charisma and good looks. Art, music, theatre and study all come easily to him, perhaps too easily. He would not settle down and apply himself preferring to enjoy himself. He could have been the shining star of the Campbell clan. But he lacked ambition and character.
Dr. Cathlin Davis spoke extensively about talent and genius at the Summer Conversational Series in 2014. She mentioned Charlie’s talent and lack of ambition and concluded that “ambition without love will never attain genius.”
It makes me wonder what would have happened to Charlie had Rose loved him – would that love have turned him around, teaching him how to love in return? It’s interesting that Louisa opted not to take that route as it would have been the predictable one to take — women were so often portrayed as saving men from their lesser selves. In fact, Uncle Alec warned Rose of loving Charlie before he was worthy:
Will you help?” he asked, stopping suddenly with a look that made her stand up straight and strong as she answered with an eager voice: “I will.”
“Then don’t love him yet.”
That startled her, but she asked steadily, though her heart began to beat and her color to come: “Why not?”
“Firstly, because no woman should give her happiness into the keeping of a man without fixed principles; secondly, because the hope of being worthy of you will help him more than any prayers or preaching of mine. Thirdly, because it will need all our wit and patience to undo the work of nearly four and twenty years. You understand what I mean?”
“Can you say ‘no’ when he asks you to say ‘yes’ and wait a little for your happiness?”
“And will you?”
Thus, instead of the usual “woman saves the man,” the man must save himself first with the idea that the woman will wait for him. Louisa is putting the responsibility solely on Charlie to straighten himself out.
Through Charlie Louisa makes her feelings clear about temperance – alcohol is an evil that destroys lives. Being a drunkard is a source of terrible shame. She uses Rose as the means of stirring up that shame within Charlie. In Chapter 9, “New Year’s Calls,” Rose discerns the true extent of Charlie’s problem with alcohol and becomes fearful of him when drunk:
“Don’t be angry, dearest look at me as you did this morning, and I’ll swear never to sing another note if you say so. I’m only a little gay we drank your health handsomely, and they all congratulated me. Told ’em it wasn’t out yet. Stop, though I didn’t mean to mention that. No matter I’m always in a scrape, but you always forgive me in the sweetest way. Do it now, and don’t be angry, little darling.” And, dropping the vase, he went toward her with a sudden excitement that made her shrink behind the chair.
She was not angry, but shocked and frightened, for she knew now what the matter was and grew so pale, he saw it and asked pardon before she could utter a rebuke.
Rose makes it clear to Charlie that he must give up drinking or she will have nothing to do with him. Eventually she appeals to his better self and he vows to change, even preparing to go away halfway across the world to visit his father to get away from those who would cause his downfall.
And here’s where the story takes a terrible turn. As I read Chapter 15, I hoped against hope it would end differently. Charlie went out to bid farewell to his friends and was not strong enough to resist temptation. Upon coming home that he fell off his horse in his inebriated state and was mortally wounded. Even when Dr. Alec pronounced that there was no hope, I thought for sure Charlie would recover. That chapter ended with bitter tears on my part.
It also ended with a growing respect for Louisa as a writer who presented life as it truly was – glorious at times, and other times ugly and tragic. She truly loved and respected her younger readers. 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 it.
I believe that too.
You can download a PDF file of my notes from Dr. Davis’ presentation at the Summer Conversational Series 2014: dr. cathlin davis talent and genius
How did you feel when Charlie died?
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