Eight Cousins: “Tomboys make strong women”

Chapter 14 in Eight Cousins, “A Happy Birthday” lays out Uncle Alec’s strategy for Rose’s upbringing: she is to run, jump, climb trees and play with her cousins, and she is to ride horses, all in an attempt to strengthen her physical and emotional health. Mrs. Jessie compares the Rose she sees now with the Rose of before:

” ‘ … when I contrast that bright, blooming face with the pale, listless one that made my heart ache a while ago, I can believe in almost any miracle,’ as Rose look round to point out a lovely view, with cheeks like the ruddy apples in the orchard nearby, eyes clear as the autumn sky overhead, and vigour in every line of her girlish figure.’ “

A wistful memory

Eight Cousins was published in 1875, years after Louisa had returned home from the Civil War, deathly ill with typhoid. She never did regain the good health she enjoyed as a girl when she could outrun any boy she meet or beat them at hoop rolling. I imagine her writing with great wistfulness (and a touch of irony) the following words about Rose:

” ‘She has broken out in the most unexpected way, and frisks like a colt; for she says she feels so full of spirits she must run and shout whether it is proper or not,’ added Mrs. Jessie, who had been a pretty hoyden years ago herself.”

from Bette’s Movie Blog

About being a tomboy

Although Abba and Bronson believed in fresh air and play for their girls, still, Louisa was reminded often of her tomboyish ways by her parents and sisters. In Little Women, Louisa echoes this in the exchange between Jo and Amy:

“Jo immediately sat up, put her hands in her pockets, and began to whistle.

‘Don’t, Jo. It’s so boyish!’

‘That’s why I do it.’

‘I detest rude, unladylike girls!’

“I hate affected, niminy-piminy chits!’ “

Remaining true to herself

drawing by Flora Smith, from The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

Louisa was reminded often, especially as a teenager, that it was time to put away being a tomboy and act like a lady. For Louisa to “put away being a tomboy” was like denying her very self. Suppressing the enormous energy of her true self in the physical realm (except for morning runs, even in her later years when her health was a problem) was difficult; instead she redirected it to merge with her creative force, producing a seemingly endless flow of writing. Undoubtedly that physical force fueled her marathon periods of writing, also known as her “vortex.”

Outlet for affirmation

While Louisa didn’t enjoy full acceptance from her family, she was able to affirm her own sense of self in her writing in this passage as demonstrated by Alec’s plans for Rose:

” ‘Let the girl run and shout as much as she will it is a sure sign of health, and as natural to a happy child as frisking is to any young animal full of life. Tomboys make strong women usually, and I had far rather find Rose playing football with Mac than puttering over bead-work like that affected midget, Ariadne Blish.’ “

It must have felt good to write that line.

And there’s no doubt that all that tomboy energy made tomboy Louy a very strong woman indeed.

Regarding cats

As a postscript, I must comment on the passages about Kitty Comet. As an avowed cat lover (my kids would call me a cat lady!), I love the descriptions of Kitty Comet, a kitten who was given to Rose for her birthday:

“ . . . she was awakened by a soft tap on her face, and opening her eyes she beheld a little black and white figure sitting on her pillow, staring at her with a pair of round eyes like blueberries, while one downy paw patted her nose to attract her notice. It was Kitty Comet, the prettiest of all the pussies, and Comet evidently had a mission to perform, for a pink bow adorned her neck, and a bit of paper was pinned to it bearing the words, ‘For Miss Rose, from Frank.’ “

My Bacci used to do that. He had enormous double paws like mittens and he would tap me on the shoulder in the middle of the night.

If Louisa and I had nothing else in common, we surely would have had animated discussions about cats!

Where else in her writing have you seen Louisa affirm her toyboyish ways?

Do you share her love of cats?

Are you passionate about Louisa May Alcott too?
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3 Replies to “Eight Cousins: “Tomboys make strong women””

  1. ~Yes, I share the love of cats. We just love our 2 “Luke & Leia”. Yes they are litter siblings and yes we are Sci-Fi fans.
    ~I think that Louisa reveals her tomboy ways throughout Little Women in the way that Jo speaks her mind. Sometimes without restraint. This would not have been considered very ladylike back then.
    By today’s standard Jo’s opinions voiced this way would not be considered tomboyish at all. Yet, I find there is a feminine way (not feministic ) to express one’s opinions in a way that stands out from the men. God DID make us different, yet equally valued. “Embrace The Diversity” !

  2. I appreciated Louisa’s willingness (rather like Jane Austen’s) to caricature Aunt Myra’s concern for her health, while her own health was continually vexing her. It did make me rather sad that while EC and RiB set out a program of healthful living for girls and women meant to prevent, to quote Alec, “the long list of ills you dear women think you cannot escape,” Louisa became quite a valetudinarian due (arguably) to her own unselfish service in the war and to her family.

    I’m more of a dog person than a cat person, though I’ve grown up with many cats. But lately I was feeling guilty about that, because another favorite author – Lucy Maud Montgomery – was utterly devoted to cats and I feel I shouldn’t have any disagreement with one I love so much. 😉

    1. Good point, I had forgotten about Aunt Myra. Louisa maintained a good sense of humor despite all she had to put up with.

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