Work: Marriage revisited – could there have been another reason why Louisa never married?

For someone who abhorred the idea of marriage for herself, Louisa May Alcott again and again paints a multi-layered, satisfying and mature picture of the institution.

Raising an interesting question

I wrote about this before, describing the first year of marriage between Meg and John Brooke in Little Women. I see it now in Work: A Story of Experience, in chapter 8, “A Cure for Despair.”

And after reading it, I had to wonder: was there more to Louisa’s refusal to marry than just wishing to remain an independent spinster? I suspect the reason was more complex.

Christie finds comfort in a friend

In chapter 8, Christie, saved from her despair by the kindly Cynthy Wilkins, draws much consolation from Cynthy’s life. Beneath Cynthy’s rough exterior, the “fuzzy, red hair, the paucity of teeth, the faded gown” lay a deep sense of joy, peace and satisfaction with life.

Finding true religion

As recalled in a previous post, Christie sought initial consolation in religion but could find none. In Cynthy Wilkins, she finds it: “This woman has got the sort of religion I want, if it makes her what she is. Some day I’ll get her to tell me where she found it.”

We do find out in chapter 9 but that will be discussed in the next post.

Why so devoted?

For now, Christie finds the life example she is looking for in Cynthy Wilkins. She is comforted by the woman’s stories but admitted to being puzzled by Cynthy’s devotion to her husband Elisha despite the fact that there truly was nothing extraordinary about him.

Once she heard Cynthy’s story, her view changed.

A marriage in trouble …

Cynthy told a lengthy story of her marriage, how at first she succumbed to the poor advice of a troublemaking neighbor and indulged in a life of frivolity and fashion. Her husband did all he could to please her but her self-centered ways and excessive spending took its toll.

Pride gets in the way

Despite doing what she pleased, Cynthy described herself as “dreadful fractious;” the home front was disorderly and discordant, the children ran wild, and Elisha could find no peace. They ended up having a terrible fight where he slapped her. He was remorseful but it was to no avail. Cynthy in a huff left home to live with the meddling neighbor and in a prideful snit, waited for Elisha to come and fetch her.

Making amends

He did not and she began to regret leaving him. A sudden flash flood from a heavy rainstorm and the possibility that he had been swept away sharpened that regret. Fortunately he was alright and they reunited and reconciled. They both mended their ways and she came to appreciate a simpler life with him and her children. She also recognized that her neighbor was no friend and kept a wide berth of her.

What makes a successful marriage?

Louisa painted the picture of a true marriage in all its complexities, its ebbs and flows. Cynthy and Elisha were not an attractive couple; each had their faults. Their strength however was their devotion and commitment to each another. Their relationship relied on something deeper than creature comforts and was strong enough to weather storms of pride, meddling neighbors and anger.

No doubt Louisa witnessed all of this in her parents’ marriage.

Marriage closer to home

Bronson and Abba had a complex relationship and Abba certainly suffered at the hands of Bronson’s narcissism and lack of propensity to provide for his family. She was angry, depressed, frustrated and frightened, and she poured all of her distress into the daughter who understood her so well.

A trap, or something workable?

It’s no wonder Louisa saw marriage as a trap. This story from Work, however (and her description of Meg and John Brooke’s marriage in Little Women) demonstrates that she did see marriage as workable and even desirable.

What was Louisa afraid of?

Louisa was ambitious, wishing make her mark in the world as a writer. She took on the yoke of breadwinner for her family, finding it both satisfying and a burden. Louisa was bold and at times appeared fearless. Yet her work made a great excuse for avoiding the thing in her life that truly terrified her: intimacy.

Friendships without strings

Think about it. How many intimate relationships did Louisa have beyond her immediate family? Consider the relationships she had with men: they were either old enough to be her father or young enough to be a son. These relationships were safe; they required no real commitment on her part.

Hard to manage

Louisa described Cynthy as hard to manage in her younger days; she was so difficult that her husband would not come and fetch her when she up and left him.

Did Louisa see herself that way?

Harsh assessment

Louisa May Alcott at around age 25 (Wikipedia)

She often described herself as “topsey-turvey.” In a letter to her father she writes, “I was a crass crying baby, bawling at the disagreeable old world…. I scrambled up into childhood,…fell with a crash into girlhood & continued falling over fences, out of trees, uphill & down stairs tumbling from one year to another till strengthened by such violent exercise, the topsey turvey girl shot up into a topsey turvey woman …” (pages 148-149 ebook, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen)

Moods, moods …

She often wrote in her girlhood diaries of her bad temper and the sorrow she felt as a result. Her moods put her on a constant and violent roller coaster ride. The vortex that she entered in order to write erected a barrier around her such that no one could enter, and when she’d emerge, she would be cranky, bereft and irritable.

Lack of acceptance

Her life would have been easier if those at home and society at large could have accepted Louisa for the way she was; there’s no doubt she had a generous dose of the famed artist temperament. Louisa would indeed have required a man of great patience and understanding if she wished to marry.

Avoiding the issue

So it makes me wonder if her relentless pursuit of writing plus the need to support her family were convenient excuses to avoid the deeper issue of facing and accepting herself as the woman she truly was.

My instinct tells me there was more to her remaining a spinster than her desire to remain independent.

What do you think?

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6 Replies to “Work: Marriage revisited – could there have been another reason why Louisa never married?”

  1. So many women gave up who they were because that was expected of them. Louisa would have to do the same and tend to her husband and needy children. There would be no “me” time. Plus so many women succumbed to childbed fever, an unpleasant death. And what is she married a loser like her mother? Ick. When women left their father they gained a new master, their husbands. Their shackles were their children.

    Louisa choose freedom

    1. Oh yes, I totally agree that was the primary reason. But because she writes about marriage in such a positive and nuanced way in Little Women and Work, and because she did once lament about not having children of her own when she visited her nephews (sorry, can’t remember where I saw that, might have been Reisen’s bio), it did make me wonder if there was more to it than just retaining her freedom.

      1. She had Jo marry because she had to. Could one extend that and say the same about marriage? As some one who never had kids the majority of my life I can see how one can always second guess. Perhaps Louisa did the same?

      2. Could be. She probably felt it was the best decision she could make at the time (and I think you and I agree that it was). She was so ahead of her time. The only way she could have found a mate that was progressive enough in his thinking would have been to live in Europe like May did. May figured that out by living over there that she could never be herself if she didn’t live in Europe. And of course, she ended up marrying someone much younger than herself. That would have caused a scandal on Concord but in Europe, no big deal. May was much more adept at just going with the flow of her life. She wasn’t tied down with obligations the way Louisa was. And I do think Louisa chose to be that way.

  2. I agree marriage wasn’t for Louisa. She needed a very progressive person as you stated, but where would she find that? In the end I think children and a husband would have held her back. Its sad to see that May died so young. It would have been interesting to see how she handled motherhood, wife and artist.

    1. She might possibly have found someone that progressive in Europe but she was more deliberately independent than May. May was much more sociable. May’s death was indeed tragic. You and I and many others are sooooo curious as to how she would have managed family and career. I have a feeling she would have experienced the first true conflict in her life (sounds like a great idea for a book!). Having done the balancing act between family and the pursuit of my music, it presented great challenges. I never had a maternal bone in my body until I had my own and boy, did things change after that! Nobody ever told me how much I would fall head over heels in love with those babies. I was shocked. 🙂

      Man I wish I could write fiction … !

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