Wrapping up Work A Story of Experience: The Spiritual Subplot

I acknowledge that Work: A Story of Experience is an important feminist work (see previous post). It was groundbreaking in that respect and makes it a relevant book for today in understanding the condition of single working women in the nineteen century. Work would be an especially valuable read for women of the Millennial generation who have not lived through the struggles of their predecessors.

Examining a subplot

I believe, however, that Work is also an important religious work. While Louisa was never a member of any particular congregation, she was a lifelong seeker. Her frustration with conventional religion is summed up in a stinging summation in chapter 7, “Into the Mist” (see previous post). Christie’s spiritual journey is nuanced, gritty and authentic. It’s an exquisite look inside the heart, mind and soul of the author.

Chapter 19, “Little Heart’s-Ease” demonstrates Christie’s spiritual growth in the way she works through her grief over David’s death and how she perceives a sacred moment in the mundane.

Mystic insight

transparent eyeballIn his essay, “Nature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson refers to the “transparent eyeball:” “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” (from chapter one). Contemporary spiritual writer Richard Rohr in his book The Naked Now employs a similar term of the “third eye.” Both authors are describing the insight of a mystic, that of being able to discern God in all things no matter how mundane, and being one with all things.

The ability to discern God in everyday life, to “read between the lines,” so to speak, is a precious gift of sight, most likely what Jesus was referring to with comments such as ” … blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear …” (Matthew 13:16). He often spoke these words after relaying a parable, knowing that many would not grasp the meaning, but others would “see.”

Insight leading to consolation

David's death drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

David’s death drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

Christie’s search for religion granted her that sight, giving her a beautiful experience of consolation.

Despite comforting words from the Rev. Power, Christie would not be consoled without a concrete sign: “Christie could not be content with this invisible, intangible recompense for her hero: she wanted to see, to know beyond a doubt, that justice had been done …”

Louisa then writes,

“Then, when no help seemed possible, she found it where she least expected it, in herself. Searching for religion, she had found love: now seeking to follow love she found religion. The desire for it had never left her, and, while serving others, she was earning this reward; for when her life seemed to lie in ashes, from their midst, this slender spire of flame, purifying while it burned, rose trembling toward heaven; showing her how great sacrifices turn to greater compensations; giving her light, warmth, and consolation, and teaching her the lesson all must learn.”

Hearing David’s “voice”

Sitting in David’s room one day, surrounded by his things, Christie experiences the sign she sought. In the stillness she hears a melodious sound as a gentle breeze brushes past David’s flute. She can “hear” the music of that flute that she once dubbed as David’s “voice,” expressing all the joys and sorrows of his life that he never shared in words. The sign had been given:

“Ah, yes! this was a better answer than any supernatural voice could have given her; a more helpful sign than any phantom face or hand; a surer confirmation of her hope than subtle argument or sacred promise: for it brought back the memory of the living, loving man so vividly, so tenderly, that Christie felt as if the barrier was down, and welcomed a new sense of David’s nearness with the softest tears that had flowed since she closed the serene eyes whose last look had been for her.”

From the collection at the Concord Free Public Library www.concordlibrary.org

Thoreau’s flute
From the collection at the Concord Free Public Library http://www.concordlibrary.org

This passage struck a chord in me for I too experienced such a sign on the day of my mother’s funeral.

A series of personal signs

It was April 22 and the day was warmer than usual. The sky was as deep a blue as I had ever seen it. Spring was several weeks early that year, resulting in a burst of floral beauty. The air was alive with birdsong. The season was at its peak.

The chapel in the Unitarian Church in Wellesley, Massachusetts was decorated with a stunning arrangement of flowers favoring a purple theme.

Unitarian Church in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts

Unitarian Church in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts

This was the first sign for my mother loved flowers and birds, having studied Botany at Wellesley College and then working for the department for several years. One of her jobs was to help arrange the flowers for the annual Boston Flower Show display.

The chapel was filled to overflowing with family and friends. After the formal eulogy given by my older sister, her husband rose to speak. His recollections of my mother were funny and poignant considering the complex nature of their relationship. An alpha male, Tom choked up remembering his mother-in-law who lived next door to his family’s home for so many years.

chipping sparrowTom’s comments were followed by neighbors who stood up and recalled memories of my mother and father encouraging the neighborhood children to sled and play on the hill in their yard. My mother’s intense interest in the lives of everyone around her was recalled with humor and affection.

A second sign, for my mother in her dementia and despair, had felt unworthy of love. Her friends and family had not forgotten her.

I remember approaching the casket after the room had emptied, kissing it and saying, “I told you so! I told you that you were loved!”

At the internment as my husband, a deacon in the Eastern Catholic Church, said the prayers over the grave, a chipping sparrow sat overhead singing his spring song.

A third sign. I knew then for sure that my mother was safely home with God.

As with Christie, these signs were like the parables of Jesus: many would hear but only some would actually “see.”

The crux and the heart of Work

While the crux of Work is its feminist message, the heart of the story lies in Christie’s inner life. In this thinly veiled autobiography, we not only learn of Louisa’s working life with its struggles and triumphs but also of the woman within, so keenly attuned to that still, small voice within, ever searching for connection and meaning.

Like most good writers, Louisa was gifted with insight and relentless curiosity. A deep connection to something greater than herself was a key element of that insight, enabling her indeed to see with that “third eye.”

It’s what keeps me coming back for more.

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A feminist manifesto: wrapping up Work A Story of Experience (part two)

“…Work is an expression of Alcott’s feminist principles and a major effort toward synthesizing in popular, readable form the broad set of beliefs encompassing family, education, suffrage, labor and the moral reform of social life that defined feminist ideology in the nineteenth century.” (pg. 191 from Critical Essays on Louisa May Alcott edited by Madeleine Stern)

So writes Sarah Elbert in the introduction to the 1977 edition of Work: A Story of Experience.

Message brought into the open

Such beliefs had already been hinted at in Little Women and An Old-Fashioned Girl  (most especially the latter). Now confident of her bully pulpit, Louisa put them forth in adult form using her life experience as the means.

Transcendental influence

According to Elbert, the influence of Transcendentalism with its belief in self-reliance and individual improvement as the means to a better society loomed large in Louisa’s brand of feminism. This is most evident in the last chapter of the book, “Forty” where Louisa sends a lady of fashion, Bella Carroll, on a mission to educate her friends on leading a more purposeful life through deliberate conversation and reading (see previous post).

From personal to universal

parker and power

Rev. Theodore Parker (left), the prototype for Rev. Power

In Work Louisa was able to fashion a personal search for meaning through a tale with universal appeal. Elbert points to the Reverend Theodore Parker, a radical preacher (see previous post) whose sermons, “The Public Function of Woman” and “Laborious Young Women” deeply inspired Louisa at a time when she was at her lowest point. He became the Rev. Power in the story whose words, practical assistance and guidance led Christie from her despair into a new life full of purpose.

In the beginning

christie and aunt betseyChristie Devon was a pioneer of sorts. As an orphan freed from taking care of aging parents, she opted for independence over marriage announcing to her Aunt Betsey that (taking words from the Seneca Falls Convention – Ibid, pg. 193) “there’s going to be a new Declaration of Independence.” She then proceeded to knead her bread most vigorously, “kneading the dough as if it was her destiny, and she was shaping it to suit herself …” (Chapter 1, Work A Story of Experience from archive.org).

War brings change

Elbert saw this as a symbolic gesture marking a farewell to the rural way of life, a narrow way which for generations had so shaped a woman’s life. The Civil War, much like World War II, had shaken society and the family to its foundations. Because the men were called away, the women stepped up and took their places, as head of households and workers in the public sphere. (pg. 193 from Critical Essays on Louisa May Alcott).

Skillful yet unappreciated

Wages were seen as a path to independence but that path would be very hard. Christie, like most women, was trained in housewifery, a skill that was not valued in the workplace. She soon learned it was necessary for her to cultivate one skill.

Subtle humiliation

servant The obvious place to start was domestic service. By all outward appearances, being a servant didn’t seem all that bad: the work place was in a fine home with many comfortable accoutrements. It was not long before Christie saw the pitfalls: she was expected to serve the family with all the devotion and loyalty of a family member but without any of the benefits. She was not even allowed to retain her own name. It was work meant to keep her in her place through endless and subtle humiliation, with the ultimate being her firing because her “fashionable” employer forgot herself in chastising her employee and couldn’t live with it.

Evolving

In her search for meaningful employment, Christie went through a succession of jobs, from actress, to governess, to companion, to seamstress in a factory.

Choosing between being true or being successful

actressChristie grew quite talented as an actress and could have been successful. She felt, however, that the unwholesome temptations and vanities prevented her from being a true woman of character. Louisa had long dreamt of a life on the stage and through Christie she realized that dream only to have it fade when the consequences of that life proved too costly. Undoubtedly Louisa too flirted with the unwholesome aspects of the stage, and she knew some success but not at the level that Christie enjoyed. In a sense, she used Christie’s experience to rationalize her own decision to leave the theatre.

One other option

fletcher and christieAs a governess, Christie was tempted to “marry for a living” with Philip Fletcher thus securing a position in the world of fashion. It was the only alternative to low wage work or slavery. Louisa must remain true to herself and therefore so must her heroine, and Christie refuses his marriage proposal. Elbert pointed out that marriage of this sort could only mean subordination and dependency; this surely was in opposition to the life Christie meant to live when she declared her independence from her Aunt Betsey. Again, she chose to walk away.

The need for friendship

Domestic service did not lend much opportunity for friendship. Christie did manage to maintain relations with Hepsey, a freed slave who worked with her as a servant, and chapter 20 demonstrated that she also kept in touch with Helen’s younger sister Bella whom she eventually sent out on a mission (see previous post). True friendship however did not come until she became a seamstress in a factory. Her relationship with Rachel, a fallen woman trying to start her life over again proved both costly (she quit her seamstress job because Rachel was being fired because of her past sin) and life-giving (Rachel saved her from suicide). Rachel and Christie enjoyed a sisterhood that became formalized when it was revealed she was David’s long lost sister, Letty.

True womanhood at odds with working

seamstressElbert pointed out an interesting scenario created by Rachel’s presence at the factory. Hired because of her “superior” taste, she is subsequently fired when it is revealed that she had an unmarried affair with a man. Elbert wrote, “The respectable workshop manager must be intent not only on production but also on maintaining the legitimacy of such a system by hiring only girls of good character. In a dramatic confrontation between the necessities of production and the maintenance of social order, Rachel is fired as an undesirable influence on the workers, and the contractions between true womanhood and waged work are made explicit.” (Ibid, pg. 197).

True to her friend

Christie’s response to the injustice and harsh judgment visited upon Rachel was swift with her own resignation. She offered to take Rachel in but Rachel insisted on leaving in order to redeem her life and be worthy of Christie’s friendship.

Live-giving sisterhood

rachel rescues christieAgain, Christie stood tall and walked away but her independent stand came at her own peril. Subsequent lack of work coupled with terrible isolation drove her to attempt suicide. It was poetic on Louisa’s part to have Rachel reappear to be Christie’s savior, demonstrating that for the independent woman, a sisterhood was essential: a familiar theme in Little Women and in An Old-Fashioned Girl.

Elbert wrote, “Female friendships were doubly important to spinsters.” Louisa observed that “a brief but most sincere affection between two women was a viable experience which could open the heart to happiness that was its right.” (Ibid) Independence like anything else must be maintained in community.

Equality and love, short-lived

Mrs. Sterling and David

Mrs. Sterling and David

After her bout with despair, Christie met Cynthy Wilkins and through her, the Rev. Power. He sent Christie to the home of a Quaker woman, Mrs. Sterling, and her son, David whom Christie eventually married.

The romance between David (an idealized Thoreau according to Elbert) and Christie began with friendship, one of equality based on mutual interests, and evolved into a companionate marriage. The two served together in the Civil War as evidence of this equality but the marriage was cut short by David’s death. While Louisa believed that a companionate marriage was possible, she didn’t believe it was for her; if she couldn’t realize it, her alter ego could not either.

Fully evolved

sisterhoodDavid’s death released Christie back into the working world, something that Louisa felt a lot surer about (Ibid, pg. 200). Rather than simply live off of her husband’s pension, she developed his flower business and hired women like herself. Her evolution is complete at forty, where, as a confident and independent woman comfortable in her own skin, she is able to share her experiences in a public forum, inspiring other women.

The vibrancy of Work

Elbert concludes, “Louisa May Alcott was a working woman all her life, moving through the experiences of domesticity, jobs, and unemployment. Her awareness of these experiences as sharing women’s responses to the expectations raised by the dominant ideology of individualism enabled her to write more vividly and with a greater sense of urgency in Work than in any of her more commercially successful novels … she was able to present both the common sensibility of women and their individual experiences in a way that exhibited the conflict of interests manifest in their lives … The strength of her vision is revealed in the authenticity of Work; the facts of women’s lives in the mid-nineteenth century, as well as we can reconstruct them, are vivid and true in Alcott’s novel.” (Ibid, pgs. 200-201)

All drawings by Sol Eytinge, from Work A Story of Experience online

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A tale of two books: wrapping up Work A Story of Experience (part one)

work-title-pageSeveral months ago I started reading Work: A Story of Experience, one of Louisa’s few adult novels. The story, like Little Women, is a thinly disguised, romanticized yet gritty autobiography coupled with wishes Louisa might have had regarding the course of her life.

First, my impressions

In this first of three planned posts on this book, I want to share my own impressions. In the second, I will explore an essay by Sarah Elbert on Work which deals mainly with the important feminist theme of the story. And in the third, I want to return to the theme of religion (specifically a focus on chapter nineteen) which runs through the book.

A tale of two books, and its inherent weakness

In six posts I wrote mainly about the first half of the book which is basically a collection of short stories about the various paid positions that Christie had held, most of which Louisa herself had done. There appeared to be no particular storyline running through these chapters although there were memorable characters.

Rachel rescues Christie drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

Rachel rescues Christie drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

The sixth post focused on the pivotal crisis in Christie’s life which led to a suicide attempt. This crisis transitions into the second half of the book where a true plot takes over.

And this is where I began to lose interest in this book.

It was interesting when …

Helen Carroll drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

Helen Carroll drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

It’s easy to tell when Louisa is writing from her own experience because her voice is authentic and powerful. I found it quite fascinating living through Christie’s different work experiences with the most compelling being chapter five, “Companion,’ when she cares for Helen Carroll, the woman doomed to madness. Her experience with domestic servitude was revealing and chilling (giving me a greater appreciation for my newly discovered love, “Downton Abbey”).

I also found Christie’s search for God and Louisa’s devastating description of religion in her time to be equally compelling.

… and it lost me when …

The story became a bit of a dull formula when David Sterling entered the picture. It was obvious that Louisa had had little personal experience with romance and none with marriage.

David Sterling drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

David Sterling drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

Loosely based on Henry David Thoreau, David Sterling was a romantic enough character, high in virtue, a strong and somewhat silent type with a touch of melancholy due to a secret past. Like Thoreau, he played the flute; Christie dubbed his playing as “David’s voice” and was able to discern much sadness in it. He tended flowers and took care of his mother, and his lack of ambition along with his grave expression puzzled Christie. Their friendship grew and she soon found herself falling in love with him.

Predictable games

Enter Kitty, a pretty and frivolous girl, and a completely useless character. With her came the typical cat-and-mouse game where the heroine and hero misunderstand each other, the heroine leaves and assumes the hero is lost to her forever. It all ended up with the hero suddenly visiting the heroine and spilling his deep, dark secret, and then professing his love.

Yawn.

An excess of virtue

At this point in the book Christie and David seemed weighed down by an excess of virtue. Louisa did have a tendency to be heavy-handed in her morality plays and this was one time when I found it to be too much.

Heaven forbid that any character in a book with Louisa’s name on it should be anything but virtuous! Because she was a slave to her reputation, Louisa would never associate her real name with her thrillers, even A Modern Mephistopheles which was published in Roberts Brothers’ “No Name” series after Little Women. If it hadn’t been for the discovery by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern in the 1940s, no one would have even known she had written them. Readers would have been robbed of a rich legacy of works which revealed an interesting dark side to the author.

A marriage too short

David and Christie marry drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

David and Christie marry drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

Christie and David did eventually marry but without firsthand knowledge of married life, Louisa chose instead to separate them. Enter the Civil War where David gallantly served as captain of his regiment and Christie as a nurse.

Louisa’s brief but significant stint as a nurse in the war provided rich experiences for Christie. She excelled at nursing and was quickly promoted. I had to smile, wondering if Louisa pictured herself becoming that “super nurse” had she not been struck down so early by typhoid pneumonia.

A familiar death

David's death drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

David’s death drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

David’s passing in chapter eighteen reminded me a lot of John Suhre’s in Hospital Sketches. Both were valiant and virtuous men dying painful deaths from a wound to the lung. And both were loved by strong, capable independent women who happened to be nurses in the Civil War: David by Christie, and John by Louisa.

Real life getting in the way of the story

I wish that Louisa had explored more fully the marriage between David and Christie. Their relationship grew from a deep friendship into a true companionate marriage where both parties were equal. Louisa’s lack of experience in marriage plus her deep skepticism that a companionate marriage could ever take place (especially for her) most likely discouraged her from doing so.

“Little Heart’s –Ease” to the rescue!

Christie and Ruth drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

Christie and Ruth drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

Just when it seemed I might completely lose interest in Work, along came chapter nineteen, “Little Heart’s-Ease” which began the enormous task of tying together all the loose ends of this story.

This chapter picks up from David’s death to follow Christie’s long journey of grief from sad resignation, to inconsolable storms resulting in open rebellion against God, to finally a place of peace and reconciliation. Pregnant with David’s child, the birth of Ruth (which means “little heart’s-ease) brings Christie back to life.

I will devote my third post on the wrap-up of Work to this chapter which, to me, did a wonderful job of resolving Christie’s issues with faith and religion.

Revisiting old characters

Cynthy and Hepsey drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

Cynthy and Hepsey drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

The final chapter continued to tie together the loose ends, bringing back Helen’s younger sister Bella, freed slave Hepsey (whom Christie had worked with as a domestic servant) and Cynthy Wilkins (the wife, mother of six and laundress who eventually connected Christie to David). Christie at forty years of age appeared for the first time to be truly comfortable in her own skin as evidenced by the impromptu speech she made at a women’s group meeting about her experiences.

The feminist theme comes full circle

A strong feminist theme ran through Work but this final chapter displayed Louisa’s eloquence in expressing her desires for women (this will be explored in the second post through Sarah Elbert’s essay). A running theme for Louisa has been for women to lives of purpose, whether it is on the work front or in the home. We saw this theme before in An Old-Fashioned Girl where Louisa lamented the frivolous “life of fashion;” you recall that Polly, a working girl, helped Fanny find her purpose in the care of her family after they lost their fortune (see posts on An Old-Fashioned Girl).

True reform

What I most appreciate about Louisa as a reformer was her belief that reform came incrementally through the work of individuals. The combination of her father’s Transcendentalism which promoted the improvement of the individual for the good of society, and her mother’s practical application created a reformer who understood that true change comes from within. And she knew how to suggest practical means of achieving that change.

The good news

christieThis played out in the mission that Christie created for Bella. Rather than directly serve the poor which Christie astutely discerned was not appropriate for a women of Bella’s background, she inspired Bella to educate her friends on the need for lives of purpose, much the way Polly inspired Fanny. She was, in a sense, sending out her first disciple to spread the good news of a changing way of life for women that included a growing sense of autonomy.

Final thoughts

Despite its flaws, Work was a frank and gritty look at the life of women in the 19th century who long to be more than what they are permitted to be. It forecast an epic struggle that would ultimately grant women the political power and many choices they enjoy today along with the complications of those choices.

Yet, I found Work to be far more than a feminist study. There were so many other subplots that to me, made the book truly interesting in the end.

Louisa’s commentary and personal understanding of faith was look inside of her character and her drive for reform. Her unique brand of candor and poignancy opened windows into class, race, mental illness, despair and a kind of love that embraced equality.

Redemption for Christie came through a perfect blending of purpose-filled work and domestic bliss with her child, Ruth. It came after many years of hardship and great cost.

Louisa was a great believer in the redemptive nature of suffering as she wrote in chapter nineteen: “from the dust of a great affliction rose the sustaining power she had sought so long.”

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Work: Finding religion

Theodore Parker

Chapter 9 of Work, A Story of Experience brings us face to face with another character based upon a real life person. The character is Rev. Thomas Power and the actual person is the Rev. Theodore Parker.

The power of life’s example

In Work, Christie, very taken with Cynthy Wilkins’ optimistic view of life, fulfills a promise to herself to find out how Cynthy is able to live a life of deep joy despite hardship. Cynthy suspects that Christie could use a bit of religion and suggests that she attend a service presided over by Rev. Thomas Power.

“Rampant radical”

Christie is surprised upon receiving the suggestion for Rev. Power has quite the reputation as “a rampant radical and infidel of the deepest dye,” and she had been warned “never to visit that den of iniquity called his free church.”

The Reverend Parker

Undoubtedly Theodore Parker was seen this way too. A staunch abolitionist and champion to the downtrodden, he had been a key figure in helping Louisa out of her own despair. Parker was already known to the Alcott family as he had visited Fruitlands and attended some of Bronson’s conversations. His views on Christianity were so radical (“Christianity would be better off without the Gospels” – Eden’s Outcasts, John Matteson, page 234 ebook) that he was banned from preaching in Boston churches and was forced to preach at the Music Hall (now known as the Wang Center).

The Boston Music Hall where Rev. Parker preached.

This is not unlike Rev. Power in Work who also did not preach in a church. Power, and Parker, delivered the kind of authentic Christianity that Louisa had witnessed through her parents’ example: “Father and Mother had no money to give, but gave them time, sympathy, help; and if blessings would make them rich, they would be millionaires. This is practical Christianity.” (Ibid, page 238 ebook).

True grit

Parker often preached on the plight of working women and his inspiring words had led Louisa through her darkest hour. She hero worshipped him as she had done with Emerson and Thoreau. After hearing his sermon on “Laborious Young Women” where he advised, “Don’t be too proud to ask, and accept the humblest work till you can find the task you want,” (Ibid) she felt compelled to speak with him in person. She presented herself at his door only to find that he was not home. His wife, however, sympathized with Louisa’s plight and offered her work sewing ten hours a day at a girl’s reform school in Winchester. Remembering Parker’s words (“accept the humblest work till you find the task you want”) she accepts despite grave reservations. In the end, Parker’s wife had been testing her “earnestness” and offered instead a governess job in the city for four hours a day. Upon meeting Louisa, Parker praised her saying, “The girl has got true grit.” (Ibid, page 268)

Religion of the heart

Christie too was moved by the words of Rev. Thomas Power and by the earnestness of the congregation:

“Many earnest, thoughtful men and women were there, some on the anxious seat, and some already at peace, having found the clew that leads safely through the labyrinth of life. Here and there a white head, a placid old face, or one of those fine countenances that tell, unconsciously, the beautiful story of a victorious soul.”

The setting was admittedly foreign to her but that authenticity of the congregants and the minister soon won her over. The opening hymn spoke volumes about the congregants:

“At first, Christie wanted to smile, for some shouted and some hummed, some sat silent, and others sung sweetly; but before the hymn ended she liked it, and thought that the natural praise of each individual soul was perhaps more grateful to the ear of God than masses by great masters, or psalms warbled tunefully by hired opera singers.”

Powers’ method of prayer, a simple and heartfelt conversation with God, and his “judgment day” sermon spoke directly to Christie’s heart; she found her religion.

A living and generous faith

The familiar theme of authentic Christianity appears again and again in Louisa’s writing. Bronson’s brand of spirituality may have been strange but it was real and Louisa would settle for nothing less. The example of her father’s quest for spiritual perfection coupled with his and Abba’s practical philanthropy (often at the expense of their own family) left a deep impression.

Louisa not only understood religion but personal spirituality. Most of her life she rejected the formal religious component, never truly aligning to any denomination (although the Unitarians have claimed her as one of their own); there is no solid evidence to suggest she joined a congregation. She demonstrates again and again through her characters a keen understanding of the nature of authentic spirituality where faith and beliefs govern actions and motivations.

A life-saving faith

Cynthy Wilkins is a wonderful example of the transforming power of authentic spirituality, having been changed from someone who was self-centered and dissatisfied to a woman full of optimism, governed by peace. She glows with an inner light that attracts Christie like a moth to a flame.

In the depths of her despair, Christie found redemption by finding religion of the heart. Cynthy’s life example coupled with the teachings and compassion of a powerful preacher leads her to the next chapter of her life, one that would change her in ways she could never have imagined.

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Work: Marriage revisited – could there have been another reason why Louisa never married?

For someone who abhorred the idea of marriage for herself, Louisa May Alcott again and again paints a multi-layered, satisfying and mature picture of the institution.

Raising an interesting question

I wrote about this before, describing the first year of marriage between Meg and John Brooke in Little Women. I see it now in Work: A Story of Experience, in chapter 8, “A Cure for Despair.”

And after reading it, I had to wonder: was there more to Louisa’s refusal to marry than just wishing to remain an independent spinster? I suspect the reason was more complex.

Christie finds comfort in a friend

In chapter 8, Christie, saved from her despair by the kindly Cynthy Wilkins, draws much consolation from Cynthy’s life. Beneath Cynthy’s rough exterior, the “fuzzy, red hair, the paucity of teeth, the faded gown” lay a deep sense of joy, peace and satisfaction with life.

Finding true religion

As recalled in a previous post, Christie sought initial consolation in religion but could find none. In Cynthy Wilkins, she finds it: “This woman has got the sort of religion I want, if it makes her what she is. Some day I’ll get her to tell me where she found it.”

We do find out in chapter 9 but that will be discussed in the next post.

Why so devoted?

For now, Christie finds the life example she is looking for in Cynthy Wilkins. She is comforted by the woman’s stories but admitted to being puzzled by Cynthy’s devotion to her husband Elisha despite the fact that there truly was nothing extraordinary about him.

Once she heard Cynthy’s story, her view changed.

A marriage in trouble …

Cynthy told a lengthy story of her marriage, how at first she succumbed to the poor advice of a troublemaking neighbor and indulged in a life of frivolity and fashion. Her husband did all he could to please her but her self-centered ways and excessive spending took its toll.

Pride gets in the way

Despite doing what she pleased, Cynthy described herself as “dreadful fractious;” the home front was disorderly and discordant, the children ran wild, and Elisha could find no peace. They ended up having a terrible fight where he slapped her. He was remorseful but it was to no avail. Cynthy in a huff left home to live with the meddling neighbor and in a prideful snit, waited for Elisha to come and fetch her.

Making amends

He did not and she began to regret leaving him. A sudden flash flood from a heavy rainstorm and the possibility that he had been swept away sharpened that regret. Fortunately he was alright and they reunited and reconciled. They both mended their ways and she came to appreciate a simpler life with him and her children. She also recognized that her neighbor was no friend and kept a wide berth of her.

What makes a successful marriage?

Louisa painted the picture of a true marriage in all its complexities, its ebbs and flows. Cynthy and Elisha were not an attractive couple; each had their faults. Their strength however was their devotion and commitment to each another. Their relationship relied on something deeper than creature comforts and was strong enough to weather storms of pride, meddling neighbors and anger.

No doubt Louisa witnessed all of this in her parents’ marriage.

Marriage closer to home

Bronson and Abba had a complex relationship and Abba certainly suffered at the hands of Bronson’s narcissism and lack of propensity to provide for his family. She was angry, depressed, frustrated and frightened, and she poured all of her distress into the daughter who understood her so well.

A trap, or something workable?

It’s no wonder Louisa saw marriage as a trap. This story from Work, however (and her description of Meg and John Brooke’s marriage in Little Women) demonstrates that she did see marriage as workable and even desirable.

What was Louisa afraid of?

Louisa was ambitious, wishing make her mark in the world as a writer. She took on the yoke of breadwinner for her family, finding it both satisfying and a burden. Louisa was bold and at times appeared fearless. Yet her work made a great excuse for avoiding the thing in her life that truly terrified her: intimacy.

Friendships without strings

Think about it. How many intimate relationships did Louisa have beyond her immediate family? Consider the relationships she had with men: they were either old enough to be her father or young enough to be a son. These relationships were safe; they required no real commitment on her part.

Hard to manage

Louisa described Cynthy as hard to manage in her younger days; she was so difficult that her husband would not come and fetch her when she up and left him.

Did Louisa see herself that way?

Harsh assessment

Louisa May Alcott at around age 25 (Wikipedia)

She often described herself as “topsey-turvey.” In a letter to her father she writes, “I was a crass crying baby, bawling at the disagreeable old world…. I scrambled up into childhood,…fell with a crash into girlhood & continued falling over fences, out of trees, uphill & down stairs tumbling from one year to another till strengthened by such violent exercise, the topsey turvey girl shot up into a topsey turvey woman …” (pages 148-149 ebook, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen)

Moods, moods …

She often wrote in her girlhood diaries of her bad temper and the sorrow she felt as a result. Her moods put her on a constant and violent roller coaster ride. The vortex that she entered in order to write erected a barrier around her such that no one could enter, and when she’d emerge, she would be cranky, bereft and irritable.

Lack of acceptance

Her life would have been easier if those at home and society at large could have accepted Louisa for the way she was; there’s no doubt she had a generous dose of the famed artist temperament. Louisa would indeed have required a man of great patience and understanding if she wished to marry.

Avoiding the issue

So it makes me wonder if her relentless pursuit of writing plus the need to support her family were convenient excuses to avoid the deeper issue of facing and accepting herself as the woman she truly was.

My instinct tells me there was more to her remaining a spinster than her desire to remain independent.

What do you think?

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Returning to “Work:” In and out of the mist – Louisa’s art reflects life

We return to a discussion of Work: A Story of Experience where chapter 7, “Through the Mist” marks a turning point in Christie’s life. It is also a powerful and penetrating look inside the author who herself experienced a similar turning point.

After numerous attempts to find meaningful work that she could sustain, and after losing the one close friend she could turn to, Christie falls prey to despair:

“… she suffered a sort of poverty which is more difficult to bear than actual want, since  money cannot lighten it, and th rarest charity alone can minister to it. Her heart was empty and she could not fill it; her soul was hungry and she could not feed it; life was cold and dark and she could notwarm and brighten it, for she knew not where to go.” (page 115, Work: A Story of Experience)

Close to home

It was not unlike the despair suffered by Louisa after two life-changing events in 1858 when she was 25 years old: the death of her younger sister Lizzie after a long illness, and the announced engagement of her older sister Anna just 3 weeks later.

Lizzie (left) and Anna

Much emotional energy was spent on nursing her younger sister and with grief still so raw, Louisa felt a sense of betrayal at her older sister’s announcement. Plagued by a tremendous sense of loneliness, she also felt the immense burden of being the spinster caretaker of her family. Yet, filled with resolve, she set off to Boston to find work once her parents were settled in Orchard House. The search was discouraging and humiliating, ending up with one offer to sew ten hours a day in a girl’s school far removed from Boston’s enriching atmosphere and the nurturing support of family.

Memories feeding a story

Here Louisa temporarily lost heart and contemplated suicide at the Mill Dam. She mentioned the incident briefly in a letter to her parents and did not embellish on it in her journal. However, she draws on memories to describe Christie’s similar contemplation:

“Something white swept by below, – only a broken oar – but she began to wonder how a human body would look floating through the night. It was an awesome fancy, but it took possession of her, and, as it grew, her eyes dilated, her breath came fast, and her lips fell apart, for she seemed to see the phantom she had conjured up, and it wore the likeness of herself.” (page 124)

Christie’s despair

Christie’s despair came from a different scenario. After serving as companion to the mentally ill Helen (who successfully committed suicide – see previous post), she took a job as a seamstress, desiring work that would not be so emotionally demanding. She connected deeply with another woman in the group, Rachel, who had a shady past. It was the first truly satisfying relationship that Christie had had since she struck out on her own and she cherished it.

Rachel’s secret of once going astray with a man was revealed and the forewoman let her go. Indignant, Christie also left. She hoped to take Rachel in but Rachel insisted on going away to pick up the pieces of her life. Thus, Christie lost touch with her dear friend.

She took in sewing, working from her rented room. It was hard work and the isolation was especially hard on Christie.

Damning portrait of religion

It was here that Louisa began to explore the nature of religion and spirituality of the time, and the difficulties she had experienced as noted through the character of Christie. She began, naturally, with books but was unable to find a living God within their pages. Although Louisa never mentions exactly where Christie is living, I must assume that she is thinking of Boston. Checking out the many churches in the city, Louisa’s observations proved very interesting:

“Some were cold and narrow, some seemed theatrical and superficial, some stern and terrible, none simple, sweet and strong enough for humanity’s many needs. There was too much machinery, too many walls, and penalties between the Father and his children. Too much fear, too little love; too many saints and intercessors, too little faith in the instincts of the soul which turns to God as flowers to the sun. To much idle strife about names and creeds; too little knowledge of the natural religion which has no name but godliness, whose creed is boundless and benignant as the sunshine, whose faith is as the render trust of little children in their mother’s love.” (page 115)

Christie knew what she wanted: “a Father to whom I can go with all my sins and sorrows, all my hopes and joys, as freely and fearlessly as I used to go to my human father, sure of help and sympathy and love. Shall I ever find Him?” (page 116)

Bar set high

This assessment of religion is devastating. Louisa demonstrates a critical understanding of the true nature of spirituality thanks to the influence of her father’s transcendentalism, and his example when she was a child. While Bronson could be very critical of Louisa, he also showered upon her and her sisters an unusual amount of tenderness. Bronson was definitely not the father who kept an arm’s length distance like most fathers of the day. His attentions may have proven oppressive to Louisa at times as he would not accept her as she was, but he was most definitely present to her. She received much and thus, expected much.

The resolve weakens

Traditional religion thus fails Christie. She becomes ill and, unable to work, loses many of her clients. To add to her burden, her landlady demands the rent, suspecting that Christie might run out on her. Deeply stung by the accusation and lacking the money she needs to make her rent, Christie quotes a familiar phrase,

“I’ll paddle my own canoe as long as I can … and when I must ask help I’ll turn to strangers for it, or scuttle my bat, and go down without troubling anyone.” (page 120)

Hidden feelings?

Ill fortune continues to descend as one client refuses to pay for work done and another has no work for her. In her continued search, Christie witnesses a wedding and laments the unfairness of it all:

“Oh, it isn’t fair, it isn’t right, that she should have so much and I so little! What have I ever done to be so desolate and miserable, and never to find any happiness, however hard I try to do what seems my duty?” (page 123)

It’s ironic that Louisa uses a wedding to send Christie over the edge considering how she felt initially towards her sister Anna’s wedding and the sense of abandonment that followed. If one wished to read between the lines, one might even suspect a hint of envy at her sister’s happiness.

Over the edge

Her burden too heavy to bear, Christie decides to end her life. Unlike Louisa, who was able to stop herself, Christie could not resist the impulse:

“Lower and lower she bent; looser and looser grew her hold on the pillar; faster and faster beat the pulses in her temples, and the rush of some blind impulse was swiftly coming on …” (page 124)

Louisa indeed was strong to be able to resist such an impulse. She saved herself. In Christie’s case, a close friend thought long gone seized Christie’s hand and drew her to safety.

In Christie’s mind, God had intervened. And in chapter 8, a strong, supportive and soothing male voice reveals this God she so desperately seeks.

I have posted before on Louisa’s brush with suicide – you can read it here

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Work: Staring madness in the face

The Yellow Wallpaper by Kaitaro

A ticking time bomb lay inside of Louisa May Alcott and she knew it.

It went off with her father, her Uncle Junius, and eventually, herself.

Her journals alluded to it.

Her creativity was fueled
by it.

And chapter 5 of Work: A Story of Experience gives us a detailed look inside.

Companion

Having left the employ of the Saltonstalls as governess, Christie is offered a position as companion to an invalid woman. Observing the opulence of the home, Christie exclaims, “What a happy family the Carrols must be!”

Beauty masks the ugly secret within.

Sadness …

As Mrs. Carrol introduces Christie to her ward (daughter Helen), Christie suspects that a deep sadness lies beneath the stately exterior of Mrs. Carrol. Upon meeting Helen she finds a young woman in despair. Christie’s heart goes out to Helen and they become close. As Christie reads to her, sings to her and listens to her confidences, Helen appears to be improving.

… Madness

Eventually it becomes clear that Helen is depressed to the point of suicide. And the ugly secret? The family has a history of insanity.

Death spiral

Helen reviles her mother for marrying her father even though she knew the insanity he carried in his genes would be passed down. Helen herself, deeply in love and engaged to be married, is forced to break her engagement once she discovers the truth. The loss of her true love breaks her spirit.

Spiraling downward into despair, Helen eventually takes her own life.

Close to home

Alcott biographers have noted the episodes of madness in the family.

Bronson’s episodes

John Matteson in Eden’s Outcasts speaks of Bronson’s mysticism which teetered back and forth between sanity and madness. The breakdown he experienced after the collapse of his cherished Fruitlands nearly killed him. Recovery was slow and in Boston, Bronson suffered a relapse. During this episode, he endured hallucinations which he documented with feverish fury (pg. 225 ebook, Eden’s Outcasts by John Matteson).

Bronson’s younger brother

Bronson’s younger brother Junius, also a mystic, suffered similar episodes. At the age of thirty-two, he suddenly committed suicide by matter-of-factly walking into machinery at his factory (pg. 238, Ibid).

Louisa May Alcott at around age 25 (Wikipedia)

Louisa’s moods

Louisa’s roller coaster mood swings are well documented. She could fall into furious, exuberant vortexes where she would crank out an enormous amount of writing. And then she would sink into despair.

She lamented her violent temper, so poignantly illustrated in chapter 8 of Little Women, “Jo Meets Apollyon” (see previous post)

She also considered suicide but thought it cowardly:

“My fit of despair was soon over, for it seemed so cowardly to run away before the battle was over I couldn’t do it. So I said firmly, ‘There is work for me, and I’ll have it,’ and went home resolved to take Fake by the throat and shake a living out of her.”(pg. 169 ebook Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen).

Chapter 7 of Work, “Through the Mist,” details Christie’s attempt at suicide – this will be covered in the next post.

The stigma of mental illness

There were two things that intrigued me about “Companion:” how mental illness was regarded in Louisa’s day, and the case Louisa built to justify Helen’s suicide.

It’s no surprise that mental illness was to be kept secret as it was a source of shame. Such a tremendous stigma was attached to it that families carrying the genes were discouraged from marrying as demonstrated with the Carrols.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Shopot

Hidden away

How many times have we read about women locked away in attic rooms while they work through their madness? Who can forget Rochester’s wife in Jane Eyre or the woman depicted by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in “The Yellow Wallpaper?” Helen had experienced similar treatment, hidden away from the world which she recounts to Christie:

“She [Christie's mother] hides the truth; she hides me, and lets the world believe I am dying of consumption; not a word about insanity,  … This is why I was not sent away, but for a year was shut up in that room yonder where the door is always locked.”

Each to his own

Helen displays the family trait through her morose spirit. Her two brothers, also aware of their fate, deal with it in different ways: Augustine as a priest through penance and prayer, and Harry through constant, empty recreation. A younger sister, Bella, had not yet been told.

Close to home

A raw authenticity marks Louisa’s description of Helen’s despair as she shares the family secret with Christie. Gazing at the picture of her lover on the wall, Christie and the reader can keenly feel Helen’s pain.

The storm brews

Just when it seemed Christie’s presence was helping, Bella returns home for the Christmas holidays. Helen discovers that her beautiful younger sister has a lover and “a terrible unrest grew upon her [Helen], bringing sleepless nights again, moody days, and all the old afflictions with redoubled force.”

Shocking outcome

Suddenly Helen grows calm as Christmas approaches. She adorns herself in a pretty dress and celebrates with family around the tree.

And then, after finally agreeing to see her mother at bedtime, Helen quietly slices her throat with a knife. She dies in her mother’s arms.

Building the case

Suicide (often closely connected with insanity) carried a stigma of its own. In religious circles it was considered a fast track to Hell (the Catholic Church identified it as a mortal sin back in the fourth century thanks to the arguments of Saint Augustine). In the middle ages, suicide victims were further victimized by the public with bodies hung or dragged through the streets.

Justifying suicide

While the view on suicide softened somewhat in the nineteenth century, it still was much frowned upon. Yet Louisa, using a lawyer-like logic through the heart-wrenching testimony from Helen, seems to justify suicide:

” ‘You [Christie] have done much for me, and God will bless you for it, but you cannot keep me sane. Death is the only cure for a mad Carrol, and I’m so young, so strong, it will be long in coming unless I hurry it.’

She clenched her hands, set her teeth, and looked about her as if ready for any desperate act that should set her free from the dark and dreadful future that lay before her.”

Scholars analyzing the worthwhile social implications of Work for women don’t often mention what is to me, pretty controversial.

Close association

Could it be that the close relationship between insanity and suicide justified the act? Did the victim suffer in the afterlife as well?

“Companion” was a revealing look at the anguish suffered by a family with a history of mental illness. As the Alcott family shared this history, perhaps it is safe to assume we readers are privy to a similar anguish, suffered by the author.

Perhaps this is one reason why Louisa never married?

John Matteson, when asked a question at the Orchard House Summer Conversation series this past July about why Louisa never married remarked that he thought it crossed Louisa’s mind that she should not marry lest she pass down the genes.

While there is no concrete proof that this was a consideration, certainly it was a powerful concern as demonstrated in Chapter 5 of Work. Yet Anna and May both married, so who knows?

In the next post, I will discuss Chapter 7, “In the Mist” where Christie considers suicide.

Are we reading again the thoughts of the author as she considered it?

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