Controversy wrapped in sentiment: Louisa May Alcott’s genius

(Disclaimer: Admittedly I’ve only just started pouring over Louisa’s works, and I haven’t yet ventured into her “blood and thunder” tales, so my comments here are limited to the later stage of her writing which proved to be the most successful).

Louisa’s genius

I’ve often said that Louisa May Alcott’s genius was twofold. She crafted stories of realism, sometimes poignant, often humorous, always entertaining. They were filled with very human characters who seemed as familiar as our neighbors.

And ever pragmatic, she also was willing to learn and adapt herself to new genres, mastering several.

Louisa may have lamented the fact that she wasn’t recognized in her time as a “serious” writer but she was a voice of her era with a modern twist, thus making it a voice that resonates today. In the words of the late Madeleine Stern, considered the preeminent Alcott scholar, Louisa was the consummate professional.

Pioneer as a professional

It’s ironic considering that Louisa had no formal training and did not go to public school or university. She was never mentored by a more experienced writer but instead was totally self-taught. There were precious few role models. In a time when there were virtually no women “professionals,” Louisa learned how to be one.

She was a pioneer, and that to me is genius.

Other layers to genius

Now I’m beginning to believe there is another layer to this genius. Louisa had a rare ability to take controversial ideas and wrap them up sweetly in children’s stories. It’s rather like the pill you have to feed to your dog – you wrap it up in something he loves like a piece of cheese, and he downs the pill without incident (unless your dog is too smart for his own good!). He doesn’t even realize he’s downed the dreaded pill and his ailment is taken care of.

In the same way, Louisa “wrapped” issues concerning the autonomy of women, the state of the family, and the care of children in sentimental tales like An Old-Fashioned Girl.

Victorian Domesticity

Charles Strickland’s book, Victorian Domesticity: Families in the Life and Art of Louisa May Alcott, points out many of the ways Louisa inserted these topics into this story.

Work versus Fashion

Polly was a woman with purpose.

He refers first to Chapter 13 which I thought was a particularly compelling chapter. Here Polly introduces Fanny to her circle of friends, a “sisterhood” of working women. Following the life of fashion, Fanny has been feeling empty and depressed, her life lacking purpose. Although held in esteem by society, Fanny is bored and miserable while the “lowly” working girls are happy. Polly exhorts Fanny to search herself and find what she can do well so she can give of herself to others:

“If ever a girl needed work, it’s you!” cried Polly. “You began to be a young lady so early, that you are tired of everything at twenty-two. I wish you’d go at something, then you’d find how much talent and energy you really had.”

A Sisterhood

Polly then proceeds to show Fanny what she means through the lives of her working friends (Miss Mills (the landlady), Becky (an artist), Bess, Rebecca, Kate (an author)).  Fanny not only experiences their happiness through sense of purpose, but she notes the authenticity of their friendships which were based on the real rather than the perceived.

Strickland describes what I alluded to in the last post concerning Polly’s life as a working girl, affirming my theory:

“This episode is remarkable . . ., that such radical feminism found expression in one of Alcott’s juvenile books, going beyond, in fact, the sentiments expressed in her literary fiction [such as Work: A Story of Experience, Louisa’s other significant adult novel] . . .” (pages 87-88, Victorian Domesticity)

Polly’s Temptation

Chapter 15 suggests that Polly was tempted, for a moment, into a life of fashion when (Arthur) Sydney (aka “Syd”) showed an interest in her. Syd was the apple of Fanny’s eye but he was attracted to Polly. Although an upright and fine young man, perfect for marriage, Polly turned him away because she knew she didn’t love him and feared tiring of him. Syd was well-off and would have presented Polly with a life of ease and security (i.e. beginning her own family of fashion), but she resisted the temptation, remaining true to herself. She retained her autonomy.

Indicting the Family of Fashion

The Shaws were a family of fashion.

Polly had experienced the family of fashion in the Shaws and found that life empty and wanting with its endless parties, love of money, concern over appearance and distinction of classes. It was an shallow life that robbed the Shaws of meaningful relationships with each other and those outside their family.

She preferred her own old-fashioned family – although poor, there was a deep sense of warmth and caring, along with a the need for work which provided purpose. Louisa’s sweeping indictment of families of fashion is summed up by Strickland in this way:

“The world inhabited by families of fashion is one devoid of warmth, justice, or charity, and it corrupts all whom it touches – men and women, rich and poor, old and young.” (page 92)

How the Family of Fashion affected women (and children)

Strickland maps out how Louisa used the first half of An Old-Fashioned Girl to lay out her case against the family of fashion, culminating in a stinging indictment most especially of Mrs. Shaw:

Women of fashion, and a woman of purpose

” ‘a pale, nervous woman,’ [from An Old-Fashioned Girl] who has made herself into an invalid at the age of forty. Having nothing to do, she is much preoccupied with her imagined aliments, and presides over a household in which there is little affection between parents and children. She encourages Fanny to copy her fashionable follies and has not time for younger daughter Maud: ‘When Mrs. Shaw came home that day in her fine visiting costume, and Maud ran to welcome her with unusual affection, she gathered up her lustrous silk and pushed the little girl away, saying, impatiently, ‘Don’t touch me, child, your hands are dirty.’ ‘[from An Old-Fashioned Girl] ” (pages 99-100, Victorian Domesticity)

The high price of fashion

I had noticed too how Fanny had begun to develop these “aliments” and I could see why so many women became invalids during the Victorian era. One cannot deny their authentic self forever and not feel the affects; the body has a way of acting out what the mind and heart will not admit. Thoreau certainly understood that.

Plenty of meat

I had read most of An Old-Fashioned Girl before I came upon Strickland’s book and was pleased to see so many of my thoughts verified. He analyzes other Alcott books such as Work, Moods, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom and Jack and Jill. I had had my doubts as to whether I would find any meat in Louisa’s juvenile works.

Obviously I have a lot to learn! And a lot more reading yet to do.

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A continuing discussion on An Old-Fashioned Girl

Cover design by Kathryn Delaney, Painting by Edmund Blair Leighton, The Pink Bonnet

Better late than never, I finally finished An Old-Fashioned Girl! And I have lots to say about it through several posts in the next few days.

I have already written a few posts about this book which you can find here.

I have to admit that the book lost me somewhere in the middle, before the story transitioned into Polly’s adult life. What brought me back in was a combination of listening to chapters at work (thanks to Librivox), and the discovery of Victorian Domesticity – Families in the Life and Art of Louisa May Alcott by Charles Strickland at the Concord Free Public Library. This book was a godsend, filling in all those historical gaps which helped me to understand the context of this book, and all of Louisa May Alcott’s writing (I will be writing more about this book when I finish it).

In Chapter 7, Polly ends her long visit with the Shaw family and heads on back home. Louisa then moves the timeline up in chapters 8 and 9 by 6 years so that 14 year-old Polly is now 20 and a working girl. We find Fanny as a 22 year-old lady of fashion, somewhat dissatisfied with her life. Tom is off at college, and Maud has turned 12.

Here’s where the story got interesting. It was not hard to read between the lines and see what Louisa’s core beliefs were about women, men, and families both wealthy and poor. And Strickland’s book offered great background into life in 19th-century America.

From the 19th Century American Woman blog – click on picture to visit

Chapter 9 opens describing Polly’s life as a working girl, teaching music to individual students. Her days are long, and her life is lonely. The “friends” she made through Fanny shun her because she works. Poor Polly even believes that Tom has snubbed her although that was because of Trix, Tom’s fiance (and a classic portrait of the lady of fashion that Louisa so disapproves of – more about that in later posts).

Reading this chapter reminded me of the first time I saw a classic Joan Crawford movie, “Mildred Pierce,” made in the 1945. In the movie, Mildred has been dumped by her husband and must go out to work. She has a talent for cooking and eventually gets so good at it that she opens her own restaurant. By midway through the movie she is somewhat of a restaurant tycoon, owning a small chain. By today’s standards, she is a smashing success and worthy of praise.

But in the movie, she is treated as a second-class citizen by all who know her, most especially her incredibly spoiled and bratty daughter, Veda who believes her mother to be “common.” (There is much more to this movie and I highly recommend it – great film noir).

I was surprised at the parallels between Polly’s experiences in the 1870s and Mildred’s in the 1940s, telling me that not a lot had changed. It’s really over the last 50 years that women have begun to be regarded favorably because they work (that’s my generation!).

While the baby boomer generation has come under a lot of criticism of late (much of it justified), we did achieve much greater autonomy for women. My daughter’s generation is the first to truly benefit. Yet, they don’t know the history and the struggle that women have gone through to achieve these ends, and they take their new-found freedom for granted, even squandering it!

How ironic. And it’s ironic too that Louisa probably would not be pleased at the ways of society today. As women have been navigating that oh-so-tricky road of trying to “have it all,” the family has suffered. There is confusion for women and for men regarding their roles, and much still needs to be worked out.

Louisa, however, thought the nuclear family sacred. This belief runs through all of her juvenile writing as seen in Little Women and in An Old-Fashioned Girl.

She also, however, believed that women needed to find purpose in their lives, rather than live the life of fashion (as Fanny was doing, and she was increasingly unhappy with her rudderless life). Polly found that purpose in her work, and also, in her desire to do all she could to help the Shaw family discover what they were missing in their family – appreciation and love for each other. It was the perfect balance of Louisa’s beliefs –  work is good in providing purpose and meaning, and tending to the family with complete devotion also brings purpose and meaning.

According to Strickland in Victorian Domesticity, An Old-Fashioned Girl had some pretty radical ideas about women, albeit gently presented. It amazes me how Louisa’s juvenile works were so widely read and loved and makes me wonder if the public actually read between the lines. Yet I imagine the message got through in a subliminal fashion, which was her intention. And she called this moral pap! Louisa was pretty darn clever.

More to come . . .


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Was the “Old-Fashioned Girl” actually modern?

It’s interesting how the supposedly old-fashioned Polly is actually more modern than the sophisticated Fanny. That’s if you think in 21st century terms.

In the Shaw household, the acquisition of wealth and keeping up with fashion are both considered “sophisticated” and desirable, whereas purposefulness and little kindnesses are considered “old-fashioned.” Yet, as Louisa May Alcott points out in An Old-Fashioned Girl, these old-fashioned qualities are more consistent with a woman who knows who she is and how she should fit in the world.

A life of purpose

Louisa, of course, was very purposeful, perhaps to a fault. She was fortunate in knowing what she was meant to do at a very early age, and her unusual upbringing actually nurtured that vocation. She certainly was a woman ahead of her time.

It’s obvious that she disapproves of the idle and shallow lives she believes privileged (aka “kept”) women of her time are leading. Each time she writes of the privileged few who grow up with all the pretty things they could ever want, there is a decided air of disapproval hovering over them. This was true in “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair”, chapter 9  Little Women, where Meg learns that having many pretty things and being “dolled up” were not all they were cracked up to be.

This disapproval is also apparent also  in An Old-Fashioned Girl where Louisa describes a family (the Shaws) that is so wrapped up in material things that they forget how to be loving to each other. As a result, the family members are unhappy with themselves and each other, and have no clue as to why.

A self-absorbed family

In An Old-Fashioned Girl, Louisa describes a group of people who are self-absorbed, and each member acts out their self-absorption in various ways:

  • Mr. Shaw is so consumed with making money that he barely knows his children. He particularly ignores his son, Tom.
  • Tom, ignored by his father, creates constant mischief as it is the only way he can get any attention. Of course the attention is negative, only reinforcing Tom’s actions.
  • Little Maud is spoiled, whining and complaining about every little thing, taking to screaming when she doesn’t get her own way. As a result, she is a real irritant to the rest of the family.
  • Fanny is only interested in becoming sophisticated and leaving girlhood behind as quickly as she can. Her purpose is shallow and her days spent in idleness. From what I’ve read so far, her goal in life is to marry someone like her father who can continue to provide her with the privileged life she is accustomed to, and feels entitled to.

Polly’s presence and “old-fashioned” ways challenge this family. Louisa takes chapter 4, called “Little Things” to lay out her case.

A breath of fresh air

What does Polly do that is so different? She is not consumed with herself but reaches out to others. And this gives her purpose. In the course of the chapter she:

  • Plays with Maud who is bored (and acting out as a result); Polly ends up teaching her how to sew. This draws Fanny into the act as well even though she declares with a superior air that she hasn’t played with a doll for “ever so long.”
  • This act impresses Fanny who admits that life is pretty dull without Polly who seems to be busy all the time.
  • Seeing his daughters busy with purpose, Mr. Shaw is drawn out of himself, commenting that “Polly has been making sunshine for you to-day.”
  • Polly ends up reaching out to Mr. Shaw by showing affection. She walked with him on the way to his office, and at evening, would wait for him and have his slippers out. These little acts of kindness were not submissive acts, but acts of affection that succeeded in drawing Mr. Shaw out of his shell. As a result,
  • Mr. Shaw begins to pay attention to Tom and notices when he has done good work with his oratory homework. In turn,
  • Tom behaves better and thinks better of himself.

From the mundane to the sublime

This is one of the things that I love so much about Louisa May Alcott. She takes the mundane things of life (such as little kindnesses) and elevates them to the sublime. These kindnesses are no longer mundane because they improve the lives of those touched by them. They are not submissive acts because they are done out of free will with the purpose of bettering the lives of others.

Purpose and kindness

Purposeful and kind acts are done by a free and independent girl named Polly. This sense of independent purpose is hardly “old-fashioned” – it’s modern and has only been realized by women at large in the last two or three generations.

Polly’s purpose and kindness will save her from being a “kept” woman, bored and frustrated, with no sense of thought or introspection and therefore, no clue as to how or why she would feel that way.

Again I see that subtle mix of feminism and spirituality from Louisa. It’s a powerful combination, written nearly 150 years ago, that inspires even now in the 21st century.


Reading Louisa May Alcott’s next-best book, “An Old-Fashioned Girl”

Summer is such a great time – life is finally slowing down and now I can get back to reading for fun. I’ve been dying to read An Old-Fashioned Girl since I found the 1926 Brown and Little copy that I so foolishly deposed of the first time. I found an audio version on Librivox.org so I started listening last Thursday.

Although I’ve been hesitant to read Louisa May Alcott’s juvenile books, An Old-Fashioned Girl reminded me of why I shouldn’t. Since she is writing for young girls, Louisa’s style is very straight forward and I like that. It’s very enjoyable (and relaxing) to hear/read something that doesn’t required tremendous amounts of thought but rather, stirs memories and engages you with concrete characters.

The summary of the story (from Wikipedia) is this:  Polly Milton, a 14-year-old country girl, visits her friend Fanny Shaw and her wealthy family in the city for the first time. Poor Polly is overwhelmed by the splendor at the Shaws’ and their urbanized, fashionable lifestyles, fancy clothes and some other habits she considers weird and, mostly, unlikable. However, Polly’s warmth, support and kindness eventually win her the hearts of all the family members. Six years later, Polly comes back to the city to become a music teacher.

Polly is a spirited girl and very likable from the get-go: ” . . . a fresh-faced little girl running down the long station, and looking as if she rather liked it . . . Up came the the little girl, with her hand out, and a half-shy, half-merry look in her blue eyes . . .”

Chapter One opens with Polly being met at the train station by Tom, also 14, described by his sister Fanny as “an awful boy . . . the horridest one I ever saw.” Of course, it’s not hard to imagine that Tom will figure in Polly’s life most prominently and I look forward to seeing how that unfolds.

I had two favorite parts of this chapter. Firstly, I enjoyed how Fanny’s grandmother took Polly under her wing. Madam Shaw perceives Polly’s purity and innocence saying, “You mustn’t mind my staring, dear,” said Madam, softly pinching her rosy cheek. “I haven’t seen a little girl for so long, it does my old eyes good to look at you.”

Polly doesn’t understand what Madam means until Madam explains that Fanny acts like a grown-up already at 14, and Maud, her little 6-year old sister, is a “spoiled brat.” Madam appreciates the intrinsic value of Polly’s “old-fashioned” manner of holding on to her childhood just a bit longer.

My other favorite part was the last two pages of the chapter – I particularly related to it and decided that Polly and I had a lot in common. At this  point in the story, Polly accompanies Fanny and her family to the theatre. Being a country girl, Polly has little experience with the theatre and it quite put off by what she perceives as very improper behavior by the actors and actresses in the play. Even though this play was the height of fashion (mirroring the French) Louisa writes, “Our little girl is was too innocent to understand half the jokes, and often wondered what people were laughing at . . .”

Louisa’s description of Polly’s discomfort (” . . . Polly did not think it at all funny, but looked disgusted . . . poor unfashionable Polly didn’t know what to do; for she felt both frightened and indignant, and sat with her eyes on her play-bill, and her cheeks getting hotter and hotter every minute.”) described how I felt when I saw “Bridesmaids,” a movie that came out this spring, with my sister and sister-in-law. “Bridesmaids” is one of those R-rated raunchy comedies and, like Polly, I squirmed through the whole thing, didn’t find it funny, and couldn’t wait to get out of there!  Guess I too am just plain old-fashioned. So it was nice to find a counterpart in literature even if she was 150 years before my time. 🙂

Looking forward to reading more of this book!