Do Louisa May Alcott’s didactic tales of fantasy have a place in children’s reading today?

2004 Orchard House edition
2004 Orchard House edition

Last December I had the opportunity to tour Orchard House during the Christmas season (see previous post, “A lovely holiday visit to Orchard House, capped off by some great finds!”). The theme of the period decorations was Louisa May Alcott’s “first born,” Flower Fables. To properly prepare for the tour, I decided to read this book.

Learning about a fairy tale pioneer

I had misgivings about reading it at first as I am not a big fan of fantasy tales. I recalled, however, a presentation by Daniel Shealy at the American Library Association workshop on their Louisa May Alcott initiative back in 2011 (see previous post, “The American Library Association Louisa May Alcott Project: A DVD and Book Start a Movement”). Dr. Shealy had stated that Louisa was an often overlooked pioneer of American fantasy and fairy tales. Intrigued by this notion, I dug in.

Tales told to a friend

flower fables from concord libraryLouisa was fifteen when she originally crafted and told these tales to a young Ellen Emerson. Ellen was so taken with them that she demanded they be written down. Louisa complied; the charming little books, handwritten and bound with ribbon can be seen at the Concord Free Public Library in their Special Collections. It gave me a special thrill to actually touch and read them (see previous post, “The field trip of a lifetime).

A safe haven

Yes, the tales are overly sweet. Yes, they are preachy. Yes, they are dated. I read the book, however, very soon after the mind-numbing shooting of scores of school children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. I found Louisa’s “preaching” be a safe haven where I could retreat, to a time of more wholesome thoughts and feelings.

Time to revive these stories?

As I read I began to feel an urge to share these tales with children. It reminded me of how I felt after reading some of Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag and the urge I had then to ask my local library if I could read some of these stories to children. Many lend themselves to terrific creative activities.

Louisa had a fertile imagination that never lost its childish innocence even as she continued writing such stories in her fifties as she suffered through her illness. The lessons that she imparts may be considered “old-fashioned,” but I found them quite timely.

Fairies and elves in a romantic backdrop

Flower Fables is unique in that it is Louisa’s first published book, written when she was a dreamy teenager. Her exposure to the outdoors through the likes of her father and Henry David Thoreau provide a natural and romantic backdrop rich in detail. She knew her flowers, trees and birds and it was here that she set her tales of fairies, elves and children.

Flower Fables, original printing 1855, from the Concord Free Public Library Special Collections; used with permission
Flower Fables, original printing 1855, from the Concord Free Public Library Special Collections; used with permission

Here are a few highlights.

Nature and fantasy become one

From “Eva’s Visit to Fairy Land,” pg. 40, Flower Fables, Orchard House edition

“… soon through the rippling water came a strange little boat.

It was a lily of the valley, whose tall stem formed the master, while the broad leaves that rose from the roots, and drooped again till they reached the water, were filled with gay little Elves, who danced to the music of the silver lilybells above, that rang a merry peal, and filled the air with their fragrant breath.”

male fairy with mushroomsLouisa’s familiarity with nature was woven effortlessly into the fantasy so that the real world of plants and animals and the imaginary world of elves and fairies became one. It was once said that Thoreau showed her a cobweb and declared that it was a fairy’s handkerchief. His instinctive understanding of the flight of fancy and its relationship to reality nurtured Louisa’s mind and heart. He connected with the child, sparking her desire and feeding her imagination and she was able to share that with countless other children.

A song to God

Continuing from “Eva’s Visit to Fairy Land,” pg. 43

“When the sun rose the Fairies, and, with Eva, hastened away to the fountain, whose cool waters were soon filled with little forms, and the air ringing with happy voice, as the Elves floated in the blue waves among the fair white lilies, or sat on the green moss, smoothing their bright locks, and wearing fresh garlands of dewy flowers. At length the Queen came forth, and her subjects gathered round her, and while the flowers bowed their heads, and the trees hushed their rustling, the Fairies sang their morning hymn to the Father of birds and blossoms, who made the earth so fair a home for them.”

It’s easy here to see the transcendental influence on the author. Louisa effortlessly blends in a gentle religious lesson of praise to God, free from denominational identification, theology, rules, etc. It’s just a simple faith from the heart. The transcendental quality, of course, is the connection with nature.

Moral lessons

One more passage from “Eva’s Visit to Fairy Land,” pgs. 45-46

2girlfairy“They passed on, and Eva saw beside each bed a Fairy, who with gentle hands and loving words soothed the suffering insects. … Then said the Fairy, while she bathed the broken wing — “Love-Blossom, you should not murmur. We may find happiness in seeking to be patient even while we suffer. You are not forgotten or uncared for, but others need our care more than you, and to those who take cheerfully the pain and sorrow sent, do we most gladly give our help. You need not be idle, even though lying here in darkness and sorrow; you can be taking from your heart all sad and discontented feelings, and if love and patience blossom there, you will be better for the lonely hours spent here. Look on the bed beside you; this little dove has suffered far greater pain than you, and all our care can never ease it; yet through the long days he hath lain here, not an unkind word or a repining sigh hath he uttered. Ah, Love-Blossom, the gentle bird can teach a lesson you will be wiser and better for.”

This is a pretty sophisticated lesson! I am in my mid-50s and only just learned it the last time I was sick (because I have a sterling example in a woman I visit each week who suffers from a debilitating disease of the middle ear which causes severe vertigo resulting in dizziness, nausea, headaches and difficulty walking.) Louisa and her sisters “acted out” these lessons with dolls and stuffed toys as shown in Little Women (especially Beth with her invalid and headless doll, Joanna).

Is Beth March out of fashion?

Jo and Beth; illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith
Jo and Beth; illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith

The heart of the moral lessons in Flower Fables is self-sacrificial love and patient suffering. Both of these are characteristic of Beth in Little Woman and considered “out of fashion” in today’s society. How many times have I heard that “nobody wants to be Beth.” And yet, I keep meeting people, young and old, male and female, who do. Why do people dismiss the Beths of this world when there are many quiet souls who give of themselves because they want to?

Why are these stories still remembered?

This is what I find so compelling about Louisa’s didactic stories. I realize writing of this type was common in the 19th century. The question is what made Louisa’s way of conveying it unique such that her stories are still remembered today?

Stories like these (and the play that ensues) connects people to one another and fosters care of one another. Video games do the exact opposite.

Guess I’m the one who is preaching now!

This is a small taste of what is offered in Flower Fables. In in the next post, I will share a conversation I had with Dr. Shealy about Louisa’s fantasy tales plus highlights from an essay he wrote about this aspect of her work.

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2 Replies to “Do Louisa May Alcott’s didactic tales of fantasy have a place in children’s reading today?”

  1. Thank you for your positive take on Flower Fables. I’ll take another look at it. The fantasy has seemed very far fetched but this is, after all, a book for children and no more fantastic than Oz or Neverland.

    I am currently reading Francis’ Fruitlands and he explores an extreme transcendental attitude toward nature, as expressed by Charles Lane, Alcott’s partner in their utopian experiment. Lane says that love of nature is be avoided in preference to a more spiritual understanding. What he seems to mean is that you don’t want to get caught up in nature itself and feel affection for it, but only use it as an entry into higher spiritual experiences. To me, it’s not an either-or proposition. Loving nature for its own sake does not diminish its spiritual effects, if any. I believe Louisa felt the same way.

    1. Ah, looking forward to your final impressions of Francis’ Fruitlands. 🙂 I agree in that I don’t believe it’s an either-or proposition either. I suppose people did take that approach and Lane saw no purpose in loving nature just for itself but sometimes the love of beauty will lead to the discovery of the One who made it. Louisa’s conversion experience at twelve suggests that it happened to her that way.

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