Several months ago I started reading Work: A Story of Experience, one of Louisa’s few adult novels. The story, like Little Women, is a thinly disguised, romanticized yet gritty autobiography coupled with wishes Louisa might have had regarding the course of her life.
First, my impressions
In this first of three planned posts on this book, I want to share my own impressions. In the second, I will explore an essay by Sarah Elbert on Work which deals mainly with the important feminist theme of the story. And in the third, I want to return to the theme of religion (specifically a focus on chapter nineteen) which runs through the book.
A tale of two books, and its inherent weakness
In six posts I wrote mainly about the first half of the book which is basically a collection of short stories about the various paid positions that Christie had held, most of which Louisa herself had done. There appeared to be no particular storyline running through these chapters although there were memorable characters.
The sixth post focused on the pivotal crisis in Christie’s life which led to a suicide attempt. This crisis transitions into the second half of the book where a true plot takes over.
And this is where I began to lose interest in this book.
It was interesting when …
It’s easy to tell when Louisa is writing from her own experience because her voice is authentic and powerful. I found it quite fascinating living through Christie’s different work experiences with the most compelling being chapter five, “Companion,’ when she cares for Helen Carroll, the woman doomed to madness. Her experience with domestic servitude was revealing and chilling (giving me a greater appreciation for my newly discovered love, “Downton Abbey”).
I also found Christie’s search for God and Louisa’s devastating description of religion in her time to be equally compelling.
… and it lost me when …
The story became a bit of a dull formula when David Sterling entered the picture. It was obvious that Louisa had had little personal experience with romance and none with marriage.
Loosely based on Henry David Thoreau, David Sterling was a romantic enough character, high in virtue, a strong and somewhat silent type with a touch of melancholy due to a secret past. Like Thoreau, he played the flute; Christie dubbed his playing as “David’s voice” and was able to discern much sadness in it. He tended flowers and took care of his mother, and his lack of ambition along with his grave expression puzzled Christie. Their friendship grew and she soon found herself falling in love with him.
Enter Kitty, a pretty and frivolous girl, and a completely useless character. With her came the typical cat-and-mouse game where the heroine and hero misunderstand each other, the heroine leaves and assumes the hero is lost to her forever. It all ended up with the hero suddenly visiting the heroine and spilling his deep, dark secret, and then professing his love.
An excess of virtue
At this point in the book Christie and David seemed weighed down by an excess of virtue. Louisa did have a tendency to be heavy-handed in her morality plays and this was one time when I found it to be too much.
Heaven forbid that any character in a book with Louisa’s name on it should be anything but virtuous! Because she was a slave to her reputation, Louisa would never associate her real name with her thrillers, even A Modern Mephistopheles which was published in Roberts Brothers’ “No Name” series after Little Women. If it hadn’t been for the discovery by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern in the 1940s, no one would have even known she had written them. Readers would have been robbed of a rich legacy of works which revealed an interesting dark side to the author.
A marriage too short
Christie and David did eventually marry but without firsthand knowledge of married life, Louisa chose instead to separate them. Enter the Civil War where David gallantly served as captain of his regiment and Christie as a nurse.
Louisa’s brief but significant stint as a nurse in the war provided rich experiences for Christie. She excelled at nursing and was quickly promoted. I had to smile, wondering if Louisa pictured herself becoming that “super nurse” had she not been struck down so early by typhoid pneumonia.
A familiar death
David’s passing in chapter eighteen reminded me a lot of John Suhre’s in Hospital Sketches. Both were valiant and virtuous men dying painful deaths from a wound to the lung. And both were loved by strong, capable independent women who happened to be nurses in the Civil War: David by Christie, and John by Louisa.
Real life getting in the way of the story
I wish that Louisa had explored more fully the marriage between David and Christie. Their relationship grew from a deep friendship into a true companionate marriage where both parties were equal. Louisa’s lack of experience in marriage plus her deep skepticism that a companionate marriage could ever take place (especially for her) most likely discouraged her from doing so.
“Little Heart’s –Ease” to the rescue!
Just when it seemed I might completely lose interest in Work, along came chapter nineteen, “Little Heart’s-Ease” which began the enormous task of tying together all the loose ends of this story.
This chapter picks up from David’s death to follow Christie’s long journey of grief from sad resignation, to inconsolable storms resulting in open rebellion against God, to finally a place of peace and reconciliation. Pregnant with David’s child, the birth of Ruth (which means “little heart’s-ease) brings Christie back to life.
I will devote my third post on the wrap-up of Work to this chapter which, to me, did a wonderful job of resolving Christie’s issues with faith and religion.
Revisiting old characters
The final chapter continued to tie together the loose ends, bringing back Helen’s younger sister Bella, freed slave Hepsey (whom Christie had worked with as a domestic servant) and Cynthy Wilkins (the wife, mother of six and laundress who eventually connected Christie to David). Christie at forty years of age appeared for the first time to be truly comfortable in her own skin as evidenced by the impromptu speech she made at a women’s group meeting about her experiences.
The feminist theme comes full circle
A strong feminist theme ran through Work but this final chapter displayed Louisa’s eloquence in expressing her desires for women (this will be explored in the second post through Sarah Elbert’s essay). A running theme for Louisa has been for women to lives of purpose, whether it is on the work front or in the home. We saw this theme before in An Old-Fashioned Girl where Louisa lamented the frivolous “life of fashion;” you recall that Polly, a working girl, helped Fanny find her purpose in the care of her family after they lost their fortune (see posts on An Old-Fashioned Girl).
What I most appreciate about Louisa as a reformer was her belief that reform came incrementally through the work of individuals. The combination of her father’s Transcendentalism which promoted the improvement of the individual for the good of society, and her mother’s practical application created a reformer who understood that true change comes from within. And she knew how to suggest practical means of achieving that change.
The good news
This played out in the mission that Christie created for Bella. Rather than directly serve the poor which Christie astutely discerned was not appropriate for a women of Bella’s background, she inspired Bella to educate her friends on the need for lives of purpose, much the way Polly inspired Fanny. She was, in a sense, sending out her first disciple to spread the good news of a changing way of life for women that included a growing sense of autonomy.
Despite its flaws, Work was a frank and gritty look at the life of women in the 19th century who long to be more than what they are permitted to be. It forecast an epic struggle that would ultimately grant women the political power and many choices they enjoy today along with the complications of those choices.
Yet, I found Work to be far more than a feminist study. There were so many other subplots that to me, made the book truly interesting in the end.
Louisa’s commentary and personal understanding of faith was look inside of her character and her drive for reform. Her unique brand of candor and poignancy opened windows into class, race, mental illness, despair and a kind of love that embraced equality.
Redemption for Christie came through a perfect blending of purpose-filled work and domestic bliss with her child, Ruth. It came after many years of hardship and great cost.
Louisa was a great believer in the redemptive nature of suffering as she wrote in chapter nineteen: “from the dust of a great affliction rose the sustaining power she had sought so long.”
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