Controversy wrapped in sentiment: Louisa May Alcott’s genius

(Disclaimer: Admittedly I’ve only just started pouring over Louisa’s works, and I haven’t yet ventured into her “blood and thunder” tales, so my comments here are limited to the later stage of her writing which proved to be the most successful).

Louisa’s genius

I’ve often said that Louisa May Alcott’s genius was twofold. She crafted stories of realism, sometimes poignant, often humorous, always entertaining. They were filled with very human characters who seemed as familiar as our neighbors.

And ever pragmatic, she also was willing to learn and adapt herself to new genres, mastering several.

Louisa may have lamented the fact that she wasn’t recognized in her time as a “serious” writer but she was a voice of her era with a modern twist, thus making it a voice that resonates today. In the words of the late Madeleine Stern, considered the preeminent Alcott scholar, Louisa was the consummate professional.

Pioneer as a professional

It’s ironic considering that Louisa had no formal training and did not go to public school or university. She was never mentored by a more experienced writer but instead was totally self-taught. There were precious few role models. In a time when there were virtually no women “professionals,” Louisa learned how to be one.

She was a pioneer, and that to me is genius.

Other layers to genius

Now I’m beginning to believe there is another layer to this genius. Louisa had a rare ability to take controversial ideas and wrap them up sweetly in children’s stories. It’s rather like the pill you have to feed to your dog – you wrap it up in something he loves like a piece of cheese, and he downs the pill without incident (unless your dog is too smart for his own good!). He doesn’t even realize he’s downed the dreaded pill and his ailment is taken care of.

In the same way, Louisa “wrapped” issues concerning the autonomy of women, the state of the family, and the care of children in sentimental tales like An Old-Fashioned Girl.

Victorian Domesticity

Charles Strickland’s book, Victorian Domesticity: Families in the Life and Art of Louisa May Alcott, points out many of the ways Louisa inserted these topics into this story.

Work versus Fashion

Polly was a woman with purpose.

He refers first to Chapter 13 which I thought was a particularly compelling chapter. Here Polly introduces Fanny to her circle of friends, a “sisterhood” of working women. Following the life of fashion, Fanny has been feeling empty and depressed, her life lacking purpose. Although held in esteem by society, Fanny is bored and miserable while the “lowly” working girls are happy. Polly exhorts Fanny to search herself and find what she can do well so she can give of herself to others:

“If ever a girl needed work, it’s you!” cried Polly. “You began to be a young lady so early, that you are tired of everything at twenty-two. I wish you’d go at something, then you’d find how much talent and energy you really had.”

A Sisterhood

Polly then proceeds to show Fanny what she means through the lives of her working friends (Miss Mills (the landlady), Becky (an artist), Bess, Rebecca, Kate (an author)).  Fanny not only experiences their happiness through sense of purpose, but she notes the authenticity of their friendships which were based on the real rather than the perceived.

Strickland describes what I alluded to in the last post concerning Polly’s life as a working girl, affirming my theory:

“This episode is remarkable . . ., that such radical feminism found expression in one of Alcott’s juvenile books, going beyond, in fact, the sentiments expressed in her literary fiction [such as Work: A Story of Experience, Louisa’s other significant adult novel] . . .” (pages 87-88, Victorian Domesticity)

Polly’s Temptation

Chapter 15 suggests that Polly was tempted, for a moment, into a life of fashion when (Arthur) Sydney (aka “Syd”) showed an interest in her. Syd was the apple of Fanny’s eye but he was attracted to Polly. Although an upright and fine young man, perfect for marriage, Polly turned him away because she knew she didn’t love him and feared tiring of him. Syd was well-off and would have presented Polly with a life of ease and security (i.e. beginning her own family of fashion), but she resisted the temptation, remaining true to herself. She retained her autonomy.

Indicting the Family of Fashion

The Shaws were a family of fashion.

Polly had experienced the family of fashion in the Shaws and found that life empty and wanting with its endless parties, love of money, concern over appearance and distinction of classes. It was an shallow life that robbed the Shaws of meaningful relationships with each other and those outside their family.

She preferred her own old-fashioned family – although poor, there was a deep sense of warmth and caring, along with a the need for work which provided purpose. Louisa’s sweeping indictment of families of fashion is summed up by Strickland in this way:

“The world inhabited by families of fashion is one devoid of warmth, justice, or charity, and it corrupts all whom it touches – men and women, rich and poor, old and young.” (page 92)

How the Family of Fashion affected women (and children)

Strickland maps out how Louisa used the first half of An Old-Fashioned Girl to lay out her case against the family of fashion, culminating in a stinging indictment most especially of Mrs. Shaw:

Women of fashion, and a woman of purpose

” ‘a pale, nervous woman,’ [from An Old-Fashioned Girl] who has made herself into an invalid at the age of forty. Having nothing to do, she is much preoccupied with her imagined aliments, and presides over a household in which there is little affection between parents and children. She encourages Fanny to copy her fashionable follies and has not time for younger daughter Maud: ‘When Mrs. Shaw came home that day in her fine visiting costume, and Maud ran to welcome her with unusual affection, she gathered up her lustrous silk and pushed the little girl away, saying, impatiently, ‘Don’t touch me, child, your hands are dirty.’ ‘[from An Old-Fashioned Girl] ” (pages 99-100, Victorian Domesticity)

The high price of fashion

I had noticed too how Fanny had begun to develop these “aliments” and I could see why so many women became invalids during the Victorian era. One cannot deny their authentic self forever and not feel the affects; the body has a way of acting out what the mind and heart will not admit. Thoreau certainly understood that.

Plenty of meat

I had read most of An Old-Fashioned Girl before I came upon Strickland’s book and was pleased to see so many of my thoughts verified. He analyzes other Alcott books such as Work, Moods, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom and Jack and Jill. I had had my doubts as to whether I would find any meat in Louisa’s juvenile works.

Obviously I have a lot to learn! And a lot more reading yet to do.

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6 Replies to “Controversy wrapped in sentiment: Louisa May Alcott’s genius”

  1. I’m going to have to buy that book. Every time I do a serach for Alcott books that one has never come up 😦

    Eight Cousins is full of this stuff. She wears warm clothes instead of the fancy dresses with the plunging necks for winter. She doesnt drink coffee and she runs around like a boy. I think there was a disclaimer about the wild ideas Uncle Alec had in Rose in Bloom too? Oh, its been so long, maybe it was in the first book.

    1. Interesting, wearing warm clothes instead of plunging necklines – sounds just like today. Not that I have the figure anymore for the styles younger girls wear, but I always dressed for comfort rather than style. I don’t know how girls today can wear what they wear in the dead of winter!

      I have a vintage 1945 edition of Rose in Bloom and am searching now for a vintage copy of Eight Cousins. I finding it really cool to read the vintage books. Sometimes you get great illustrations, like the 1920s version of Old Fashioned Girl that I have.

  2. Louisa had a rare ability to take controversial ideas and wrap them up sweetly in children’s stories.

    This is a REALLY interesting point. I’ve only read <i.Little Women and Hospital Sketches so far, but I’ll be looking for controversy wrapped in sweetness, in my future visits with her stories.

    I also love how you point out that she was self-taught. True of many female writers in her day, I imagine…

    1. I had thought about how many grown-up and modern ideas were in Old-Fashioned Girl and was really pleased to see my thought backed up in Strickland’s book. His book was a godsend, really gave perspective on the times and filled in a lot of cracks.

  3. I just finished and Old Fashioned Girl and was quite blown away by the Sunny Side chapter and the sisterhood. So I came to your site for further reading. What did you think of the Bess and Becky relationship? Two soul mates who would not be parted even by the marriage of one of them. Very poignant looking at it with our 21st century insights.

    1. I had to go back and reread that chapter. 🙂 That was my favorite chapter (that’s what prompted that post). Louisa so easily wove in such modern themes for women with the dual purpose being leading purposeful lives and supporting each other. I have a cousin who has had a lifelong woman companion – it’s very much like Bess and Becky. They are inseparable and so good for each other. We treat her friend as a member of the family. They were both educators, now retired, terrific women.

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