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 …
For 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.
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
Now 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.
The 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)
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 …
Now 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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