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.
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.
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).
- 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.
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.
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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