Finishing up Eight Cousins: Your own worst enemy

Having finally finished Eight Cousins, it amuses me that an overarching theme of this book is that women can be their own worst enemy.

Who comes out well …

eight cousins under the mistletoe rose and uncle alecFor Rose, Uncle Alec is the hero and the boys are her true friends. Anyone who knows anything about Louisa May Alcott knows her penchant for boys (and how she longed to be one herself) so it’s no surprise that the male characters come out smelling sweet.

… and who doesn’t

The female characters do not do as well. Had the aunties had their way, Rose would have been a weak, neurotic, totally trussed-up caricature of a woman, lacking intellectual curiosity (let alone ability), unable to move even a step forward without great effort, either physically or emotionally.

eight cousins annabel bliss and rose chapter 15

And what of female friendship? Louisa’s offering was Annabel Bliss: a shallow, frivolous gossip with a slavish attachment to fashion.

There are always exceptions

eight cousins rose and phebeNow granted, we do have Aunt Peace, Aunt Plenty and Aunt Jessie, the only grown women who show character. They are quiet and unassuming, generous in their love of Rose. But even Aunt Peace and Aunt Plenty misread what Rose needed by introducing her to Annabel.

There is Phebe the maid whose sharp mind and desire to better herself make her and Rose fast friends. And Rose is eager to pass down to Phebe everything she has learned, not from her aunts, but from her uncle.

Rose and Phebe are the only female characters to come out looking good. And it’s mainly because of the influence of Uncle Alec.

Nobody’s perfect

eight cousins the clanThe boys have their faults to be sure. The older ones smoke and the younger ones read trashy books. They are impulsive, boisterous and willful. They tease Rose and pull pranks on her. Charlie (aka the Prince) has a falling out with Archie because he wants to follow a fast crowd of boys; all Archie can do is preach at him. At one point Mac’s thoughtlessness caused Rose to wait in vain for him in the bitter cold and become quite ill as a result.

Faults? Yes. But these characters redeem themselves over and over again because of their buoyant spirits, generous love and their desire to better themselves, often due to Rose’s influence. They are alive, they move, they grow.

The real sin

"Rose and her Aunts", frontispiece illustration to the first edition, Roberts Bros, Boston, 1875 (Wikipedia)

“Rose and her Aunts”, frontispiece illustration to the first edition, Roberts Bros, Boston, 1875 (Wikipedia)

Most of the women, however, are stagnant. There is little to no growth for any of them with the exception of Rose and Phebe. Some not only don’t wish to grow but they want to deny that growth for Rose. They are small-minded, horrified that Alec would teach Rose about her body, deny her the wearing of corsets, allow her to run about outdoors, or wear comfortable clothes that would actually serve a function.

Quite a damning portrait of women. Louisa knew her foes well. Women would never achieve true autonomy on their own. A male element was necessary, whether it be physical, such as Uncle Alec, or simply in the way of thinking.  Since Louisa always thought like a man, it was natural to her that women should be free to be everything they were meant to be. She had little patience for the Aunt Janes and Myras of this world.

Meant for children …

the eight cousinsNow granted, Eight Cousins is a children’s book and the characters are drawn in broad strokes of black and white. In fact, there’s nothing much in this book that is subtle but children are not interested in subtly. Children over the years have loved the warm and fun relationships between Rose and the clan. I certainly enjoyed the special relationship Rose had with Mac, seeing him through his ordeal with his impaired eyesight. There’s tenderness and respect in the relationships between Rose and her cousins.

Knowing Louisa as I do, however, I cannot help reading between the lines and seeing what lurks beneath. Eight Cousins is a stinging indictment of 19th century women. It is also a celebration of enlightened men, many of whom Louisa had the privilege of growing up with.

… yet something for adults too

So times I regret that I never read these books as a child. I would love to read them not knowing what I know about Louisa or as a 50-something woman in the 21st century. I do, however, find comfort in these books as I’m sure many children have over the years. Louisa serves up great comfort food for the soul.

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Eight Cousins and Little Men: The art of domesticity

I am finally getting around to finishing Eight Cousins. I admit this book has not held my interest like I hoped it would but now that I’m getting closer to the end, I’m enjoying it more. Perhaps I know too much back story (such as the fact that Louisa didn’t really enjoy writing this type of book). Perhaps I needed to read it when I was a kid. The book has a “formula” feel about it but it has its charming moments.

One of those moments occurred in the reading of Chapter 16, “Bread and Buttonholes.”

Giving value to domesticity

As much as Louisa held to feminist ideals, she never dismissed the importance of the family, the home and its care. In this chapter (as she also did in Little Men, Chapter 4, “Patty Pans”), she raises domesticity to a higher level.

A surprising choice . . .

eight cousins bread and buttonholesAs Chapter 16 opens, Rose approaches Uncle Alec with regards to finding a trade to learn. She has no special talent in the arts so she is seeking guidance as to what to learn. When Uncle Alec recommends “housekeeping,” Rose is surprised, asking “Is that an accomplishment?” I appreciated Uncle Alec’s response:

 “Yes; it is one of the most beautiful as well as useful of all the arts a woman can learn. Not so romantic, perhaps, as singing, painting, writing, or teaching, even; but one that makes many happy and comfortable, and home the sweetest place in the world. Yes, you may open your big eyes; but it is a fact that I had rather see you a good housekeeper than the greatest belle in the city. It need not interfere with any talent you may possess, but it is a necessary part of your training, and I hope that you will set about it at once, now that you are well and strong.”

. . . and an unexpected teacher

When Uncle Alec announces that Aunt Plenty will be her teacher, Rose offers the common perception of housewives:

“Is she accomplished?” began Rose in a wondering tone, for this great-aunt of hers had seemed the least cultivated of them all.

It is here that Louisa, ironically through Uncle Alec, lifts domesticity to a higher plane:

“In the good old-fashioned way she is very accomplished, and has made this house a happy home to us all, ever since we can remember. She is not elegant, but genuinely good, and so beloved and respected that there will be universal mourning for her when her place is empty. No one can fill it, for the solid, homely virtues of the dear soul have gone out of fashion, as I say, and nothing new can be half so satisfactory, to me at least.”

Rose’s achievement

Rose goes on to learn how to cook from Aunt Plenty with her crowning achievement being a perfect loaf of homemade bread for her uncle, made with great care and presented with love.

Appreciating the art of domesticity

chapter 16Having no natural talent in all things domestic, I envy those who have that talent. Matters of the home are often dismissed today (as it was beginning to be back in Louisa’s time) as lowly, commonplace, even demeaning: definitely not a worthy pursuit for today’s liberated woman.

Louisa, however, brings out the intrinsic value of housekeeping, that of creating a welcoming environment where all family members feel loved and cared for. She equates good housekeeping with love.

Family example

I only began to understand that very recently with my sister-in-law. Cynthia is an accomplished gourmet cook (in the school of Julia Child, her idle; she has a recipe card with Julia’s autograph, framed on her stove) and is also talented in knitting and crocheting. She always creates a theme for the meal, complete with music, and at a birthday get-together back in March we were treated to an authentic French dinner. After stuffing ourselves with nine pounds of mussels smothered in butter and crème sauce and other goodies, we sat back, allowing the inevitable food coma to engulf us. I leaned back in my chair, too sleepy to talk, and began to observe, for the first time, how much love Cynthia put into the preparations and presentation. When dessert of delicious chocolate-coffee mousse was served, she declined eating hers, declaring that she’d rather watch everyone else enjoy theirs. It was at that moment that I had my epiphany, understanding my sister-in-law for the first time. She lavished her love generously through her cooking. In that moment, domesticity became art to me.

Eight Cousins shows this too. Rose is proud of her loaf, made with such love for her dear uncle after much trial and error. Uncle Alec receives the loaf with true appreciation of the care that went into its making.

Make homemaking fun

little men patty pansIn Little Men, Louisa shows a different side to domesticity, making it fun for the one little girl at Plumfield. Daisy was feeling left out because the boys would not allow her to join in their football game even though she and Demi would play on occasion. She begged Aunty Jo for a new game (or “play,” as she called it) and Jo, inspired by Daisy’s interest in making gingersnaps with Asia, the cook, outfitted her with a complete toy kitchen!

Playing cook

kenner easy-bake ovenReading the description of the child-sized stove and dishes, I thought back wistfully to the fun so many girls my age had with the Kenner Easy-Bake Oven. What a thrill it was to bake our own cupcakes, tiny as they were, in our own ovens. And then there were the Girl Scout cooking badges you could earn by learning how to prepare meals for your family. Never being good at cooking, I didn’t learn much but it was a lot of fun.

A balance of ideas

Eight Cousins in particular offers many different ideas about raising a girl to be a good woman that were considered peculiar or even radical in Louisa’s day. Rose, after all, was taught never to wear a corset as it was better for her health, was encouraged to run, jump and be active outdoors, and was shown how her body worked as seen in Chapters 18 and 19, “Fashion and Physiology” and “Brother Bones.” Her great aunts often grumbled about Uncle Alec’s strange ideas of raising a girl.

Yet Louisa, career woman and spinster, never turned her back on the value of the family and home life. Kitchen duty may not have been her favorite thing to do, but she understood how all the pieces of domesticity worked together for the whole – a happy, well-loved and well cared-for family. In later years she would welcome her sister’s child, Lulu, into her home as her own.

Louisa presented a balanced view of a woman’s life, understanding that the many pieces could work together in harmony so long as the men in her life allowed it. Uncle Alec was one of those men.

P.S. I have just started Little Men and will write more about it over the coming weeks and months. I realize that the posts I do about Louisa’s books don’t always come in a consistent manner. I have however, gathered up and organized all the posts I’ve done so far on the books covered in this blog so that you can find them. Visit the menu at the top of the page, select “Her Writing,” and from the drop-down menu, choose the book you’re interested in to see all the posts.

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Eight Cousins: the value of fatherhood

Illustration by Robert Doremus (1955)

Greetings to the Poet’s Corner Virtual Book Club: Eight Cousins

Eight Cousins (or The Aunt-Hill) introduces us to a new kind of heroine from Louisa May Alcott. Rose, blond and blue-eyed, comes from wealth. In past stories, it’s been the wealthy girls who have proven to be the antagonists (Sallie Moffat from Little Women, Fanny Shaw from An Old-Fashioned Girl); now that Louisa herself is wealthy, she is perhaps more comfortable in having her main character enjoy the same.

Was Rose based upon a real person?

It’s been suggested by Clara Gowing (The Alcotts as I Knew Them) and Katharine Anthony (Louisa May Alcott) that Rose was based on May.  Certainly in appearance this is so, but the character is nothing like the spoiled and headstrong Amy. Rose is meek, timid and decidedly sad being without a mother for some time and having recently lost her dear father.

Illustration by Robert Doremus (1955)

Setting

The story begins with Rose living in the mansion with her 6 aunts after coming back from boarding school. Her father has been dead for a year and Rose is in the throes of grief.

The Aunt-Hill

Henry James criticizes Eight Cousins for its “smart, satirical tone” and you can immediately see this in both the title (Aunt-Hill) and the plethora of aunts in this story. It’s almost allegorical in nature with each aunt representing, as Charles Strickland puts it, “the failing of American mothers” (Victorian Domesticity, p. 126).

“Rose and her Aunts”, frontispiece illustration to the first edition, Roberts Bros, Boston, 1875 (Wikipedia)

We have:

  • Aunt Jane, severe to a fault
  • Aunt Myra, morbidly sentimental, convinced that Rose is dying of some mysterious malady and dosing her with medicines
  • Aunt Plenty, bustling, generous and old-fashioned, she resembles Martha of the Martha and Mary story from the Bible
  • Aunt Peace (representing Mary from the same story), a loving and tragic character whose husband-to-be died hours before the wedding years ago
  • Aunt Clara, the quintessential “fashionable mother” whose only aspiration for Rose is that she attend finishing school
  • Aunt Jessie, the common-sense Aunt but definitely outgunned

Rescue from Aunt-Hill

Enter 40 year-old Uncle Alec, Rose’s legal guardian, who immediately recognizes the plight of his ward in the midst of the Aunt-Hill and swoops down to rescue her.

Bronson Alcott Pratt portraying Mr. March in 1932 in Concord’s production of Little Women.

Louisa is pointedly affirming the need for and value of men in the raising of their daughters. She has, of course, already made the case for mothers in Little Women with Marmee. What’s interesting is that I’ve yet to read a book where both father and mother have an equal hand in child-rearing (although I haven’t read her entire library yet). Mr. March is nearly invisible in Little Women although Louisa makes a case for his quiet ruling presence:

“To outsiders the five energetic women seemed to rule the house, and so they did in many things, but the quiet scholar, sitting among his books, was still the head of the family, the household conscience, anchor, and comforter, for to him the busy, anxious women always turned in troublous times, finding him, in the truest sense of those sacred words, husband and father.” (from chapter 24) (photo from http://www.concordma.com/magazine/maraprmay02/littlewomenshow.html)

Strong father figure

Uncle Alec, however, intends to be front and center in Rose’s life, making sweeping changes in her diet (taking away her precious coffee as a start, ouch!) and routine. He is convinced that the influence of the Aunt-Hill has created a near invalid in Rose and he seeks to change her into a vibrant, healthy young woman.

Timely story

As always, Louisa’s stories transcend time. Certainly the value of fatherhood needs to be preached as more and more women are raising their children alone. It’s often been suggested that women end up marrying a prototype of their father – how vital then that the father provide the right role model!

I’m up to chapter 4 in Eight Cousins, how about you? What do you think of the story so far? What do you think of Rose?  Can you imagine having to live with 6 aunts? Goodness! How about her 7 boisterous male cousins who seem to overwhelm her?


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