Louisa May Alcott’s brand of feminism: final thoughts on “Moods,” thanks to Sarah Elbert

I finally finished reading Moods a few weeks ago but just couldn’t comment on it. After reading both the 1864 and 1882 versions, I concluded that the book left me flat. The characters felt rather two-dimensional. Both versions ended differently and each ending seemed convoluted. It left me feeling the way I did after reading The Inheritance (see previous post), except that Moods was a lot better.

One of our readers, Nancy from the Silver Threads blog, recently wrote an insightful post on Moods that caused me to dig deeper. She had read the version which included thoughts by Sarah Elbert so that prompted me to dust off the essay I found of hers from BookRags and read it (note: you can’t read the essay unless you purchase it first). That essay threw open the doors regarding Moods, and Louisa’s thoughts regarding women.

Moods as seen by Alcott scholar Sarah Elbert

The essay was taken from A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women and here Elbert paints a compelling portrait of Louisa as a feminist, and how that feminism figured into her writing. What I especially appreciated about Elbert’s treatment of this topic is that she didn’t come at it with a strident or militant attitude. Rather, she objectively outlined what Louisa’s feminist inclinations were and how they seeped into every word she wrote.

Louisa’s understanding of feminism

Sarah Elbert, from the film “Louisa May Alcott, The Woman Behind LIttle Women” by Nancy Porter and Harriet Reisen

Elbert maintains that Louisa’s combination of living out American Romanticism in her family, coupled with her immersion in her father’s Transcendentalism gave her a unique perspective on women’s issues. It wasn’t just about political rights.  Rather, it was about being taken seriously as a whole person: equal to the man, an individual with dreams, aspirations, ambitions, thoughts and spirituality that were all her own:

” Bronson Alcott described Louisa as ‘Duty’s Faithful Child,’ but she was also a daughter of the Transcendentalist movement he helped found. As such, she and many of her female contemporaries struggled for a sense of individual identity within the context of traditional domesticity. Trying to combine both domesticity and individuality into a workable feminist perspective, they directly challenged established sex roles integral to nineteenth century social order.”

How this relates to Moods

Taken in this light, Moods began to make sense to me.

I now understand why Louisa took such great pains to paint Sylvia Yule the way she did:  as a young girl, shut away at home because she was the “dangerous age of seventeen” (Elbert), totally unprepared for life as a mature married woman. She was greatly subject to moods (what seventeen year-old girl isn’t?) which caused her to make thoughtless, impulsive decisions that would cost her dearly later on.

As those of you know who have been following my posts, Sylvia is found desirable by two men who are best friends: Geoffrey Moor (based loosely on Ralph Waldo Emerson, with shades of Bronson Alcott) and Adam Warwick (based on Henry David Thoreau). Louisa in real life hero-worshipped both Emerson and Thoreau. Moor is regarded by Sylvia as one of her dearest friends while she feels passionate love for Warwick. Because of a misunderstanding with Warwick, Sylvia succumbs to Moor’s pressure and marries him. In the earlier version of the story, this impulsive act, guided by her inexperience with life and her moods ultimately leads to disaster while in the later version, things inevitably work out after much pain.

It is through this story that Louisa maps out the theories explained here by Elbert:

” . . . Moods in fact deals deeply with moral and social questions. Alcott attempted to analyze the effect of Transcendentalism on the lives of women. Years of living out the principles of American Romanticism with her family had made her an expert on the problems it posed for women. Moods pointedly includes a defense of experience for young, unmarried women; an attack on passion and romantic love; and an insistence on friendship and equality as the best basis for lasting relationships between the sexes.”

Moods was ahead of its time

Louisa revamped Moods in 1882 because she was so dissatisfied with the original version published by A.K. Loring. She complained bitterly of editing out half the book in order to get it published, causing much misunderstanding on the public’s part as to the book’s true purpose. But in my mind, because Moods was ahead of its time, it would not have been understood by the likes of men such as Henry James Jr. who savaged the book in his critique:

“In 1865 Henry James Jr. dismissed Moods as an unconvincing version of ‘the old story of the husband, the wife and the lover.’ Since a thirty-year-old spinster author could scarcely possess much insight into the eternal triangle, James assumed that the attempt to deal with any deeper problem was laughable. ‘Has Miss Alcott proposed to give her story a philosophical bearing? We can hardly suppose it,’ James wrote acidly. His review was only one of many discouraging notices that Louisa Alcott tried to answer in her preface to a revised edition of the novel in 1882. She maintained that the first work was so altered for the publisher that ‘marriage appeared to be the theme instead of an attempt to show the mistakes of a moody nature, guided by impulse, not principle.’ ” (from Elbert’s essay)

Click on the above link to read the whole review and you will immediately see how clueless James was with regards to Louisa’s intent. Naturally he wouldn’t get it because the women’s movement hadn’t begun to seep into the consciousness of men (nor a lot of women either). It was perhaps unrealistic for Louisa to expect the public to understand the true meaning of Moods as her thinking was far from the mainstream.

Is the intent of Moods any clearer today?

Yet as a 21st century woman who has lived through the women’s movement, I didn’t really get Moods either. It wasn’t until I read Elbert’s essay that I finally understood and that suggested two things to me: one, I am not schooled enough to read between the lines of Moods without some help, and two, perhaps Moods wasn’t written well enough to convey the message to the masses.

Artist versus Craftsman

This realization caused me to think that Louisa was a far better writer when she was a craftsman rather than as an artist. When assigned a certain genre, she could adapt and write compelling stories, whether it be blood and thunder tales, stories from the Civil War,  or “moral pap for the young” as she liked to put it. I remember reading the chapter on Little Women in Madeleine Stern’s biography, Louisa May Alcott: A Biography (see previous post) where Stern laid out the case like a lawyer of how adaptable Louisa was when it came to writing because she approached writing as a business, like a pro. Her best book, a classic for the ages, was written under duress as an assignment!

True genius

Louisa’s true genius (which I’m not sure she appreciated) was her totally on-target reading of what the public wanted (which is surprising considering she herself was so apart from the mainstream ) plus her chameleon-like ability to be the writer she needed to be to please that audience and earn her keep.

All creative persons long to be artists and to be taken seriously as artists. It’s the nature of the beast. As a creative sort myself, I can fully understand Louisa’s desire to be an artist. So perhaps she never felt fulfilled as a writer. But as a craftsman, she produced a body of work which 150 years later is still read and appreciated, and now even studied. It didn’t hurt that she authentically lived the ideals she wrote about. Without knowing about that life, the writings can never fully come alive. I am very grateful that I spent a lifetime getting to know Louisa first before delving into her writing.

Worth the read

So perhaps Moods was not my favorite work of hers but it was hardly a wasted effort to read it. I learned a great deal about Louisa which causes me to be that much more passionate about her. I am tremendously grateful to women like Sarah Elbert who have taken the time to analyze and critique Louisa’s works so that folks like me who are learning can understand Louisa May Alcott better.

If you are interested in learning more about Sarah Elbert’s take on Louisa and Moods, be sure and download the essay I’ve referred to in this post (available for a small fee). Or, purchase the book it comes from, A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women, online. I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of this essay; it is well worth the read.

Polly finds the palace not so beautiful after all

In chapter 3 of An Old-Fashioned Girl, it’s obvious that the newness of living the privileged city life has grown old for Polly:

Polly soon found that she was in a new world, a world where the manners and customs were so different from the simple ways at home, that she felt like a stranger in a strange land, and often wished that she had not come. In the first place, she had nothing to do but lounge and gossip, read novels, parade the streets, and dress; and before a week was gone, she was as heartily sick of all this, as a healthy person would be who attempted to live on confectionery.

Even Fanny’s little sister, 6 year-old Maud, was caught up in this life:

But Miss Maud was much absorbed in her own affairs, for she belonged to a “set” also; and these mites of five and six had their “musicals,” their parties, receptions, and promenades, as well as their elders; and, the chief idea of their little lives seemed to be to ape the fashionable follies they should have been too innocent to understand. Maud had her tiny card-case, and paid calls, “like mamma and Fan”; her box of dainty gloves, her jewel-drawer, her crimping-pins, as fine and fanciful a wardrobe as a Paris doll, and a French maid to dress her. Polly could n’t get on with her at first, for Maud did n’t seem like a child, and often corrected Polly in her conversation and manners, though little mademoiselle’s own were anything but perfect.

Eeesh!

It certainly sounded like an empty and shallow life, not unlike what I read in Little Women in the chapter, “Vanity Fair.”  Meg was very drawn in by all the finery but soon came to her senses thanks to Laurie. Polly was also attracted to the wealth and fine clothes, but definitely not to the lifestyle.

Why would girls live like that?

I found myself wondering how anyone could live this way and obviously author Louisa May Alcott thought a lot about it too. It’s a stinging indictment of how women could prove to be their own worst enemies. Perhaps it was because there were so few meaningful opportunities for women in Louisa’s day but to surrender to a “confectionery” life (love that analogy) seemed akin to intellectual and emotional death. My impression is that although Susan B. Anthony and her cohorts had a hard time with men trying to convince them of the need of rights for women, they had a much harder time with their own!

Polly runs outside to escape

In an effort to fight against this “confectionery” lifestyle, Polly slipped out when she could to take a run (Louisa, by the way, loved to take runs as a way of working off her excess energy). On one occasion she found herself at a hill where other children were sliding in the snow. She joined in the fun and found that Fanny’s “horrid” brother Tom was there as well so they joined forces for a wonderful day of fun. I admired Polly’s nerve (as did Tom) to fight convention but unfortunately, she gave in when she faced the disapproval of Fanny and her mother. She caved in, vowing not to go out sledding again (heaven forbid a young lady should engage in such a physical activity in public, and with a boy!). Tom, who had been warming up to Polly, promptly dismissed her. Poor Polly!

Can one be a rebel alone?

It reminded me of the one time I took a public stand against being forced to do something with the girls when I wanted to do what the boys were doing instead. In 6th grade, the girls were assigned to read Jane Eyre while the boys were to read Treasure Island. I protested, asking why I had to read Jane Eyre just because I was a girl. I was then allowed to join the boys in reading Treasure Island. However, it’s hard to be a rebel alone – I felt so uncomfortable with the boys that I caved in and joined the girls to read Jane Eyre. The book didn’t really do anything for me at the time. :-)

Giving into temptation – will the formula wear thin?

Back to Polly who then goes down that “dark path” of caving in to pressure to buy something expensive and fashionable for herself (bronze boots) rather than use the money as it was originally intended (to buy gifts for her family). Here’s where An Old-Fashioned Girl begins to feel like Little Women, falling into the familiar pattern of teaching a moral lesson as was done so many times in Little Women. This, of course, was Louisa’s trademark, and was something readers either loved or found fault with. I personally find it comforting though I wonder if I will find the formula wanting as I continue reading.

Polly is an easy character to like and I find the study of privileged girls interesting. I look forward to the continual building of Polly’s relationship with Tom – that is obviously leading somewhere. :-)

Learning more about 19th century life for women with “Mr. Emerson’s Wife”

As a follow-up to American Bloomsbury, and in an effort to continue to build on knowledge of life in New England for women in the 19th century, I’ve started reading Mr. Emerson’s Wife by Amy Belding Brown, at the advice of a friend (good advice!). This is a beautifully written book that attempts to fill in the gaps with plausible scenarios regarding the complicated marriage and relationship between Lydia Jackson (aka Lidian Emerson), Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. It reads in the first person like a historical novel and I’m enjoying the ride very much.

I’m finding that this reading is having a pragmatic effect on my work as a public speaker in the Catholic church. I’ve been asked (along with my partner) to give a half day retreat musing on the topic, “What defines beauty in the eyes of God for women?” and I am reading a couple of books for research purposes to prepare my portion of the talk we will give. One of those books is called The Authentic Catholic Woman by  Genevieve Kineke (if you want to see more details about this branch of my reading, I invite you to visit my spiritual blog at www.susanbailey.org/blog), and as I read, my immersion in the 19th century and the plight of women came flooding into my mind. Oftentimes I am at personal odds with feminists of today because I think we have gotten off message. It seems like it’s only about power, often at the expense of our unique identity as women. Louisa’s efforts with women’s suffrage reminded me of why I still do want to be active in promoting the dignity and rights of women (especially in educating my own daughter) but I would like to avoid the political nature of groups like NOW.

It’s so wonderful to see the connections, and the value, of studying our history. For one thing, it reminds me that it was not long ago (in fact in my own generation) that women did not enjoy the freedoms they enjoy today. We’ve come a long way! But there is a lifetime of history to undo and much work still needs to be done. The spiritual reading I’m doing points out how the world’s view of men and women is badly distorted, and people have taken great advantage of that in many ways.

I look forward to my research for this half day retreat, especially since it brings in the reading I’m doing for this blog.

Oh and by the way? The woman that hired us is a big Louisa fan! God is good. :-)

So far in Mr. Emerson’s Wife, Waldo has just purposed to Lidian, ironically through a letter. How perfect! As you may know, Emerson’s first wife, Ellen Tucker, was his true love and there would be no one to replace her. Lidian strikes me as more of a companion, a functional wife, rather than the true love that was Ellen. According to Brown, Lidian was very reluctant to get married and understood very well the sacrifices women had to make to become wives (in essence, giving up their own individual lives). She was 30 and did not want to marry. Waldo proved to be very persuasive.

I feel the pangs inside as I read this, knowing that their marriage turned out to be far less than she had hoped it would be. But I look forward to getting deeper into this story.

Stay tuned . . . :-)