Eight Cousins: the value of fatherhood

Illustration by Robert Doremus (1955)

Greetings to the Poet’s Corner Virtual Book Club: Eight Cousins

Eight Cousins (or The Aunt-Hill) introduces us to a new kind of heroine from Louisa May Alcott. Rose, blond and blue-eyed, comes from wealth. In past stories, it’s been the wealthy girls who have proven to be the antagonists (Sallie Moffat from Little Women, Fanny Shaw from An Old-Fashioned Girl); now that Louisa herself is wealthy, she is perhaps more comfortable in having her main character enjoy the same.

Was Rose based upon a real person?

It’s been suggested by Clara Gowing (The Alcotts as I Knew Them) and Katharine Anthony (Louisa May Alcott) that Rose was based on May.  Certainly in appearance this is so, but the character is nothing like the spoiled and headstrong Amy. Rose is meek, timid and decidedly sad being without a mother for some time and having recently lost her dear father.

Illustration by Robert Doremus (1955)


The story begins with Rose living in the mansion with her 6 aunts after coming back from boarding school. Her father has been dead for a year and Rose is in the throes of grief.

The Aunt-Hill

Henry James criticizes Eight Cousins for its “smart, satirical tone” and you can immediately see this in both the title (Aunt-Hill) and the plethora of aunts in this story. It’s almost allegorical in nature with each aunt representing, as Charles Strickland puts it, “the failing of American mothers” (Victorian Domesticity, p. 126).

“Rose and her Aunts”, frontispiece illustration to the first edition, Roberts Bros, Boston, 1875 (Wikipedia)

We have:

  • Aunt Jane, severe to a fault
  • Aunt Myra, morbidly sentimental, convinced that Rose is dying of some mysterious malady and dosing her with medicines
  • Aunt Plenty, bustling, generous and old-fashioned, she resembles Martha of the Martha and Mary story from the Bible
  • Aunt Peace (representing Mary from the same story), a loving and tragic character whose husband-to-be died hours before the wedding years ago
  • Aunt Clara, the quintessential “fashionable mother” whose only aspiration for Rose is that she attend finishing school
  • Aunt Jessie, the common-sense Aunt but definitely outgunned

Rescue from Aunt-Hill

Enter 40 year-old Uncle Alec, Rose’s legal guardian, who immediately recognizes the plight of his ward in the midst of the Aunt-Hill and swoops down to rescue her.

Bronson Alcott Pratt portraying Mr. March in 1932 in Concord’s production of Little Women.

Louisa is pointedly affirming the need for and value of men in the raising of their daughters. She has, of course, already made the case for mothers in Little Women with Marmee. What’s interesting is that I’ve yet to read a book where both father and mother have an equal hand in child-rearing (although I haven’t read her entire library yet). Mr. March is nearly invisible in Little Women although Louisa makes a case for his quiet ruling presence:

“To outsiders the five energetic women seemed to rule the house, and so they did in many things, but the quiet scholar, sitting among his books, was still the head of the family, the household conscience, anchor, and comforter, for to him the busy, anxious women always turned in troublous times, finding him, in the truest sense of those sacred words, husband and father.” (from chapter 24) (photo from http://www.concordma.com/magazine/maraprmay02/littlewomenshow.html)

Strong father figure

Uncle Alec, however, intends to be front and center in Rose’s life, making sweeping changes in her diet (taking away her precious coffee as a start, ouch!) and routine. He is convinced that the influence of the Aunt-Hill has created a near invalid in Rose and he seeks to change her into a vibrant, healthy young woman.

Timely story

As always, Louisa’s stories transcend time. Certainly the value of fatherhood needs to be preached as more and more women are raising their children alone. It’s often been suggested that women end up marrying a prototype of their father – how vital then that the father provide the right role model!

I’m up to chapter 4 in Eight Cousins, how about you? What do you think of the story so far? What do you think of Rose?  Can you imagine having to live with 6 aunts? Goodness! How about her 7 boisterous male cousins who seem to overwhelm her?

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12 Replies to “Eight Cousins: the value of fatherhood”

  1. I thought it was interesting that Uncle Alec is full of dietary and household opinions, more like a mother than a father in 19th century terms. I was also struck by how willingly Rose adapted to his strictures, including trying things she otherwise would have avoided. She certainly does not have Jo’s spunk.

    1. Agreed. I have read that Uncle Alec could have been based on Bronson, Rimmer, Theodore Parker, and the usual Thoreau-Emerson connection. One source though said he was actually most like Louisa herself.

      Rose’s lack of spunk demonstrates how unlike May she is. It surprises me that biographers could make that snap judgment that she is based on May just because she looks like her.

      Rose was at her most vulnerable and I’m guessing someone in that state would welcome someone as decisive and father-like as Uncle Alec (and remember, she had that dream where she thought Uncle Alec was her father, that would certainly influence her thinking). Rose was really a shadow of a person when Alec came into her life.

  2. Think I need to go back and read this one! It has been a very long time but I remember it as a story of hope and lots of love. I’m hoping that memory is not wrong!

    1. I married into a large Italian family with lots of wonderful great aunts. My husband’s Noni was like Aunt Plenty and her younger sister Anna like Peace minus the tragedy. They were my favorites.

      I have my Aunt Petty to thank for introducing me to Louisa with Joan Howard’s book. There are pictures of all of us visiting Orchard House long ago.

      Aunts rule! 🙂

  3. As you’ve said, many women do seem to marry men like their fathers. I’d definitely say Jo does and that (BELOW IS A “ROSE IN BLOOM” SPOILER) ….

    Mac is a good deal like Dr. Alec.

    (SPOILER OVER) And I think that’s one of the reasons I love these books. Rose doesn’t have the same appeal as Jo, but where male characters in LW (even my beloved Laurie) are weak in comparison to female ones, in EC and RiB Dr. Alec stands shoulder to shoulder with Marmee. (And I don’t mean they’re weakly drawn, but that their leadership, parenting and decisions are more flawed and less balanced. They very absence of Mr. March through most of LW is significant, and my impression of Bronson is of a sincere, but rather ineffectual character. Perhaps I’ll change my mind with rereading, but I’m remembering Dr. Alec as having more of Marmee’s practicality and effectiveness.)

    I haven’t started the book yet, but I’m getting excited! How long is this book club discussion to last?

    1. I’m only on chapter 5 of Eight Cousins so we’ll be here awhile. 🙂

      Regarding Alec, it’s rather like Louisa was inventing the perfect father for herself. In Eden’s Outcasts, Matteson mentions how she would keep having crushes on father-like figures: Emerson, Thoreau, Theodore Parker . . . they all had Bronson’s characteristics but were better versions of Bronson to Louisa.

      Your comment about Professor Bhaer is interesting, I never thought of that! Every commentator is so quick to point out that Bhaer is a reflection of Bronson (like it’s such a deep thing) when in fact, Jo just marries someone like her father. Duh!

      I always think commentators exaggerate Louisa’s interest in Emerson and Thoreau. They were just schoolgirl crushes. Sure, she bases several major characters on them but so what? Heck, I had a French teacher in 8th grade and I had a HUGE crush on him that lasted for years and filled several journals (and every other girl in school felt the same way). Believe me, crushes can be VERY intense! I can SO relate to Louisa singing badly in German under Emerson’s window, writing letters never sent and leaving flowers by the door. She never expected nor wanted either of them to return her affection (nor did I want my French teacher to do so). Crushes are safe ways to enjoy a little romance without the risks involved.

      I just read something Louisa wrote about Emerson called Reminiscences of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It’s a short essay geared towards children, VERY romanticized – she truly hero-worshiped the man. She never got to know the side of Emerson that his wife Lidian knew: a man incapable of real intimacy.

  4. I’m chiming in months late to say this book was one of my favorites as a child. I loved the adventures of the cousins. When I read it again as an adult, I recognized the message being imparted. You bring up an interesting point about fathers. At the time Louisa was writing, most upper class/upper middle class men didn’t take much hand in raising their children when they were small. Parents would often leave their children in the care of a nurse (nanny) and servants and take off for weeks at a time. On the other end of the spectrum, this was the era of temperance when women advocated for the prohibition of the sale of alcohol because men were in the saloons drinking up their wages instead of providing for their families. Louisa would have been keenly aware of the lack of paternal support in her own life.

    1. I wouldn’t say that Louisa had a lack of support from her father but more a lack of consistent support. He did offer emotional support, most especially after she sank into despair after Lizzie’s death, Anna’s engagement, and her own inability to find work. Eden’s Outcasts tells of Bronson traveling to Boston to be with her after she confessed in a letter of the temptation to commit suicide. He stayed with her for a week, escorting her to dinner and to lectures and encouraging her in her work. He then suggested she come home for a long visit. BUT, that being said, Bronson failed at the most basic level as a husband and father – he couldn’t provide for his family. I see Uncle Alec as the ideal father that she wished she had.

  5. This comment is years too late, but here goes… I agree with you when you say that Uncle Alec is most likely based on LMA’s ideal of the father she wished she had. Incidentally, both Little Men and Jo’s Boys are stories where both parents play equally big roles in their children’s lives. However, as I see it, in those books LMA has portrayed the father as being primarily responsible for the mental and intellectual health of the children, and the mother for their physical well-being.

    While I enjoy Eight Cousins, having first read it in 2007 as a 14 year old myself, it quickly paled in comparison to Rose in Bloom.

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