Louisa May Alcott’s brand of feminism: final thoughts on “Moods,” thanks to Sarah Elbert

I finally finished reading Moods a few weeks ago but just couldn’t comment on it. After reading both the 1864 and 1882 versions, I concluded that the book left me flat. The characters felt rather two-dimensional. Both versions ended differently and each ending seemed convoluted. It left me feeling the way I did after reading The Inheritance (see previous post), except that Moods was a lot better.

One of our readers, Nancy from the Silver Threads blog, recently wrote an insightful post on Moods that caused me to dig deeper. She had read the version which included thoughts by Sarah Elbert so that prompted me to dust off the essay I found of hers from BookRags and read it (note: you can’t read the essay unless you purchase it first). That essay threw open the doors regarding Moods, and Louisa’s thoughts regarding women.

Moods as seen by Alcott scholar Sarah Elbert

The essay was taken from A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women and here Elbert paints a compelling portrait of Louisa as a feminist, and how that feminism figured into her writing. What I especially appreciated about Elbert’s treatment of this topic is that she didn’t come at it with a strident or militant attitude. Rather, she objectively outlined what Louisa’s feminist inclinations were and how they seeped into every word she wrote.

Louisa’s understanding of feminism

Sarah Elbert, from the film “Louisa May Alcott, The Woman Behind LIttle Women” by Nancy Porter and Harriet Reisen

Elbert maintains that Louisa’s combination of living out American Romanticism in her family, coupled with her immersion in her father’s Transcendentalism gave her a unique perspective on women’s issues. It wasn’t just about political rights.  Rather, it was about being taken seriously as a whole person: equal to the man, an individual with dreams, aspirations, ambitions, thoughts and spirituality that were all her own:

” Bronson Alcott described Louisa as ‘Duty’s Faithful Child,’ but she was also a daughter of the Transcendentalist movement he helped found. As such, she and many of her female contemporaries struggled for a sense of individual identity within the context of traditional domesticity. Trying to combine both domesticity and individuality into a workable feminist perspective, they directly challenged established sex roles integral to nineteenth century social order.”

How this relates to Moods

Taken in this light, Moods began to make sense to me.

I now understand why Louisa took such great pains to paint Sylvia Yule the way she did:  as a young girl, shut away at home because she was the “dangerous age of seventeen” (Elbert), totally unprepared for life as a mature married woman. She was greatly subject to moods (what seventeen year-old girl isn’t?) which caused her to make thoughtless, impulsive decisions that would cost her dearly later on.

As those of you know who have been following my posts, Sylvia is found desirable by two men who are best friends: Geoffrey Moor (based loosely on Ralph Waldo Emerson, with shades of Bronson Alcott) and Adam Warwick (based on Henry David Thoreau). Louisa in real life hero-worshipped both Emerson and Thoreau. Moor is regarded by Sylvia as one of her dearest friends while she feels passionate love for Warwick. Because of a misunderstanding with Warwick, Sylvia succumbs to Moor’s pressure and marries him. In the earlier version of the story, this impulsive act, guided by her inexperience with life and her moods ultimately leads to disaster while in the later version, things inevitably work out after much pain.

It is through this story that Louisa maps out the theories explained here by Elbert:

” . . . Moods in fact deals deeply with moral and social questions. Alcott attempted to analyze the effect of Transcendentalism on the lives of women. Years of living out the principles of American Romanticism with her family had made her an expert on the problems it posed for women. Moods pointedly includes a defense of experience for young, unmarried women; an attack on passion and romantic love; and an insistence on friendship and equality as the best basis for lasting relationships between the sexes.”

Moods was ahead of its time

Louisa revamped Moods in 1882 because she was so dissatisfied with the original version published by A.K. Loring. She complained bitterly of editing out half the book in order to get it published, causing much misunderstanding on the public’s part as to the book’s true purpose. But in my mind, because Moods was ahead of its time, it would not have been understood by the likes of men such as Henry James Jr. who savaged the book in his critique:

“In 1865 Henry James Jr. dismissed Moods as an unconvincing version of ‘the old story of the husband, the wife and the lover.’ Since a thirty-year-old spinster author could scarcely possess much insight into the eternal triangle, James assumed that the attempt to deal with any deeper problem was laughable. ‘Has Miss Alcott proposed to give her story a philosophical bearing? We can hardly suppose it,’ James wrote acidly. His review was only one of many discouraging notices that Louisa Alcott tried to answer in her preface to a revised edition of the novel in 1882. She maintained that the first work was so altered for the publisher that ‘marriage appeared to be the theme instead of an attempt to show the mistakes of a moody nature, guided by impulse, not principle.’ ” (from Elbert’s essay)

Click on the above link to read the whole review and you will immediately see how clueless James was with regards to Louisa’s intent. Naturally he wouldn’t get it because the women’s movement hadn’t begun to seep into the consciousness of men (nor a lot of women either). It was perhaps unrealistic for Louisa to expect the public to understand the true meaning of Moods as her thinking was far from the mainstream.

Is the intent of Moods any clearer today?

Yet as a 21st century woman who has lived through the women’s movement, I didn’t really get Moods either. It wasn’t until I read Elbert’s essay that I finally understood and that suggested two things to me: one, I am not schooled enough to read between the lines of Moods without some help, and two, perhaps Moods wasn’t written well enough to convey the message to the masses.

Artist versus Craftsman

This realization caused me to think that Louisa was a far better writer when she was a craftsman rather than as an artist. When assigned a certain genre, she could adapt and write compelling stories, whether it be blood and thunder tales, stories from the Civil War,  or “moral pap for the young” as she liked to put it. I remember reading the chapter on Little Women in Madeleine Stern’s biography, Louisa May Alcott: A Biography (see previous post) where Stern laid out the case like a lawyer of how adaptable Louisa was when it came to writing because she approached writing as a business, like a pro. Her best book, a classic for the ages, was written under duress as an assignment!

True genius

Louisa’s true genius (which I’m not sure she appreciated) was her totally on-target reading of what the public wanted (which is surprising considering she herself was so apart from the mainstream ) plus her chameleon-like ability to be the writer she needed to be to please that audience and earn her keep.

All creative persons long to be artists and to be taken seriously as artists. It’s the nature of the beast. As a creative sort myself, I can fully understand Louisa’s desire to be an artist. So perhaps she never felt fulfilled as a writer. But as a craftsman, she produced a body of work which 150 years later is still read and appreciated, and now even studied. It didn’t hurt that she authentically lived the ideals she wrote about. Without knowing about that life, the writings can never fully come alive. I am very grateful that I spent a lifetime getting to know Louisa first before delving into her writing.

Worth the read

So perhaps Moods was not my favorite work of hers but it was hardly a wasted effort to read it. I learned a great deal about Louisa which causes me to be that much more passionate about her. I am tremendously grateful to women like Sarah Elbert who have taken the time to analyze and critique Louisa’s works so that folks like me who are learning can understand Louisa May Alcott better.

If you are interested in learning more about Sarah Elbert’s take on Louisa and Moods, be sure and download the essay I’ve referred to in this post (available for a small fee). Or, purchase the book it comes from, A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women, online. I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of this essay; it is well worth the read.

Moods: Sylvia’s Choice

I enjoy how Louisa describes Geoffrey Moor and Adam Warwick, the two love interests of heroine Sylvia Yule through comparing and contrasting how they respond to similar situations.

Here’s one scenario: Sylvia lost her mother at an early age and she has grieved throughout her young life over that loss. She first meets Adam Warwick (the Thoreau character) while expressing some of that grief; the scene finds her wading in the ocean when thoughts of her mother and that lost relationship come to mind (this scene is not in the earlier 1865 version):

“Tears dropped fast, and hiding her head, she sobbed like a broken-hearted child driving for its mother. She never let Prue know the want she felt, never told her father how powerless his indulgent affection was to feed this natural craving, not found elsewhere the fostering care she pined for. Only in hours like these the longing vented itself in bitter tears, that left the eyes dim, the heart heavy for days afterward.

A voice called her from the cliff above, a step sounded on the rocky path behind, but Sylvia did not hear them, nor see a figure hurrying through the deepending water toward her, till a great wave rolled up and broke over her feet, startling her with its chill.

Then she sprung up and looked about her with a sudden thrill of fear, for the green billows tumbled everywhere, the path was gone, and the treacherous tide was in.

A moment she stood dismayed, then flung away her cloak, and was about to plunge into the sea when a commanding voice called, “Stop, I am coming!” And before she could turn a strong arm caught her up, flung the cloak around her, and she felt herself carried high above the hungry waves that leaped up as if disappointed of their prey.” (Chapter 2 – Warwick)

This scene, appearing early in the book, very much characterizes the kind of feeling Sylvia had for Adam: feelings of passion, strength, power, turmoil. Feelings that thrilled her to the bone. She goes on to describe Warwick as the “manliest of men.”

Geoffrey Moor comes across very differently, as cerebral, peaceful, not at all physical. Note how he handles Sylvia’s grief in a discussion that they have in a later chapter (she has just described to him her sorrow at never knowing her mother, and how she needed to have her mother take her in her arms and show her God:

” ‘Dear Sylvia, I understand your trouble and long to cure it as wisely and tenderly as I ought, I can only tell you where I have found a cure for doubt, despondency, and grief. God and Nature are the true helper and comforter for all of us. Do not tire yourself with books, creeds, and speculations; let them wait, and believe that simply wishing and trying to be good is piety, for faith and endeavor are the wings that carry souls to her already; you will find her always just and genial, patient and wise. With the harmonious laws that rule her, imitate her industry, her sweet sanity; and soon I think you will find that benignant mother will take you into her arms and show you God.’

Without another word, Moor rose, laid his hand an instant on the girl’s bent head in the first caress he had ever dared to give her, and went away leaving her to the soothing ministrations of the comforter he had suggested.” (Chapter 8 Sermons)

It’s as if Moor was a minister and Warwick a savior. It lays out an interesting diachotomy for Sylvia which, to me, reveals the same for Louisa – embracing the thrilling, and frightening, physical life (Warwick) or living the transcendental, peaceful life that was preached to her by her father and his friends since childhood (Moor). This, of course, is so plainly evidenced in Louisa’s body of work, from Little Women‘s glorification of wholesome (nearly spiritual) domestic life to such “blood and thunder tales” as “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment.” Sarah Elbert, in her introduction to Moods, writes, “Consequently modern scholars have identified a correspondence between Louisa May Alcott’s canny separation of her literary markets and the nineteenth-century concept of “separate spheres” which divided home from workplace, sharpened the social boundaries separating genteel ladies from working women, and gradually turned childhood and youth in all classes into a protected stage of life.” A 21st century word for that might be “compartmentalization,” usually a more male trait. Louisa certainly displayed that in her life, and illustrated it in an interesting way with Moor and Warwick.

Now the question is, which life did Sylvia wish to choose and which one did she ultimately choose?

The Conundrum that is “Moods”

I’m about a third of the way through both versions of Moods and have concluded that this book is a total mess! Now don’t get me wrong, I am enjoying it, but considering the capital Louisa May Alcott had as a famous author, you have to wonder why she didn’t just release the book the way she had originally written it. Did her publisher stop her? If anyone has information on that, let me know, I’d love to find out.

Here’s a perfect example of why this book is such a mess. The 1865 version published by A.K. Loring had fewer chapters but included a subplot left out of the 1882 version. That subplot involved Adam Warwick and a Cuban fiance, Ottila. The first chapter details their argument and his deciding to “take a break”, you might say, from the relationship, but as a man of honor, he would return to decide if he would marry her. He felt she had deceived him though it wasn’t clear to me exactly what the deception was. She probably played some games with him as lovers will do, but Warwick being such a black and white (and intolerant) character, probably was offended by that. Just my guess.

At first I didn’t think eliminating this subplot would present a problem but it does for later in the story, Warwick suddenly departs just as it appears he and Sylvia are recognizing their feelings for each other. Knowing the subplot, this departure makes sense – he’s a man of honor and he wants to either be true to Ottila or break it off with her so that he can pursue a relationship with Sylvia.

In the later version, there is no subplot. There is only some vague reference made to something Warwick must take care of, and he mysteriously takes off. I happened to know why from reading the earlier version, but the reader must scratch his or her head and say, “Huh?”

So Louisa keeps the subplot in the earlier version but cuts out so much more. There’s very little development in the relationship between Warwick and Sylvia so that when he does leaves, the reader may not even care. I found myself scratching my head over it. Two extra pages are added to the later version which seem incredibly important in moving along the relationship. I can’t imagine why she cut those pages out because they truly made it clear that Adam was falling in love with Sylvia. Without those additional pages, the reader can only guess.

The later version includes a chapter each on Moor and Warwick so that you can become acquainted with the character, and then includes a chapter called “Dull But Necessary”  which acquaints the reader with Sylvia (this chapter is included in a very queer place in the older version). It strikes me as quite funny the way that Louisa will suddenly take the reader aside, as in a confidence and say, “okay, you need to be filled in with the back story before we can continue.” I noticed she did that a little bit in Little Women too.

The answer? You have to read both versions to get the full story. Google Books has the 1865 version.

Oh, and here’s something else that confuses the issue: Even though the 1882 version includes a chapter called “Holly” (which was also included in the earlier version) it is not included in The Portable Louisa May Alcott where I am reading the later version! Glad I have the book on Nook. Geez!

How “Moods” is helping me to get to know Louisa May Alcott, and myself, better

Progressing through Moods, I can see that even though I love it, it may not be a book to suit everyone’s tastes. Of all the current biographies (meaning in the last 30 years) that I’ve read or are reading on Louisa (Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography by Martha Saxton, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen and Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography by Susan Cheever), only Saxton seems to have really liked Moods on its own merits. I was going to read and comment on her chapter on Moods but decided to wait until I’ve read the book because I don’t want to read all the spoilers. But I will comment on her take once I’m done.

At any rate, I know my interest in Moods may be rather unique. If you’ll pardon the expression, it’s personal. What I’m discovering is how much Louisa and I could have shared in common regarding our interests and temperaments, and I believe that is what drew me to her in the first place. Saxton’s biography, heavy-handed as it is, pointed that out to me. I never did suffer from the extremes of moods that Louisa suffered from (and lately my emotional landscape has evened out nicely) but I can very much relate to her turbulence, anger and depression: how such things can make life miserable and yet feed creativity.

Having just finished chapters 3 and 4 of Moods (the earlier incarnation), Sylvia-as-Louisa is showing me some of the interests I could have shared with Louisa. Chapters 3 and 4 laid out the story of a 3-day camping trip including Sylvia, her brother Mark (or Max), Warwick and Moor. I imagine most people might have been bored with Louisa’s seemingly endless descriptions of what it was like out in the boat, how serene it was, what the world looked like from the water, etc., etc. As an avid kayaker and naturalist, I reveled in the descriptions (especially since we’ve been buried in snow and cold here in the Northeast!). I was transported into our tandem kayak on a beautiful and hot day, lazily drifting down river, drinking in the scents and sounds, spying on people’s houses and dreaming of a summer place of our own, and mostly, loving the silence and the peace. The descriptions were so authentic that I knew she must have spent time rowing and perhaps enjoyed it as much as I do. After several minutes adrift on the water, Louisa writes:

“Slowly they drifted onto the current, slowly Warwick cleft the water with reluctant stroke, and slowly Sylvia’s mind woke from its trance of dreamy delight, as with a gesture of asset she said, ‘Yes,  I am reading now. That was a happy little moment, and I am glad to have lived it, for such times return to refresh me when a many a more stirring one is quite forgotten.”

Exactly how I feel. It’s like when you’ve just finished a delicious meal and then eat it all over again in your mind, just to relish the feeling.

Immediately after, Sylvia sees a fire off in the distance and wants to explore it, oblivious to the possibility that it might be dangerous (and of course it turns out to be!):

“A moment after she added, eagerly, as a new object of interest appeared: ‘Mr. Warwick, I see smoke. I know there is a wood on fire; I want to see it; please land again . . . I love fire, and that must be a grand one, if we could only see it well.’ “

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done that; you might call me a fire chaser! I could do that with tornadoes too (yes, I’ve seen the movie Twister a million times and love it every time). The point is, I really connected with Sylvia’s desire to chase that fire.

Finally, there was the moment shared between Warwick and Sylvia which I’m figuring must have happened between Louisa and Henry David Thoreau. Louisa describes a scene where Warwick is feeding wild birds bread crumbs out of his hand, and my ‘love’ for Warwick grows as does Sylvia’s:

“The appearance of a thirsty sparrow gave her thoughts a pleasant turn, for, sitting motionless, she watched the little creature trip down at the pool, drink and bathe, then flying to a willow spray, dress its features, dry its wings, and sit chirping softly as if it sang its evening hymn. Warwick saw her interest, and searching, in his pocket, found the relics of a biscuit, strewed a few bits upon the ground before him, and began a low, sweet whistle, which rose gradually to a varied strain, alluring, spirited, and clear as any bird voice of the wood. Little sparrow ceased his twitter, listened with outstretched neck and eager eye, hopping restlessly from twig to twig, until he hung just over the musician’s head, agitated with a small flutter of surprise, delight, and doubt. Gathering a crumb or two into his hand, Warwick held it toward the bird, while softer, sweeter, and more urgent rose the invitation, and nearer and nearer drew the winged guest, fascinated by the spell . . . His last fear conquered, and he flew confidently to Warwick’s palm, pecking the crumbs with grateful chirps and friendly glances from its quick, bright eye. It was a pretty picture for the girl to see; the man, an image of power, in his hand the featured atom that, with unerring instinct, divined and trusted the superior nature which had not yet lost its passport to the world of innocent delights that Nature gives to those who love her best.”

All my life I have been a passionate (albeit it amateur) bird watcher and I’ve had the privilege of having wild birds feed out of my hand. It happened at a bird sanctuary in the Hamptons on Long Island, known for the birds being so tame that they will literally feed out of your hand. Louisa, being so keen an observer, must have witnessed that wonder for herself and I believe I know just how she must have felt.

These various experiences, of course, advance the love story and Warwick and Sylvia grow closer, walking hand in hand through the woods and back to the camp. I very much enjoy how they try to read each other and then describe each other to their colleagues. People watching is also something I’m passionate about and I’ve been told I’m pretty good at it.

I apologize since this post has really been all about me and not much about Moods! Pretty self-indulgent. 🙂 I’m just really surprised at how much I’ve learned about why I am passionate about Louisa May Alcott from reading this lesser known work of hers. I’ve often pondered why I have this obsession – Moods is helping to shed some light on that.

That being said, I can hardly offer an unbiased, intelligent review of this book. I can only offer how it speaks to me. Hopefully it will speak to you too.

Getting to know the principal characters in “Moods”

The 1882 version of Moods includes 3 interesting chapters which develop the principal characters of the novel and their interaction with each other.

Geoffrey Moor

Chapter 2 gives us a glimpse into Geoffrey Moor, based upon the loyal, lifelong friend of Bronson Alcott, and the Good Samaritan who quietly and discreetly helped the Alcott family on countless occasions when the family was destitute. Emerson was kind in other ways to the family, encouraging the child Louisa’s love of reading by loaning her books from his library and often discussing them with her. Louisa jokingly commented that she used to borrow his books the way she borrowed his kittens. As she grew older, he supported her writing as well. Emerson always seemed to be there at the most important moments, kissing the bride, Anna, on her wedding day, or breaking the news gently to Louisa about the passing of her sister, May.

Louisa imagined herself as Bettina to Emerson’s Goethe, writing love letters in the night and leaving them at his door. Subsequently there is a reference to Bettina and Goethe in the chapter as Sylvia shares with Moor her admiration of Goethe, wishing she was Bettina:  “I always envied Bettina and longed to be in her place. People now adays are so unheroic and disappointing, even the famous ones.”

My impression of Sylvia’s attraction to Moor is that he was a port in the middle of her storm, the turmoil that was her constant shifting of moods. Moor had a inner tranquility about him, a maturity born of  patient suffering (taking care of his sister for 5 years until she finally passed away). He had 30 years of life experience heightened by virtuous sacrifice  which mellowed him and made him wise and kind. She, on the other hand, saw herself as as constantly pulled back and forth by her emotions, causing her to be impulsive. Moor seemed attracted by Sylvia’s sheer life force, leading him out of his sadness. There’s a good basis for their attraction to each other.

Sylvia Yule

In chapter 3, Louisa, in typical fashion, takes a “time out” from the book in a rather amusing fashion (naming the chapter “Dull, but Necessary”) to enlighten the reader with vital information about Sylvia and her life. I had seen this tact used several times in Little Women and thought it odd, but the chapter was hardly dull and definitely necessary! Knowing about her parents’ unhappy marriage, the death of her mother upon her birth, and her lifelong craving for love set the stage for Sylvia’s other potential love interest, Adam Warwick.

Adam Warwick

Chapter 4 introduces us to Adam, fashioned after the other great love interest in Louisa’s life, Henry David Thoreau. I admit that I don’t know a lot about Thoreau apart from his friendship with the Alcotts, and often it is his softer side: his interest in nature, his way of delighting the child Louisa with fantasy-laced stories of the natural world that I’ve seen. Thoreau, however, was also known as an iconoclast demonstrated in his most well-known essay of an individual’s protest against the government, “Civil Disobedience.” He was known to have spent a night in jail for not paying his poll tax. Louisa obviously admired Thoreau’s strength of character, intellect and adherence to his principles as she describes Adam as the “manliest man” she has ever met, not only in demeanor but in stature, standing a head taller than Moor. The story plays out with Adam saving Sylvia from nearly drowning after being caught unexpectedly in the high tide and leads to a meeting of the minds as both enjoy watching people and discerning their characters. Here is a very different love interest, setting the stage for the conflict to come.

As a side point, I’ve read in at least three biographies that Louisa’s near attempt at suicide is used in two works: her other major adult novel, Work A Story of Experience, and a short story, ” Love and Self-Love.” I’m curious as to why Moods is not also cited since there is definitely a contemplation of suicide by Sylvia in this chapter (though I am not certain as to how serious it really was). It is not driven so much by despair as it is grief over never knowing her mother, and a fierce longing, a fantasy-type desire to join her mother in the afterlife. It makes me wonder if Louisa’s thoughts at the Mill Dam to throw herself into the water in despair figured into this episode for Sylvia.

A Personal Connection

I am very much enjoying Moods so far. When I was younger, I was subject to the kind of interior distress Sylvia describes with her turbulent moods, and I felt guilt over that distress as I think she might have too. I also have a deep temper like Louisa that would often turn inward, causing depression. Aging has its advantages, one of them being a mellowing out of the peaks and valleys, and I no longer experience that kind of distress (my devotion to my Catholic faith helps a great deal too). But when I first learned of Moods through a reading of Martha Saxton’s biography, Louisa May Alcott A Modern Biography back in my 20s, I felt an emotional connection to Louisa, seeing a kindred spirit. As a child I had shared Louisa’s love of acting and producing plays, and in writing, but once I learned of her very adult emotional turmoil, I made a much deeper connection. Why I didn’t read Moods after finishing Saxton’s biography is beyond me, but reading it now brings back powerful memories of a time when I was a slave to my emotions. My connection to Moods is quickly becoming very personal. And knowing how personal Moods was to Louisa makes the reading of it even more powerful.

“Moods” so far

Moods was Louisa May Alcott’s first serious novel and her”baby,” most likely the book that Jo referred to in Chapter 27 of Little Women, “Literary Lessons.”

Louisa describes Jo’s writing process which likely mirrors her own. “Falling into a vortex,” as she calls it, it’s like Louisa/Jo steps into another dimension, oblivious to the outside world:

“Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and ‘fall into a vortex’, as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace.”

This other dimension had its share of rituals for Jo, and I wonder if they didn’t hold true for Louisa as well:

“Her ‘scribbling suit’ consisted of a black woolen pinafore on which she could wipe her pen at will, and a cap of the same material, adorned with a cheerful red bow, into which she bundled her hair when the decks were cleared for action. This cap was a beacon to the inquiring eyes of her family, who during these periods kept their distance, merely popping in their heads semi-occasionally to ask, with interest, “Does genius burn, Jo?”

If we are to assume that the descriptions of Jo as writer are accurately paralleling Louisa’s actions, then I must say that, always an actress at heart, Louisa had a flair for the dramatic as demonstrated by her need to visually show how she was doing:

“They did not always venture even to ask this question, but took an observation of the cap, and judged accordingly. If this expressive article of dress was drawn low upon the forehead, it was a sign that hard work was going on, in exciting moments it was pushed rakishly askew, and when despair seized the author it was plucked wholly off, and cast upon the floor. At such times the intruder silently withdrew, and not until the red bow was seen gaily erect upon the gifted brow, did anyone dare address Jo.”

Eminently practical, Louisa/Jo found it necessary to “chop up” her “baby” if it was ever to see the light of day as a published book”

“Having copied her novel for the fourth time, read it to all her confidential friends, and submitted it with fear and trembling to three publishers, she at last disposed of it, on condition that she would cut it down one third, and omit all the parts which she particularly admired . . . So, with Spartan firmness, the young authoress laid her first-born on her table, and chopped it up as ruthlessly as any ogre. In the hope of pleasing everyone, she took everyone’s advice, and like the old man and his donkey in the fable suited nobody.”

And therein lies the origins of Moods, albeit probably romanticized in Little Women as many things were. There was no doubt, however, that she had to do violence to her first novel, cutting out nearly half of it. Published originally in 1864, Louisa revisited the novel again in 1882 and restored some of the lost chapters, and changed the ending. She felt the book had been misunderstood and took advantage of her fame to “give my first novel, with all its imperfections on its head, a place among its more successful sisters: for into it went the love, labor, and enthusiasm that no later book can possess.” (from the preface of the 1882 version of Moods).

She goes on to say, “When Moods was first published, . . . it was so altered, to suite the taste and convenience of the publisher, that the original purpose of the story was lost sight of, and marriage appeared to be the theme instead of an attempt to show the mistakes of a moody nature, guided by impulse, not principle.”

After Moods was first published, Louisa addressed a letter from a Mr. Ayer who apparently “so entirely misunderstood Moods that I am anxious to set you right as far as I can in a hasty letter” (pg. 109 The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott, edited by Joel Myerson, Daniel Shealey and Madeleine Stern). (I had the privilege, by the way, of seeing this letter when I visited the Special Collections Room of the Concord Free Public Library; it was one of the ones I hand copied in part – here are my two posts on that visit: part one and part two). She goes on to explain again how the state of marriage was not her point (and she makes quite an eloquent case for the importance and sanctity of marriage, despite the fact that  her parents had such a difficult relationship), but rather “to show the effect of a moody person’s moods upon their life . . .” (pg. 110 The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott). I intend to revisit this letter in another post.

So what’s the point here? I felt it necessary to go over a very brief history of Moods because I am reading both versions. I was lucky enough to find a free copy in Google Books of the 1864 version, and Barnes and Nobles’ Nook has the 1882 version (yes, I have crossed over into eBooks since acquiring the iTouch, but that’s yet another whole post. :-)) I intend to compare, contrast both versions, and express my final preference.

Here is a brief summary of the plot of Moods, showing the differences between the two versions, as described on the website, Fantastic Fiction:

“Like her later works for children, Alcott’s first novel is well and imaginatively written, highly moralistic, unlikely, and moving.” –The Antioch Review Moods, Louisa May Alcott’s first novel, was published in 1864, four years before the best-selling Little Women. The novel unconventionally presents a “little woman,” a true-hearted abolitionist spinster, and a fallen Cuban beauty, their lives intersecting in Alcott’s first major depiction of the “woman problem.” Sylvia Yule, the heroine of Moods, is a passionate tomboy who yearns for adventure. The novel opens as she embarks on a river camping trip with her brother and his two friends, both of whom fall in love with her. These rival suitors, close friends, are modeled on Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Aroused, but still “moody” and inexperienced, Sylvia marries the wrong man. In the rest of the novel, Alcott attempts to resolve the dilemma she has created and leaves her readers asking whether, in fact, there is a place for a woman such as Sylvia in a man’s world. In 1882, eighteen years after the original publication, Alcott revised and republished the novel. Her own literary success and the changes she helped forge in women’s lives now allowed her heroine to meet, as Alcott said, “a wiser if less romantic fate than in the former edition.”

I have since read 2 chapters of each version and found interesting differences already. The 1864 version opens with a subplot that was dropped from the 1882 version in which Adam Warwick is “taking a break” (to use a modern phrase) from a Cuban lover who he feels has deceived him. The second chapter (which is the first in the 1882 version) then goes on to describe Sylvia. Already in this chapter, I see slight changes, such as her brother Mark being referred to as Max in the new version. She also changes the way Geoffrey Moor first perceives Sylvia as she is out gardening – the original version makes it out like Sylvia is a lad, but the 1882 version states that he sees a “girl.”

Right away I felt like Louisa was trying to soften Sylvia by calling her a girl rather than a lad. I rather liked the idea that Moor mistook her for a young boy as she worked in the garden. To me it added to her charm.

Now in the next chapter of the first version, called “Afloat,” I am reading a most delightful description of Sylvia’s time in the boat with Moor, Warwick and her brother. Being a kayaker myself, I found Louisa’s descriptions of floating in the boat to be so much like my own. I loved Louisa’s descriptions of the other boaters, the houses and people on the shoreline, and Sylvia’s own happiness. I felt like I was Sylvia because I have felt all those things too. Louisa must have loved the water very much, as I do.

It’s confusing flipping back and forth between the two books and I see that in the second version, Louisa devotes chapters to Moor and Warwick, so I will have to go back and read those before I post next time.

So far I am preferring the 1864 version but I imagine that could soon change.

I know some of you have read Moods already, what are your thoughts about Louisa’s “first born?” Which version did you read?

Note: Thanks to Harriet Reisen for sending me the original book cover of Moods.

Moods, chapter 1- Sylvia

I loved this description of the main character, Sylvia. Knowing how autobiographical Louisa’s books were makes it even more more interesting. I wish I knew where reality ends and fiction begins. Here’s how she describes Sylvia:

The book, of course, is meant to focus on how one’s moods can affect one’s life and I remember how moody I used to be. Fortunately, things have calmed down quite a bit since I’ve gotten older!

I also thought it was interesting how Sylvia thought about men and how the average man didn’t seem at all interested in a woman’s inner life. In fact, it all seemed like a game. I remember that chapter in Little Women, “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair” and all the games she and her friend played to attract men at the party and how Meg eventually found that all to be wanting.

I would have found it very difficult to be a 19th century woman!

p.s. Louisa was so transparent in the way she wrote about people. Obviously it didn’t embarrass her that Emerson or Thoreau might recognize themselves in print!

Started reading “Moods”

Louisa May Alcott's first novelJust finished the first chapter, love it, will write more later . . .

Where did Louisa May Alcott’s sexual energy go? And what fueled it?

By The Bostonian - Maria S. Porter. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. The Bostonian v.3, no.4, Jan. 1896, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12518106

By The Bostonian – Maria S. Porter. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. The Bostonian v.3, no.4, Jan. 1896, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12518106

Julian Hawthorne once speculated about Louisa May Alcott: “Did she ever have a love affair? We never knew; yet how could such a nature so imaginative, romantic, and passionate escape it?”

Choosing the life of a spinster

Louisa made the conscious decision to remain single, preferring to “paddle my own canoe.” Much has been made of her parents’ marriage, at times tumultuous, and how her mother was so burdened with her father’s inability to earn a living (a topic for another day). It was just that burden that Louisa assumed early as evidenced in her first journal writings which coincidentally concurred with the darkest years of Abba and Bronson’s marriage. She became the man of the house. Continue reading

Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by the Message (Literary Portals to Prayer)

introduction graphic

Introducing

Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message

part of the Literary Portals to Prayer Series

Compiled and introduced by Susan Bailey;
published by ACTA Publications.

MEDIA KIT

“Susan Bailey’s new book is part of a series called Literary Portals to Prayer, which is meant to encourage a kind of literary lectio divina, a form of contemplative reading that is a pathway to prayer.
An intriguing idea for a book, no? And there’s no better person to write it than Susan Bailey.” Lori Erickson, The Holy Rover on Patheos

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Available in large print and regular editions

from the introduction:

“Throughout my life I have been edified and comforted by Louisa May Alcott’s brand of personal spirituality; it gives me great pleasure now to share these passages with you. Much has been written about Alcott as a writer, feminist, and reformer; I am hoping this little volume will highlight another equally important part of Alcott’s life and writing that is dearly loved by children and adults from around the world. Spiritual truth is timeless, and a hunger for God has been placed deep within us. May these passages and their accompanying verses from The Message by Eugene Peterson stimulate your heart and mind, turning you ever closer toward your own Heavenly Parent, no matter how you imagine or describe that divine reality.”

A new way in … The first truly new resource for personal prayer in years.

Literary Portals to Prayer presents a simple concept–passages from the beloved classics of Louisa May Alcott, Hans Christian Andersen, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Herman Melville  and William Shakespeare coupled with verses from a fresh, contemporary translation of the Bible as found in The Message. The result? A truly new way to experience God inside of us and all around us.

Susan Bailey’s passion for and expertise on the life and works of Louisa May Alcott made her the ideal person to compile this Literary Portal to Prayer. Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message will enrich your faith while revealing a deeply spiritual side of the beloved author.

Published by ACTA Publications – Click to order.

The Literary Portals to Prayer series has found the perfect guide through the work of Louisa May Alcott.  Susan Bailey has compiled a remarkable edition of  side by side texts from the beloved author of Little Women and corresponding passages from the Bible (source: The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language by Eugene H. Peterson) in Illuminated By the Message. Through her selections, Ms. Bailey demonstrates a deep understanding of the life, world, and spirituality of  Alcott (so amply also provided in her blog, Louisa May Alcott Is My Passion).  As part of a famous feminist and transcendentalist family, who counted Thoreau and Emerson among her mentors, Louisa May Alcott was not a church-goer. But she had a deep and abiding relationship with her “Divine Friend” and how life should be lived in a meaningful and light-bearing way.  Her expressions of gratitude, joy in nature, and perseverance through tribulations are matched with selections from Psalms, the gospels, and Pauline letters. Though my preference would have been for a biblical translation closer to the more poetic Oxford version, the matches are spot on and insightful. American manifestations of the divine take many glorious forms. Let Louisa and her wonderful 21st century friend guide you through hers.

Eileen Charbonneau, award-winning author of 9 published novels.

Fifty passages compiled from beloved books and Louisa’s personal journal entries:

  • Moods (second revision, 1882)
  • Hospital Sketches (1863)
  • Little Women (1868)
  • Little Men (1871)
  • Rose in Bloom (1876)
  • Work A Story of Experience (1873)
  • Transcendental Wild Oats
  • Louisa May Alcott, Her Life, Letters and Journals (1889),
    edited by Ednah Dow Cheney
  • Shawl Straps (from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, Vol. 2, 1878)
  • Lulu’s Library – The Candy Country (1885)

The design of this book is elegant and simple:

  • a passage by Louisa May Alcott on the left hand page …
  • followed by Bible verses on the right hand page, taken from The Message, a fresh and contemporary translation of the ancient text.

The purpose:

  • to stimulate your spiritual imagination, thus leading you into prayer and meditation

However you practice your faith: as part of a particular denomination or, like Louisa May Alcott, finding God all around you, Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message will enrich your spiritual life while introducing you to many of Louisa’s wonderful books.

Considering ordering several copies for your church’s prayer group or book club! Contact ACTA Publications for details.

Susan Bailey, author of River of Grace FOR WEBAvailable to speak:

As a reader of this blog, you know that I am passionate about Louisa May Alcott and have much I would love to share with you in person. I am eager to speak before other passionate friends of Alcott’s life and work, and to conduct book signings.

Please contact me at louisamayalcottismypassion@gmail.com for details.

Check out my Media Kit for details.

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