Rose in Bloom: Phebe’s station in life stands in the way of her becoming a Campbell. Is this just?

Are you taking part in the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge, sponsored by this blog and In the Bookcase? It’s not too late to jump in! After reading this post, head on over to In the Bookcase and read all about it.

My choice is Rose in Bloom and here is my second post on it:

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Living in an era where class distinction is fading (though not fast enough), it is hard to read about Phebe and not wince every now and then. The caste system in Louisa’s time was, of course, de rigueur, and sometimes I wonder if she always recognized how it permeated her writing.

In chapter two of Rose in Bloom, “Old Friends with New Faces,” we find Aunt Plenty welcoming home her two girls with hugs and tears. Phebe tries to steal away but Auntie will have none of it: “Don’t go, there’s room for both in my love …” Phebe responded with grateful tears.

Same, but different

Yet in the next paragraph, Aunt Plenty asked Phebe to dust for her as if things had never changed. And Phebe is more than ready to comply. It is plain that as beloved as she is by the family, Phebe is not a Campbell. Despite being taken to Europe along with Rose, despite returning polished and matured. a career as a professional singer looming, there is that distinction; more subtle than before, but it is still there.

19th versus 21st century sensibilities

Obviously it is unrealistic to expect that Louisa could completely transcend her era. It is unfair to lay our own twenty-first century sensibilities on stories from the past. I commend Louisa, the reformer, for making every effort to overcome what was so engrained in everyone during that time even if occasionally, a little prejudice managed to slip through (yes, I know, I am not taking my own advice!).

Rose certainly saw Phebe as her equal and I believe Mac did too; they share similar ideas and values with regards to a well-lived and purpose-filled life, and about being true to themselves and others. Phebe shared those values and ideas too.

Archie and Phebe

Archie saw nothing but Phebe. You might say Cupid’s arrow slew him with Phebe’s beautiful singing and nothing would stand in the way of him making Phebe his wife. Except for two people he loved dearly–his Aunt Plenty, and Phebe.

phebe0001Duty-bound

In chapter seven Phebe became fully aware of Archie’s intentions and was determined to do her duty:

But Phebe shook her head with a sad smile and answered, still with the hard tone in her voice as if forcing back all emotion that she might see her duty clearly: “You could do that, but I never can. Answer me this, Rose, and answer truly as you love me. If you had been taken into a house, a friendless, penniless, forlorn girl, and for years been heaped with benefits, trusted, taught, loved, and made, oh, so happy! could you think it right to steal away something that these good people valued very much? To have them feel that you had been ungrateful, had deceived them, and meant to thrust yourself into a high place not fit for you when they had been generously helping you in other ways, far more than you deserved. Could you then say as you do now, ‘Be happy, and never mind them’?”

Family name above all

She knew her place. It likely governed her personality which so mirrored Beth March in Little Women. As a twenty-first century woman, I found it hard to see how loving Archie and marrying him would steal him away from the family. The only thing I can think of is that her lowly station would taint the family pool. Much as I love the past, I am so grateful such things as your station in life no longer hold the weight they used to, at least in this country.

Oh Aunt Plenty, you didn’t say that …

I must admit that Aunt Plenty’s response caught me by surprise. Of all the aunts, I thought she would be the most open to the idea. But not so:

“Child, you don’t understand these things yet, but you ought to feel your duty toward your family and do all you can to keep the name as honorable as it always has been. What do you suppose our blessed ancestress Lady Marget would say to our oldest boy taking a wife from the poorhouse?”

More than a wince there; ouch! Recalling how Aunt Plenty had welcomed Phebe home in the same manner as Rose in chapter two, I was quite disappointed in her attitude. But I was very encouraged by Rose’s defense of Phebe, in true Louisa style.

In a predictable angle, Phebe goes away to prevent scandal but it is likely we have not heard the last of this part of the story (no spoilers please!).

Your thoughts

How did Aunt Plenty’s reaction strike you? Did Phebe’s reaction bother you as it did me? I would love to hear more about the importance of protecting the family name during that era as I know many of you are more knowledgeable than me on this subject.

Phebe’s real life alter ego?

As a side note, since I have done so much reading about Lizzie Alcott, I could not help but see her in Phebe. It was yet another way that this shadow sister played a key role in one of Louisa’s books. Lizzie was ever in Louisa’s heart, mind and soul. It got me to wondering just how much feeling she did put into her music–did she too shed a tear while playing a song? Could she sing? Did she use music to express her innermost feelings? I will always remember reading Abba’s journal with the beautifully copied hymn written by Lizzie with meticulous hand, and the cost she paid both physically and emotionally. Music was a wonderful way to show her love to her mother.

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7 Replies to “Rose in Bloom: Phebe’s station in life stands in the way of her becoming a Campbell. Is this just?”

  1. I saw the same class distinctions as you did, while reading Rose in Bloom. Phebe seems to be dearly loved by the family, but still separate and “different” from the clan status — (except in Archie’s eyes!) Phebe well knew her place, always understanding she couldn’t truly be a part of the family. Poor Phebe girl. My heart went out to her while reading the book.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Susan!

  2. I think Louisa was well aware of the importance of protecting the family name. She was somehow a victim of that: Louisa had loved theatre from early childhood and dreamt of becoming a professional actress, but her maternal family would not hear of that. They considered a disgrace to have a granddaughter of Coronel May treading the boards so, under family pressure, Louisa gave up her dreams of acting at a professional level.
    She found though a way to express her love for theatre through her narrative (with its frequent mentioning of theatrical features) and through her acting for charity events.

    1. She further explored acting in Work A Story of Experience, even depicting it as a corrupting force for Christie. Knowing the family pedigree, I always thought that the Alcott family’s time in Boston in such poverty as Abba struggled to support the family must have been especially difficult and humiliating.

  3. Class distinction was an issue Louisa had experienced from early childhood. She was well aware that both her mother and her mother’s family considered that Abba had married “below her station”. Bronson Alcott was certainly not what would be considered a good match.
    When Abba May become Abba Alcott she took a step downwards in the social ladder. And that lower position was inherited by her offspring. Thus Louisa felt/was made to feel that she was not entirely an equal to the other Mays.

    1. And what’s interesting is that Bronson’s ancestors came over on the Governor Winthrop Fleet. Even though his family lived in poverty, that bit of information should have improved his pedigree.

      1. Not necessarily. For class-conscious people, that the Alcotts had been among the early settlers was probably not as significant as the fact they were farmers. Snobery is a very weird thing!
        On the other hand, would the Mays and the Sewalls consider as something positive to be a descendant of Puritans? I’m not sure. After all, this was the time when Boston elite was clearly moving away from the religious zeal of Puritanism and Calvinism to the more open-minded Congregationalism and Unitarianism.

  4. Did the Mays and Sewalls come on the Mayflower fleet? What established their position in society, was it their wealth and how did they attain their wealth? I suppose you could say that Bronson’s family in a sense squandered their pedigree of coming on the Winthrop fleet by becoming mere farmers. Indeed, snobbery is a strange thing! I grew in Wellesley, MA (and have worked there for over 20 years) so I am well acquainted with this thing. 🙂 By the way, I don’t live in Wellesley, by choice.

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