Little Women in a changing world: Chapter Two of The Afterlife of Little Women– “Waxing Nostalgic 1900-1930,” part one

In the early twentieth century the world was changing at a breathtaking rate. As a country we moved onto the global stage with the Great War. Dazzling technological innovations created time- and work-saving devices along with new entertainment venues. Medical breakthroughs promised longer and healthier lives. Now that day-to-day survival was no longer the all-consuming task, people had time for leisure, to think and to create.

How did Little Women fare in this changing world?

Beverly Lyon Clark, in her book, The Afterlife of Little Women, indicates that people were already waxing nostalgic about Little Women even though the book was only thirty-two years old by 1900. Adults generally found the book to be “old-fashioned” while children continued to love it. (pg. 42).

Do you consider Little Women to be timely despite its age? What about the book transcends time?

Jessie Wilcox Smith Little WOmenDespite the book’s enduring popularity, Little Women was not held in high esteem by scholars mostly because children’s literature had not yet attained any status. (pg. 43). Yet G. K. Chesterton notes that there are “few women in England, from the most revolutionary Suffragette to the most carefully preserved Early Victorian, who will not confess to having passed a happy childhood with the Little Women of Miss Alcott.” (pg. 48). The universal appeal of Little Women speaks to Louisa’s genius, a genius nurtured by an upbringing combining progressive ideas with traditional values.

What are the universal themes of Little Women? Why does it still speak to you today?

gamaliel bradfordIn his essay, “Portrait of Louisa May Alcott,” Gamaliel Bradford was one of the few who praised Louisa’s artistry: “The worshippers of art for art’s sake may sneer at her but the great poets don’t necessarily deserve much more of our gratitude than those who make our souls forget by telling charming stories.” (pg. 53-54). Clark notes that Bradford observed that Louisa may have been motivated more out of a sense of duty rather than love to help her family out of poverty.

Do you consider Little Women to be a work of art? Why or why not?

Yet it is the safer traditional values of home and family that maintained the book’s popularity, generating the spinoffs of a Broadway play, two silent films and several novel series. With World War I jading the population, Little Women was likely seen as a return to “the good old days” despite being considered “too sweet” by many in the tumultuous twenties (pg. 49).

The adaptations began with children’s books. Clark writes, “If ‘publishers complain of the scarcity of good books for girls, and their readers say that no successor to Louisa Alcott has yet to come to view,’ then one approach was to reframe Little Women.” (pg. 58). She lists Seven Little Australians (1894) by Ethel Turner, Sisters Three (1900) by Jessie Mansergh, The Little Women Club by Ames Taggart, Four Little Women of Roxby, or The Queer Old Lady Who Lost Her Way (1926) by May Hollis Barton, and the four books in Gabrielle Jackson’s Three Little Women series (1908-14).

three little womenOf these books Clark found the Three Little Women series to be the “most interesting in how it addresses the cultural moment even as it attests the continuing significance of Little Women … For it harbors inconsistencies that speak to cultural contradictions at the beginning of the century, especially those associated with the occupational opportunities available to the New woman and the continuing expectations of domesticity, at a time when Alcott might be called ‘one of the finest of pioneer American business girls.'” (pg. 62)

A detailed analysis of this series, along with other adaptations and spinoffs (including the Broadway play as we shall see, and the silent films) begs the conclusion that while Louisa was lauded, she was not to be imitated.

What I found most interesting in Clark’s analysis was the differing interpretation of “littleness” in Alcott’s book and Jackson’s. Frances Armstrong has noted that for Alcott littleness at times entailed diminishment but at other time was a means to greatness. In Jackson’s novels–with their “little girls,” “little mothers,” “pretty little rooms,” “trembling little fingers”–diminishment is the rule.” (pg. 67)

Did Jackson miss the deeper spiritual dimension of littleness as described by Alcott? Beth was indeed “little” but she demonstrates largeness in her example of courage with the Hummels, literally risking her life to comfort the dying baby. Her tending to headless doll Joanna provides a metaphor for a more public caring of the disabled, aka, the “least of these.” In exploring the spiritual dimension of littleness, Alcott uncovers its greatness. Judging from Armstrong’s remarks, Jackson appears to have missed that point entirely, reflecting a more secular approach to the story.

How do you think Louisa viewed “littleness?” How do you feel about the character of Beth?

In part two of this post, I will discuss the Broadway play (which, by the way, is available for free through Google Play Books; it’s called “Little Women: A Comedy in Four Acts” by Marion de Forest) and silent films, and the creation of the Orchard House museum home.

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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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