Wrapping up Little Men: Jo creates her own utopia

coverThe final chapter of Little Men, “Thanksgiving,” states the true nature of Plumfield in plain language. But the book, more a series of short stories under a common theme rather than a novel, already lays out the vision through the stories. Still, it is quite satisfying to hear Jo lay out her vision of a perfect world to her dearest friend Laurie. It is the one time in the book where we see them again as of old, devoted to each other as sister and brother with a tender filial love. It made me wish there had been more interaction between the original characters of Little Women but the little men were at the heart of the story.

Fruits of her labors

Frank Thayer Merrill illustration of Jo and Laurie from the 1880 version of Little Women from Roberts BrothersJo is able to show Laurie just how her vision works, pointing to “the happy group of lads and lassies dancing, singing, and chattering together with every sign of kindly good fellowship.” It is a prelude to a world where grown-up men and women will be equals, benefiting from the differences of each sex. She puts Laurie’s doubts to rest about mixing boys and girls together in school by demonstrating how they have influenced each other:

Womanly influences

little men patty pans“Daisy is the domestic element, and they all feel the charm of her quiet, womanly ways. Nan is the restless, energetic, strong-minded one; they admire her courage, and give her a fair chance to work out her will, seeing that she has sympathy as well as strength, and the power to do much in their small world. Your Bess is the lady, full of natural refinement, grace, and beauty. She polishes them unconsciously, and fills her place as any lovely woman may, using her gentle influence to lift and hold them above the coarse, rough things of life, and keep them gentlemen in the best sense of the fine old word.”

Gentlemen in the making

The boys have done their fair share as well:

littlemen03“Nat does much for Daisy with his music; Dan can manage Nan better than any of us; and Demi teaches your Goldilocks so easily and well that Fritz calls them Roger Ascham and Lady Jane Grey. Dear me! if men and women would only trust, understand, and help one another as my children do, what a capital place the world would be!” and Mrs. Jo’s eyes grew absent, as if she was looking at a new and charming state of society in which people lived as happily and innocently as her flock at Plumfield.”

Progress made?

What would Jo/Louisa think of men and women today?  Would she be pleased at the progress made over the last one hundred and fifty years? I believe she would say it was a good start but there was still much work to be done.

The power behind the vision

The guiding factor of Jo’s and Fritz’ success was love – unconditional and generous love. There were many trials for the boys in the story and at times it looked as if some might be lost. The love of the Bhaers saw these boys through their adversity with patience, kindness, forgiveness and wisdom. The sweet waif Nat grew in six short months into a confident boy able to hold his own and excel at his gift of music. Troubled Dan grew into manhood, learning to trust, finding his own niche in life, and making good use of his boundless energy. Jack was accepted back into the fold despite his sins aware of the work ahead needed for his redemption.

Pleasing to her father

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

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

Jo’s perfect world is simple, naïve and sweet and could easily be dismissed were it not for the endless power of love. It was all her father could hope for: “ ‘You are doing your best to help on the good time, my dear. Continue to believe in it, to work for it, and to prove its possibility by the success of her small experiment,’ said Mr. March, pausing as he passed to say an encouraging word, for the good man never lost his faith in humanity, and still hoped to see peace, good-will, and happiness reign upon the earth.”

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Owls, Owls, Owls! Meeting our feathered friends at the Fruitlands Museum

owl by may alcott0001

Screech Owl over Louisa’s fireplace

These are owls that the Alcott girls would have seen living at Fruitlands. The little screech owl is one May painted over Louisa’s fireplace and the Barn Owl is in her painting that hung in The Salon in Paris. Now you can see them live! Note how regal the Barn Owl is … rather like May I think. 🙂

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Be as One

I love birds and I love cats. So it makes sense that owls, with their cat-like eyes, should capture my heart. I had the thrill of seeing these beautiful creatures up close and personal at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, MA in a presentation by Marcia and Mark Wilson of Eyes on Owls.

Passion for owls

The Wilsons are unique in their ability to care for owls and to educate the public about them. Marcia comes by her interest honestly with a mother who worked with owls throughout her life and kept a Great Horned Owl in the family home. Mark is a professional photographer with credits including the covers of National Geographic plus twenty years of service to the Boston Globe.

Lifelong commitment

Both are passionate about birds to the point of housing some eighteen owls on their property. Some of these birds live over fifty years so…

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Thanksgiving memories from one of Abba Alcott’s best friends, and an interesting parallel with Little Men

Lydia_Maria_Child

Lydia Maria Child

One of Abigail Alcott’s best friends was author and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child. A successful children’s author in the mid 1800s, Child is best known for a poem about Thanksgiving, part of which is set to music:

Here is an image from her three volume book called Flowers for Children, of the first few stanzas:

lydia marie child thanksgiving 1844

You can read the entire poem here.

Didactic tales for children by Lydia Maria Child

juvenile miscellanyUndoubtedly the Alcott children had to have read Child’s works since the families were so friendly with each other. Flowers for Children, a collection of Child’s favorite stories and best known articles from her successful juvenile magazine, The Juvenile Miscellany, contain moralistic stories for children. Didactic tales for youngsters were the norm for the day and Louisa was influenced by them in her own writing for children.

Could this story have influenced Little Men?

christ child and the poor childrenIn reading the first story, “The Christ-Child and the Poor Children,” I was struck by the many similarities between this story and Little Men. “The Christ-Child and the Poor Children” is the story of a group of very poor and disadvantaged children, some of whom are turning to crime. Heinrich and his little sister Gertrude come from a dysfunctional family where the father is a mean drunk and the mother taken to fits of insanity. Wolfgang is the neighborhood bully. We encounter the Christ-Child at Christmastime when Heinrich and Gertrude receive a rare gift of money; they purchase apples, nuts and green boughs to create a Christmas tree. Gertrude offers thanks to the Christ-Child for providing the means. Unfortunately, Wolfgang spoils everything by stealing the apples and nuts from the children.

The gift of money had been provided by an older man who runs a home for orphans with his wife. Eventually the three children become a part of that home, working at trades to earn their keep and contributing to the family home. Heinrich and Gertrude’s parents eventually join them. Wolfgang struggles with trying to resist his formerly evil ways and falls from grace on numerous occasions, only to be forgiven and taken back by the community. Eventually he reforms his life.

Interesting parallels

littlemen03I’m sure already you can see the similarities between this story and Little Men. For me,

  • Heinrich reminded me of Nat. Both are sensitive boys.
  • Gertrude resembled Bess in appearance but reminded me more of Daisy because of her eternal optimism and innocence.
  • I instantly thought of both Dan and Jack when introduced to Wolfgang: Dan because of Wolfgang’s physical build and willfulness and Jack because of what he did (he stole Tommy’s money and let Dan lie about it to protect Nat) and because of his contrition.
  • “Father” and “Mother” in the story instantly brought to mind Professor Bhaer and Mrs. Jo. The god-like quality of “Father” made me think of Bronson. Plumfield was not unlike this home for orphans.
  • The camaraderie of the poor children smacked of all the boys at Plumfield along with Daisy and Nan.

Undoubtedly, stories like “The Christ-Child and the Poor Children” were a common part of the reading diet of the Alcott children. It just struck me as amusing that the very first story I pick up mirrors Little Men in so many ways.

Many of you are far more knowledgeable than I am about the
didactic literature of Louisa’s time, and the influences on and origins
of Little Men –
What other stories might have influenced Louisa May Alcott in her writing of juvenile tales (besides her own)?

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Little Men: “The Naughty Kitty-mouse:” Goodness Gracious!

 “Daisy and Demi were full of these whims, and lived in a world of their own, peopled with lovely or grotesque creatures, to whom they gave the queerest names, and with whom they played the queerest games. One of these nursery inventions was an invisible sprite called “The Naughty Kitty-mouse,” whom the children had believed in, feared, and served for a long time. They seldom spoke of it to any one else, kept their rites as private as possible; and, as they never tried to describe it even to themselves, this being had a vague mysterious charm very agreeable to Demi, who delighted in elves and goblins. A most whimsical and tyrannical imp was the Naughty Kitty-mouse, and Daisy found a fearful pleasure in its service, blindly obeying its most absurd demands, which were usually proclaimed from the lips of Demi, whose powers of invention were great. Rob and Teddy sometimes joined in these ceremonies, and considered them excellent fun, although they did not understand half that went on.”

Children’s rituals

Me and my clubhouse

Me and my clubhouse

This has to be the most bizarre game I have ever heard of! Children do love rituals and secret societies (and so do many adults). As a kid I stole the idea of a secret password for my clubhouse (actually a log cabin) from a favorite book, Henry and the Clubhouse by Beverly Cleary It began, “Fadada fadada fadada, beeboom baboom bah!” So I get it about rituals.

But my goodness, this was one sadistic game!

Enter Kitty-mouse

kitty-mouse with fireIn Chapter 8, “Pranks and Plays,” Demi solemnly proposes to the other children that Kitty-mouse is demanding a “sackerryfice” of something near and dear to each child. Each one would bring their favorite toy to the meeting, held secretly on the Plumfield grounds, to throw into a bonfire as a sacrifice.

A tough idea to swallow

I winced at the thought of Daisy sacrificing her precious paper dolls, hand painted by her Aunt Amy. This was no mere toy; it was a gift that was a labor of love. Yet she couldn’t even imagine denying Kitty-mouse anything he desired.

And yikes: Demi was going to sacrifice his boat, his best scrapbook and all his soldiers?

I have to admit, I really couldn’t understand what drove the children to do these things.

A peculiar power

SacrificeBull-lKitty-mouse (such an odd name as if to signify the master and the victim) allows Demi to lord over the other children with power he would not normally have. Having heard stories about the Greeks with their altars and sacrifices, he was intrigued and wanted to emulate them. Watching Daisy clutch her paper dollies especially the favorite blue one, before succumbing to the orders of Kitty-mouse, was a bit disturbing.

Blood and thunder

Louisa seemed to take a special delight in describing the demise of little Teddy’s favorite toys:

“The superb success of this last offering excited Teddy to such a degree, that he first threw his lamb into the conflagration, and before it had time even to roast, he planted poor Annabella on the funeral pyre. Of course she did not like it, and expressed her anguish and resentment in a way that terrified her infant destroyer. Being covered with kid, she did not blaze, but did what was worse, she squirmed. First one leg curled up, then the other, in a very awful and lifelike manner; next she flung her arms over her head as if in great agony; her head itself turned on her shoulders, her glass eyes fell out, and with one final writhe of her whole body, she sank down a blackened mass on the ruins of the town. This unexpected demonstration startled every one and frightened Teddy half out of his little wits. He looked, then screamed and fled toward the house, roaring “Marmar” at the top of his voice.”

ep.gho.intro.05It seems that her “blood and thunder” storytelling talents were on full display here. I remember reading somewhere that Louisa’s ghost stories were in great demand by her sisters and other children, especially baby sister baby sister Abby May, who although frightened out of her wits, knew they would make make her golden hair curl all the more.

Jo never forgets her childhood

When Jo found out about the sacrifices to Kitty-mouse, she found the whole affair quite amusing. It’s no wonder the children loved her so as she still possessed a child’s heart within her.

Ouch!

She then relayed a story from her childhood of putting pebbles in her nose after hearing a story about other children who had done it (this is an actual story from Louisa’s childhood). It was quite painful and required a visit from the doctor to extract the pebbles. Jo certainly understood where a child’s imagination combined with daring do could lead. It just makes her all the more endearing.

What did you think of Kitty-mouse and the children’s “sackerryfices?” What rituals and games did you play as a child and could they rival this one?

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Little Men: Autobiographical elements

Louisa May Alcott often drew from the deep well of memories to craft her stories. Little Men is full of such detail and it’s fun to pick out these autobiographical elements.

Highlighting her father

For example, Louisa gives us a revealing portrait of her father’s unique ideas about disciplining children in Chapter Four, “Stepping-Stones,” where the new boy, Nat is struggling with telling the truth. On one occasion when he was caught in a lie, Professor Bhaer punished him in a most unique way, using the exact technique Bronson Alcott used at the Temple School as documented in Elizabeth Peabody’s Record of a School.

Tables turned!

chp. 4 Bronson form of punishmentProfessor Bhaer had warned Nat, “See now, when you tell a lie, I will not punish you, but you shall punish me.” Nat was horrified at the prospect, seeing that he would have to strike the Professor on his hand with a long ruler. He began with feeble blows but Professor Bhaer urged him to strike with all his might. Nat complied and suffered great penitence as a result:

Nat took the rule, for when Mr. Bhaer spoke in that tone everyone obeyed him, and, looking as scared and guilty as if about to stab his master, he gave two feeble blows on the broad hand held out to him. Then he stopped and looked up half-blind with tears, but Mr. Bhaer said steadily:

“Go on, and strike harder.”

As if seeing that it must be done, and eager to have the hard task soon over, Nat drew his sleeve across his eyes and gave two more quick hard strokes that reddened the hand, yet hurt the giver more.

“Isn’t that enough?” he asked in a breathless sort of tone.

“Two more,” was all the answer, and he gave them, hardly seeing where they fell, then threw the rule all across the room, and hugging the kind hand in both his own, laid his face down on it sobbing out in a passion of love, and shame, and penitence:

“I will remember! Oh! I will!”

Then Mr. Bhaer put an arm about him, and said in a tone as compassionate as it had just now been firm:

“I think you will. Ask the dear God to help you, and try to spare us both another scene like this.”

Louisa’s alter ego

In Chapter Seven, “Naughty Nan,” we meet Annie Harding, also known as Nan, a rambunctious tomboy just like the author in her youth. Louisa makes use of the nickname of her sister Anna for the girl’s nickname. Chapter Eleven, “Uncle Teddy,” features a scene straight out of Louisa’s memoir, “Recollections of My Childhood:”

Here Mrs. Jo’s remarks were cut short by the appearance of Nan tearing round the corner at a break-neck pace, driving a mettlesome team of four boys, and followed by Daisy trundling Bess in a wheelbarrow. Hat off, hair flying, whip cracking, and barrow bumping, up they came in a cloud of dust, looking as wild a set of little hoydens as one would wish to see.

“So, these are the model children, are they? It’s lucky I didn’t bring Mrs. Curtis out to see your school for the cultivation of morals and manners; she would never have recovered from the shock of this spectacle,” said Mr. Laurie, laughing at Mrs. Jo’s premature rejoicing over Nan’s improvement.

512 louisa playing with her sisters

In real life, Louisa had been Nan, pretending to be a horse, racing around with a wheelbarrow carrying her sisters. One of Bronson’s distinguished friends, Margaret Fuller, had stopped by to see his “model children.”

Reigning in the tomboy

chp 12 nan and rob get lostIn Chapter Twelve, “Huckleberries,” Nan and Jo’s little son Rob become lost while picking huckleberries. Nan had boldly taken off from the group without telling the grownups where she and Rob were going. After a long search into the night they are finally found by Jo and Professor Bhaer. As punishment for running off, Jo ties Nan to a chair for the day. Louisa herself had run off in Boston, eager to show off her new green shoes. She was four at the time. In “Recollections of My Childhood,” she mentions how she was found:

On one occasion the town-crier found me fast asleep at nine o`clock at night, on a doorstop in Bedford Street, with my head pillowed on the curly breast of a big Newfoundland, who was with difficulty persuaded to release the weary little wanderer who had sobbed herself to sleep there.

Curing the wanderlust

Like Jo, her mother tied her to a chair to teach her not to run off again (Rob, upon seeing this, asked to be tied there with her). Louisa draws on memories to describe Nan’s reaction to that punishment:

For an hour they were very good, then they grew tired of one room, and longed to get out. Never had the hall seemed so inviting; even the little bedroom acquired a sudden interest, and they would gladly have gone in and played tent with the curtains of the best bed. The open windows drove them wild because they could not reach them; and the outer world seemed so beautiful, they wondered how they ever found the heart to say it was dull. Nan pined for a race round the lawn, and Rob remembered with dismay that he had not fed his dog that morning, and wondered what poor Pollux would do. They watched the clock, and Nan did some nice calculations in minutes and seconds, while Rob learned to tell all the hours between eight and one so well that he never forgot them. It was maddening to smell the dinner, to know that there was to be succotash and huckleberry pudding, and to feel that they would not be on the spot to secure good helps of both. When Mary Ann began to set the table, they nearly cut themselves in two trying to see what meat there was to be; and Nan offered to help her make the beds, if she would only see that she had “lots of sauce on her pudding.”

Jo had told Nan that such a punishment had “cured” her so undoubtedly it cured Louisa too.

Or did it? 🙂

Have you seen elements of Louisa’s life in Little Men? Tell us about it!

Part of the Louisa May Alcott Summer Reading Challenge

2013 Summer Reading Challenge hosted at www.inthebookcase.blogspot.com

This challenge is sponsored by Tarissa of the In the Bookcase blog.

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Little Men: The Good Man (chapter 3, “Sunday”)

coverAs mentioned in a previous post about the art of domesticity, I have been reading Little Men, or Life at Plumfield with Jo’s Boys. The audio book version from Librivox.org has actually been my companion while doing yard work and gardening these past few Saturdays. Keeps my mind off of my aching joints and bones! Listening to Little Men as opposed to reading it has given me a chance to take a step backward and see the story as a stand-alone work.

Different from Little Women

I’ve had problems reading Little Men in the past because I had assumed it would be an extension of Little Women. Instead, it concentrates more on the boys and girls of Plumfield rather than Jo and Professor Bhaer (and after twelve chapters, I’ve seen little or no reference to the other main characters of Little Women with exception of Laurie). It reminds me of the experience of reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkein. The magic of the story was lost for me after the first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, because the Fellowship split up and went in different directions. It was the chemistry of the Fellowship that made the story special for me, just as the sisterhood of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy made Little Women special.

A direction not taken

Some distance from Little Women has helped me to better appreciate the charm of Little Men although it did leave me wondering why Louisa chose to go this way with her sequel. Obviously the sisters are grown women now with their own lives but I would have thought she would have placated her fans with more about the sisters. Louisa was indeed a professional writer with a keen understanding of what sells, but she was independent too.

Why the book was written

John Pratt, husband to Anna, father to Fred and John

John Pratt, husband to Anna, father to Fred and John

Little Men was written as the result of the sudden death of Anna’s husband John Pratt. Louisa and May were in Europe at the time, taking the Grand Tour. When Louisa heard the news she immediately sat down to write Little Men so as to support her nephews, Freddy and Johnny, with its sales. It would follow then that the book would be written more with them in mind.

Much taken from real life

Like Little Women, Little Men is full of real life anecdotes, and in some ways, they are more obvious. For those of you with a thorough knowledge of Louisa’s life, these anecdotes jump right off the page. Yesterday while listening to chapters 6-12, I picked up on several which I’ll share in upcoming posts.

Bronson’s presence

AmosBronson-Alcott-WC-9179505-1-402

Amos Bronson Alcott

Her father Bronson is very much present in the good and kind Professor Bhaer as well as in Grandpa March. In Chapter 3, “Sunday,” I could hear Bronson speaking clearly through the voice of Demi, Meg’s son.

Consolation for Nat

Nat is the new boy, having only been at Plumfield a day or two when  chapter 3, “Sunday,” opens. At bedtime he notices a picture on the wall at the foot of his bed which he found  “peculiar … for it had a graceful frame of moss and cones about it, and on a little bracket underneath stood a vase of wild flowers freshly gathered from the spring woods. It was the most beautiful picture of them all …” Nat found himself longing to know more about the picture and Demi noticed. He began then to tell the story of Christ, The Good Man, as told to him by Grandpa March.

Demi shares Grandpa’s story

jesus_with_children300In the picture, Christ is blessing the children and Nat, who knows little about Him (except for His name being taken in vain), remarks how kind Christ looks. Grandpa March had given the picture to Demi after telling him the story of The Good Man many times. Demi related to Nat that Christ loved poor people, “and was very good to them. He made them well, and helped them, and told rich people they must not be cross to them, and they loved Him dearly, dearly.”

Help for Nat

chp. 3 Christ the Good ManHe continued to tell Nat about the life of Christ and how the “bad men killed Him.” Nat, only at the school for few days, took great comfort in the story; Jo, so grateful to her nephew for offering such comfort to Nat, thought to herself, “Demi is unconsciously helping the poor boy better than I can …”

Real life counterparts

There are references in Anna’s childhood diaries of conversations with her father on biblical stories: On Wednesday, September 2, 1839 she wrote, “I had a very interesting talk with father about Jesus. He explained to me some things that I wanted to know about what he did: about his feeding of the five thousand people, and about raising the dead to life, and stilling the tempest. I like conversations with father.” (from Houghton Library, Amos B Alcott Family Letters 1837 TO 1852 Vol. 1 to Vol. V 1852-1855).

anna large

Anna Bronson Alcott Pratt

In another passage, Anna shows her preferences for her father’s way of teaching religion: Sunday, December 22, 1839 “I went to Mr. Barnard[‘s church] this morning. I wish he would preach about something that I could understand as father does when he talks with me about being good. After I came home, father read about God’s making the World, about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, eating the forbidden fruit, and being sent out of the garden, and about Cain’s slaying his brother Abel. Father explained it to me so that I might understand it. He wishes me to understand all I read. He talked with us about loving one another.” (Ibid)

For all of Bronson’s faults, his way of making religion a living faith for his children is to be commended.

It’s obvious through Demi’s story of the Good Man and its impact on Nat, that Louisa was greatly impacted too. The voice of her father through Demi was tender way that he told it to Nat, who needed that kind of consolation.

It’s these kinds of stories that makes Little Men special to me.

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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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