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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