Work: “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor” – what could women do?

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

You’ve come of age and it’s time to strike out on your own.

How do you feel?

  • Excited?
  • Fearful?
  • Full of anticipation?

Will it be a grand adventure or a dismal failure?

In her mid-twenties, Louisa May Alcott was ready to strike out on her own, fueled by her obsessive desire to be a financial support to her habitually poor family.

What occupations could a twenty-something genteel woman aspire to?

In Work A Story of Experience, chapters 1-6 reveal through Christie Devon how such a woman could be gainfully employed:

  • Domestic servant
  • Actress
  • Governess
  • Companion
  • Seamstress

Throughout her twenties until she could make her writing pay, Louisa was employed in these various occupations. She pointedly left out two others: factory work and teaching, the former because she felt it was beneath her and the latter because she hated it.

As Louisa was fond of morality plays, Christie experiences a testing of her soul in each occupation:


courtesy of

As a domestic servant, Christy learns a lesson in humility from her co-worker, a runaway slave named Hepsey.

Lesson in perspective

When asked to blacken her master’s boots (deemed to be the lowliest of tasks), Christie protests, considering the task to be degrading. Hepsey, however, offers to do the job for Christie as she considers any job that paid worth doing if she could earn the money she needed to buy her mother out of slavery.

Christie immediately feels chastened as her small humiliation is put into perspective.

Real life connection

Louisa went out to service when she was seventeen and when she refused the overtures of her master, was given all the hard work plus the task of blackening his boots. She quit in a huff.

Chronicled in her short story, “How I Went Out to Service,” it proved to be one of the most humiliating experiences of her life. Usually able to dismiss such experiences with sarcastic humor, this was one time when her humor failed her.


Christie is cajoled by a friend to try acting. At first she resists the suggestion because acting is not considered a proper occupation for a genteel woman. Tales of glamor and glory and the adventure of it all persuade Christie to give it a whirl, and in the end, she makes a good living at it over the next three years.

Soul searching

Christie enjoys the applause of the audience and the praise of her co-workers but finds herself changing into someone she no longer recognizes. Hard, shallow and vain, Christie takes a hard look at herself and decides to walk away:

“Others might lead that life of alternate excitement and hard work unharmed, but she could not. The very ardor and insight which gave power to the actress made that mimic life unsatisfactory to the woman …”

Louisa’s love of acting

I found this particular section quite revealing about Louisa. She of course aspired to be an actress, wanting to be famous like Fanny Kemble or Jenny Lind. She and older sister Anna immersed themselves in theatricals, from entertaining the family through hard times to performing with acting troupes in Walpole, NH and Concord. It was the only occupation apart from writing that held any allure.

Not the right career choice

Louisa was a good character actress and comedienne; it proved to be a great way to vent her creative energy. She eventually dismissed acting as a career choice, partially because it was not considered respectable. But it’s obvious a lot of soul-searching went on as evidenced by Christie’s self-examination; Louisa felt acting would lead to a life she could not abide by:

“After being on the stage & seeing more nearly the tinsel & brass of actor life (much as I should love to be a great star if I could), I have come to the conclusion that its not worth trying for at the expense of health & peace of mind.” (pg. 149 ebook, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen)

The better moral choice

Having been schooled in morality relentlessly since her birth (and reminded over and over how selfish she could be), Louisa could not justify the vanity and self-absorption that came with the pleasure of acting. Writing was morally more acceptable.

cover of Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott by Martha Saxon


It is ironic, however, that she could justify secretly indulging in lurid blood and thunder tales (using the name of A M Barnard) under the guise of making money.

Perhaps because the indulgence was temporary, ending with the story’s conclusion, she could do it without totally selling out her soul. With acting, Louisa feared losing herself entirely in the bargain.

In the next post, I will examine the other occupations, most especially the role of companion, for this chapter revealed a deep fear that haunted Louisa throughout her life.

Click here to read part one of this series on Work.

2012 Summer reading challenge hosted at www.inthebookcase.blogspot.comReading Work  by Louisa May Alcott is part of my Louisa May Alcott Summer Challenge – are you a part of this challenge and if so, how are you doing?

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Work: striking out on your own as 19th century woman – Louisa’s perils and pitfalls

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3 Replies to “Work: “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor” – what could women do?”

  1. Your comments about various kinds of work are very perceptive and build on the relationship between the occupations in the fictional Work and the real-life work experiences of LMA.

    More fundamental than the choice of occupation is the need to do paid work at all, versus the unpaid work of wife and mother, a choice which was more socially approved at that time. Work is not just about the money, but about the independence of thought and action that money makes possible.

    1. Yes, exactly. Can you image the thrill of succeeding at feeling independent in a world that was so against you being so? Louisa did a great job in describing Christie’s sense of adventure in striking out on her own as it was so familiar to Louisa herself.

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