Eight Cousins: Educating Rose

Uncle Alec affected big changes in Rose’s life as chapters 7 and 8 of Eight Cousins demonstrate.

Joy lacking

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

Early in the book, there were several reasons why Rose was a timid, teary child (the untimely death of her dear father, too many “cooks in the kitchen” with all her aunts, etc.). Much of the joy had been taken out of her life and most especially in her education.

Too preachy?

Bronson Alcott’s presence is strongly felt in Louisa’s commentary on Rose’s education. Eight Cousins seems to be full of such commentaries (remember chapter 5, A Belt and a Box). I can see why readers complain about the preachy nature of her books for children.

The “Miss Power” approach to education

Illustration by Robert Doremus

Rose loved studying with her father but found the boarding school and Miss Power oppressive:

“I used to understand a great deal better when papa taught me a few lessons than when Miss Power hurried me through so many . . .”

Uncle Alec chose a wonderful way to describe the problem:

“ . . . I find and I dare say it would be if the benighted lady did not think it necessary to cram her pupils like Thanksgiving turkeys, instead of feeding them in a natural and wholesome way. It is the fault with most American schools, and the poor little heads will go on aching till we learn better.”

The voice of Bronson

Uncle Alec is obviously the mouthpiece of Louisa’s own father who proposed many educational reforms. Louisa has a talent for taking the often obtuse way Bronson would record his ideas and making them understandable for children.

A gift of gab

Fred Willis & Louisa; Illustration by Flora Smith

A frequent boarder with the Alcotts, Frederick Llewellyn Willis (who became like a brother to the girls) wrote in his Alcott Memoirs that “Mr. Alcott’s table talks were constantly delightful . . . he took especial care to so discourse that the youngest listener might comprehend and fully understand.” He quotes a child as saying, “I love to hear him talk. He is so plain and tells me so much I didn’t know, fastening it on to what I know.”

Talk doesn’t translate into writing

Perhaps this is how Louisa was able to distill her father’s philosophy of education into simpler form. It’s a shame that Bronson’s writing could not capture the magic of his dialog with children!

Everyday lessons

Like Bronson, Uncle Alec uses the experiences of everyday life to teach Rose her lessons:

  • A boat trip out on the harbor ends with a visit to a ship in from Hong Kong where Rose meets two men from China and soaks up the local color.
  • Alec helps Rose sort through her account book to teach her how to manage her financial affairs. Rose has a terrible time with figures but swears she will “hunt up her old arithmetic and perfect herself in the first four rules, before she read any more fairy tales.”
  • Rose reads aloud to her uncle who feigns tiredness; he is so enchanted with her skill that he asks her to read some more.

Enter the dreaded Aunt Jane

When Aunt Jane stops in to visit, she is very critical of Alec’s methods (although she is judging without having actually seen them). Jane is the very strict member of the Aunt-Hill; she is a great believer of the Miss Powers method of teaching, bragging that her sons hit the books all day long.

Rose shows her!

Jane assumes that Rose has been petted to death by her uncle and wasting her time reading “trash” with him, but Rose has the last laugh when asked about her lessons:

“I’ve had five to-day, ma’am . . . Navigation, geography, grammar, arithmetic, and keeping my temper.”

Aunt Jane blown away!

She then proceeds to show off her knowledge of China after her visit to the boat from Hong Kong which shocks Jane:

“The effect of this remarkable burst was immense . . . it entirely took the wind out of Aunt Jane’s sails; it was so sudden, so varied and unexpected, that she had not a word to say. The glasses remained fixed full upon Rose for a moment, and then, with a hasty ‘Oh, indeed!’ the excellent lady bundled into her carriage and drove away, somewhat bewildered and very much disturbed”

A triumph indeed!

Needless to say, Alec and Rose enjoyed their triumph thoroughly:

“She would have been more so if she had seen her reprehensible brother-in-law dancing a triumphal polka down the hall with Rose in honour of having silenced the enemy’s battery for once”

Bronson, I’m sure, would have been quite pleased as well.

This book is fun but . . . do you find Eight Cousins to be preachy? Does it bother you?

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
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10 Replies to “Eight Cousins: Educating Rose”

  1. I can’t think of any fiction I’ve read from the 19th c that wasn’t preachy in some way. If you can think of some authors to recommend that weren’t preachy I’d be interested to look into their work. People thought differently about entertainment back then, I think.

  2. Until I read “Rose in Boom” at age eight I had never read a novel. I read a great deal before that, but mostly missionary stories, animal stories and narratives/biographies intended to teach character-building lessons. I.e. I grew up in a culture where books were supposed to teach lessons and present only the best examples. While since then I’ve read some amoral and plenty of non-didactic novels, I still come back to the moral seriousness of 19th century novels with great fondness.

    Something I found very fascinating was that while EC’s didacticism never goes without a mention by readers today, Henry James panned it for making several of the adults caricatures. He insisted children should view their “elders and betters, pastors and masters” as “beautiful and powerful specimens of what they seem to be.” He also objected to Rose as too “subjective” because when sent from the room she wondered if her aunts would begin to talk of her, and because she felt “delicate” about mentioning her birthday. So while EC is a virtual manifesto on child-raising – with keeping children young in their attitudes, emotions and pursuits being foundational – it still wasn’t fitting into some people’s idealization of the innocent childish mind.
    (I found an article about James’ review of EC in the EBSCO archives – I’m not sure if you’ll be able to access it, but it’s by Edith Gilmore. I can email it to you if you’re really interested.)

    In short, with EC’s many similarities to the views with which I was raised, I don’t mind its didacticism and it’s a book I’ll be happy to give my own children to read, if I ever have any. However, I’ve been rereading “Rose in Bloom” and browsing web posts on it, and several reviews pointed out the disturbing fact that the adult Rose still obeys Dr. Alec and their relationship doesn’t seem to have moved on from the child-father one.

    1. Sarah, this is great! I’ve had trouble getting into this book. It’s a pleasant read but it hasn’t been easy writing compelling posts about it. 🙂 But I totally concur that it is very comforting to read books like this. The world is so crazy now and books like Eight Cousins reminds me of simpler things (although the time it was written was just as crazy just past the Civil War!). That’s probably why books were written as they were.

      I did see Henry James’ review (was it Sr. or Jr., I couldn’t tell from the review). It seems like Henry James had it in for Louisa (or maybe both of them did) as Henry James Jr. savaged Moods. What was appreciated, apparently, about Louisa’s writing for children is that she created true-to-life characters. It must have seemed like a breath of fresh air.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, they add a lot!

  3. Although I’ve been defending it and certainly did speed through it, I’ll admit that I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as I did as an adolescent. Plot certainly does get lost in its rather ceaseless attempts to instruct, more so than in LMA’s other childrens novels, I think. I gather you’re reading it for the first time, so it’s interesting to see the reaction of someone not already attached to the characters. (And I was attached to them when I first read it, because they’re more fleshed out in “Rose in Bloom”.) I’ll be very curious to see what you think if you read that one. Have you read “An Old-Fashioned Girl”? I remember it as less didactic.

    Lol about crazy vs. simple world. I understand what you’re trying to say, since I’d say that a simple life for children (and even adults, in some ways) is best. (Though really, doesn’t the book show that back then children were not simple, but being made into little adults, concerned about fashion and flirting? And Dr. Alec’s efforts are all under the banner of restoring simplicity to Rose’s life.) But I’m also a Jane Austen fan and I bristle when professed “fans” say they like the simplicity of her times. To them simplicity usually seems to mean sitting around tea-tables, dressing in lacy frocks, and day-dreaming about suitors. I want to scream at them, “Do you know anything about the woman who had brothers in the navy, fighting battles? Who had a cousin whose husband had been guillotined in France? Do you ever read the references in the novels to literature, land-enclosure, French vs. English morals, or ‘the economic basis of society’? Do you realize you’re precisely the kind of people Jane Austen would kill with her sly wit?” Sorry for the rant on Austen! I’m just saying that despite my fondness for 19th century novels, I get angry when people wax reminiscent about the simple times, that were actually times of tremendous change and turmoil that changed the world. But, again, I realize that you’re probably more aware of politics and philosophies in 19th century America than me, so aren’t being at all reductive with the phrase.

    It was Henry James Jr., since Gilmore said he was an “obscure 32 year old” at the time of the review.

    1. I did read An Old-Fashioned Girl – here’s some posts about what I thought https://louisamayalcottismypassion.wordpress.com/?cat=12394514 It didn’t grab me as much as Little Women did and I didn’t really get into it until Polly grew up (I also found the ending very disappointing – not that she ended up with Tom, but with the rather cynical way Louisa wrote it, pandering to her fans). It was very interesting to see how she wove her feminist views into the story.

      Your rant is interesting 🙂 You’re totally right – it’s shallow to look back on the “good ole days” with rose-colored glasses. Every generation has faced some kind of crisis (some on a larger scale than others). Books either help us face these crises or carry us away to places where we can feel safe for a time. When I’m carried away by a story I consider it a vacation in my head. 🙂

      Thanks for the clarification re: Henry James, that makes more sense. Jr. did have something against Louisa, for sure!

  4. I read several of your posts on “An Old-Fashioned Girl” and loved them! You struck a chord with me in your thoughts on Louisa’s feminism. Growing up as a conservative Christian, feminism was looked on with suspicion, and I can understand that suspicion to an extant. Some modern feminists have seemed to be directing their energies more toward destroying religion and the family than toward women’s autonomy and equality. But as you’ve pointed out, Louisa’s feminism included a strong moral basis of self-respect and simple, everyday acts of kindness, care and respect. Her “heroines” are strong and equal to any man – they’re financially, socially and intellectually independent. But moral strength and that Transcendental emphasis on bettering themselves is always there. I’m apprehensive about calling myself a feminist, but I’m even more afraid not to declare my interest in making women more autonomous. I was happy to see someone else appreciating Louisa’s model of female autonomy that doesn’t render void the family.

    And far be it from me to deny literature the right to occasionally “carry us away” for a “vacation”! (As you have so aptly put it.) I guess I would say though that even our “escape” literature should be something we can eventually find layers of treasure in, or even be startled by into a new thought when we were just after a vacation.

    I must confess that I’ve never read James and I’m finding his condemnation of EC inconsistent with my understanding of his ideas on literature. Wikipedia says he insisted “writers be granted the greatest possible freedom in presenting their view of the world.” So did he think an element of caricature was not presenting a true view of the world? Or did he sometimes profess views in his reviews that he thought would suit his audience? The Gilmore essay implies that he may just have been jealous of Louisa, who was quite notable by that time, while he was still virtually unknown.

    1. Sarah, you really echo my point of view. I too resist the feminist label because it’s such a narrow one. It’s too bad that feminism has gotten so politicized and bitter. I too believe in autonomy and for women to be taken seriously as thinkers, movers and shakers. Women have their own unique voice that should be heard. But so do men and they should not be silenced because of past actions. BOTH voices need to be heard equally.

      I believe that women must to be autonomous but their unique role as child-bearer/mother should be honored more than it is. And self-sacrifice is not a bad word! I strongly believe that self-sacrifice comes from strength, not from weakness. Beth March is always depicted as weak because of her shyness, but she showed tremendous courage through her self-sacrifice, as when she cradled the baby, dead from scarlett fever, at risk to her own life (and it did eventually cost her her life).

      I wonder how Louisa would view the popular feminism of today. I would hope she would still fight for the family and the values she promoted in her work. It gives people like us a voice.

      I must say, however, that after reading Mr. Emerson’s Wife by Amy Belding Brown, I came to appreciate and understand why feminists believe as they do. That book really broadened my viewpoint. There was so much injustice against women! So mucht to fight for, and much has been won for women. You can see posts about that book here: https://louisamayalcottismypassion.wordpress.com/?s=mr.+emerson%27s+wife

  5. Amen to everything you’ve said! I sometimes feel a little regressive in viewing 19th century authors like Alcott and Bronte as my feminist models, but they were well aware of the oppression of their time, without embracing an ultimately degenerative “license is liberty” viewpoint.

    I read your thoughts on “Mr Emerson’s Wife” and have added it to the TBR. I feel like maybe I should read his essays first, so I can retain a little of my Louisa-like awe of him before getting my eyes opened. lol.

    1. I wish I could read his essays but his writing style is too dense for me. I need the Cliff Notes edition. 😉

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