Little Women Devotee Feast! Book Review: The Afterlife of Little Women by Beverly Lyon Clark

In 1868, a writer desperate to pull her family out of a lifetime of poverty sits down at the tiny half-moon desk in her bedroom to begin work on the book she has dreaded writing. Assigned by her publisher to write a “girl’s” book, Louisa May Alcott draws upon the lives of the only girls she ever knew: herself and her sisters. Declaring their childhood experiences “queer,” she writes a semi-autobiographical account of portions of her life through the characters of Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and the brother she always longed for, Laurie. Little Women is an instant bestseller, catapulting this relatively unknown author into fame and fortune.

the afterlife of little womenThe Afterlife of Little Women by Beverly Lyon Clark documents the stunning and continuing impact of this children’s book around the world and throughout history. This book is a sumptuous feast for every devoted Little Women/Louisa May Alcott fan. Clark, professor of English and Women’s Studies at Wheaton College and one of the leading authorities on children’s literature has put together the go-to book about the impact of Little Women on the world since its publication in 1868.

Clark takes the 147 years of the novel’s life and divides it into four historical periods:

  • Becoming Everyone’s Aunt, 1868-1900
  • Waxing Nostalgic, 1900-1930
  • Outwitting Poverty an War, 1930-1960
  • Celebrating Sisterhood and Passion since 1960

What Little Women shows us

By peering through the lens of Little Women‘s aftermath, we get a fascinating glimpse into the thinking of the day and how American society in particular saw itself. Though this lens we witness the evolution of children’s literature and its impact on Alcott’s standing as a serious writer. One point becomes clear: in the end it doesn’t matter whether Little Women is considered “great literature”; it is here to stay.

The “softening” of Little Women

Clark’s descriptions of the numerous offshoots of Little Women (including books, plays, musicals, movies and television programs) reveal a reoccurring theme: that of softening the enigmatic Jo March in favor of a focus on traditional home and family. This “softening” began with the author, allowing herself to be marketed as “Aunt Jo” by her publisher, and Roberts Brothers trifling with the text for a revised edition of the book in 1880. Edited were many of the colloquialisms in favor of a more polished dialogue. Character descriptions were modified to reflect gender ideals (as in calling Marmee “tall” rather than “stout” and “noble-looking” rather than “not particularly handsome.”) (pg. 24). As a smart businesswoman intent on making a profit, proper marketing was always in the forefront of Alcott’s mind, and her publisher’s as well. Jo March had to be maintained as a “safe” inspiration for girls.

Fun!

The Afterlife of Little Women is a must-read on so many levels. Let’s begin with the “fun” factor:

Detailed analyses of just about every derived book (including spinoffs and online fan fiction), play, musical (including an opera), movie and television program ever made about Little Women

  • Statistics regarding sales of the book throughout the years from countries around the world
  • Discussion of famous people influenced by Little Women
  • A listing and discussion of adult and juvenile biographies of Alcott
  • Translations and interpretations of the book
  • Analyses of the various illustrations
  • And of course, reviews of the work

The Afterlife of Little Women is a wonk’s paradise: every detail you ever wanted (and then some) is included in this thoroughly researched book. It documents not only the public’s response to Little Women but also those of scholars, critics and librarians. There are times when the statistical information becomes excessive but overall this does not distract from the enjoyment of this work.

What role did feminism really play?

I had two small quibbles with this book. First there seems to be an insinuation of twenty-first century feminism into the discussion, particularly with regards to plays and movies produced about Little Women in the early and mid twentieth century. Perhaps this was unconscious on Clark’s part but it appears that fault is assigned to these productions for their focus on the more mainstream themes of domesticity and romance rather than Jo’s artistic goals and independent spirit. It’s likely the mainstream audience of that era was simply not ready for the more feminist message of the story. It does however demonstrate just progressive Alcott was.

I was also disappointed that the many adult Alcott biographies that have emerged since the 1960’s received small mention (since this is a pet interest of mine). Eden’s Outcasts was singled out along with Madeleine B. Sterns’ definitive biography. I was however quite surprised that Eve LaPlante’s Marmee and Louisa did not warrant a mention; nor did Martha Saxton’s controversial work or Harriet Reisen and Nancy Porter’s PBS documentary, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women.

These are hardly fatal flaws; this book was a most entertaining and informative read (engaging this reader in a wonderful “conversation” with each page book as evidenced by the numerous comments, questions and underscores).

Little Women lives!

Little Women is a work that quite likely was an accident of genius. Clark’s book plumbs that genius through the incredible depth of interpretation explored by illustrators, reviewers, teachers, librarians, scholars and devoted fans alike. It is this level of interest that continues to ensure Little Women’s viability. The Afterlife of Little Women shows clearly why this fascinating and endearing book continues to be read and cherished as a classic.

You can find The Afterlife of Little Women on the Johns Hopkins University Press website or on Amazon.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In a series of posts I will be exploring each historical period covered in The Afterlife of Little Women and hope to engage all of you in a lively discussion. We will start with chapter one in a few days. Hopefully some of you will have had the opportunity to purchase and read this book. I look forward to your comments.

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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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A tale of two books: wrapping up Work A Story of Experience (part one)

work-title-pageSeveral months ago I started reading Work: A Story of Experience, one of Louisa’s few adult novels. The story, like Little Women, is a thinly disguised, romanticized yet gritty autobiography coupled with wishes Louisa might have had regarding the course of her life.

First, my impressions

In this first of three planned posts on this book, I want to share my own impressions. In the second, I will explore an essay by Sarah Elbert on Work which deals mainly with the important feminist theme of the story. And in the third, I want to return to the theme of religion (specifically a focus on chapter nineteen) which runs through the book.

A tale of two books, and its inherent weakness

In six posts I wrote mainly about the first half of the book which is basically a collection of short stories about the various paid positions that Christie had held, most of which Louisa herself had done. There appeared to be no particular storyline running through these chapters although there were memorable characters.

Rachel rescues Christie drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

Rachel rescues Christie drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

The sixth post focused on the pivotal crisis in Christie’s life which led to a suicide attempt. This crisis transitions into the second half of the book where a true plot takes over.

And this is where I began to lose interest in this book.

It was interesting when …

Helen Carroll drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

Helen Carroll drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

It’s easy to tell when Louisa is writing from her own experience because her voice is authentic and powerful. I found it quite fascinating living through Christie’s different work experiences with the most compelling being chapter five, “Companion,’ when she cares for Helen Carroll, the woman doomed to madness. Her experience with domestic servitude was revealing and chilling (giving me a greater appreciation for my newly discovered love, “Downton Abbey”).

I also found Christie’s search for God and Louisa’s devastating description of religion in her time to be equally compelling.

… and it lost me when …

The story became a bit of a dull formula when David Sterling entered the picture. It was obvious that Louisa had had little personal experience with romance and none with marriage.

David Sterling drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

David Sterling drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

Loosely based on Henry David Thoreau, David Sterling was a romantic enough character, high in virtue, a strong and somewhat silent type with a touch of melancholy due to a secret past. Like Thoreau, he played the flute; Christie dubbed his playing as “David’s voice” and was able to discern much sadness in it. He tended flowers and took care of his mother, and his lack of ambition along with his grave expression puzzled Christie. Their friendship grew and she soon found herself falling in love with him.

Predictable games

Enter Kitty, a pretty and frivolous girl, and a completely useless character. With her came the typical cat-and-mouse game where the heroine and hero misunderstand each other, the heroine leaves and assumes the hero is lost to her forever. It all ended up with the hero suddenly visiting the heroine and spilling his deep, dark secret, and then professing his love.

Yawn.

An excess of virtue

At this point in the book Christie and David seemed weighed down by an excess of virtue. Louisa did have a tendency to be heavy-handed in her morality plays and this was one time when I found it to be too much.

Heaven forbid that any character in a book with Louisa’s name on it should be anything but virtuous! Because she was a slave to her reputation, Louisa would never associate her real name with her thrillers, even A Modern Mephistopheles which was published in Roberts Brothers’ “No Name” series after Little Women. If it hadn’t been for the discovery by Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern in the 1940s, no one would have even known she had written them. Readers would have been robbed of a rich legacy of works which revealed an interesting dark side to the author.

A marriage too short

David and Christie marry drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

David and Christie marry drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

Christie and David did eventually marry but without firsthand knowledge of married life, Louisa chose instead to separate them. Enter the Civil War where David gallantly served as captain of his regiment and Christie as a nurse.

Louisa’s brief but significant stint as a nurse in the war provided rich experiences for Christie. She excelled at nursing and was quickly promoted. I had to smile, wondering if Louisa pictured herself becoming that “super nurse” had she not been struck down so early by typhoid pneumonia.

A familiar death

David's death drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

David’s death drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

David’s passing in chapter eighteen reminded me a lot of John Suhre’s in Hospital Sketches. Both were valiant and virtuous men dying painful deaths from a wound to the lung. And both were loved by strong, capable independent women who happened to be nurses in the Civil War: David by Christie, and John by Louisa.

Real life getting in the way of the story

I wish that Louisa had explored more fully the marriage between David and Christie. Their relationship grew from a deep friendship into a true companionate marriage where both parties were equal. Louisa’s lack of experience in marriage plus her deep skepticism that a companionate marriage could ever take place (especially for her) most likely discouraged her from doing so.

“Little Heart’s –Ease” to the rescue!

Christie and Ruth drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

Christie and Ruth drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

Just when it seemed I might completely lose interest in Work, along came chapter nineteen, “Little Heart’s-Ease” which began the enormous task of tying together all the loose ends of this story.

This chapter picks up from David’s death to follow Christie’s long journey of grief from sad resignation, to inconsolable storms resulting in open rebellion against God, to finally a place of peace and reconciliation. Pregnant with David’s child, the birth of Ruth (which means “little heart’s-ease) brings Christie back to life.

I will devote my third post on the wrap-up of Work to this chapter which, to me, did a wonderful job of resolving Christie’s issues with faith and religion.

Revisiting old characters

Cynthy and Hepsey drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

Cynthy and Hepsey drawing by Sol Eytinge, http://archive.org/details/workastoryofexpe04770gut

The final chapter continued to tie together the loose ends, bringing back Helen’s younger sister Bella, freed slave Hepsey (whom Christie had worked with as a domestic servant) and Cynthy Wilkins (the wife, mother of six and laundress who eventually connected Christie to David). Christie at forty years of age appeared for the first time to be truly comfortable in her own skin as evidenced by the impromptu speech she made at a women’s group meeting about her experiences.

The feminist theme comes full circle

A strong feminist theme ran through Work but this final chapter displayed Louisa’s eloquence in expressing her desires for women (this will be explored in the second post through Sarah Elbert’s essay). A running theme for Louisa has been for women to lives of purpose, whether it is on the work front or in the home. We saw this theme before in An Old-Fashioned Girl where Louisa lamented the frivolous “life of fashion;” you recall that Polly, a working girl, helped Fanny find her purpose in the care of her family after they lost their fortune (see posts on An Old-Fashioned Girl).

True reform

What I most appreciate about Louisa as a reformer was her belief that reform came incrementally through the work of individuals. The combination of her father’s Transcendentalism which promoted the improvement of the individual for the good of society, and her mother’s practical application created a reformer who understood that true change comes from within. And she knew how to suggest practical means of achieving that change.

The good news

christieThis played out in the mission that Christie created for Bella. Rather than directly serve the poor which Christie astutely discerned was not appropriate for a women of Bella’s background, she inspired Bella to educate her friends on the need for lives of purpose, much the way Polly inspired Fanny. She was, in a sense, sending out her first disciple to spread the good news of a changing way of life for women that included a growing sense of autonomy.

Final thoughts

Despite its flaws, Work was a frank and gritty look at the life of women in the 19th century who long to be more than what they are permitted to be. It forecast an epic struggle that would ultimately grant women the political power and many choices they enjoy today along with the complications of those choices.

Yet, I found Work to be far more than a feminist study. There were so many other subplots that to me, made the book truly interesting in the end.

Louisa’s commentary and personal understanding of faith was look inside of her character and her drive for reform. Her unique brand of candor and poignancy opened windows into class, race, mental illness, despair and a kind of love that embraced equality.

Redemption for Christie came through a perfect blending of purpose-filled work and domestic bliss with her child, Ruth. It came after many years of hardship and great cost.

Louisa was a great believer in the redemptive nature of suffering as she wrote in chapter nineteen: “from the dust of a great affliction rose the sustaining power she had sought so long.”

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Join the discussion: Little Women – Feminist Novel?

Frank Thayer Merrill illustration of Jo and Laurie from the 1880 version of Little Women

During the month of July Nancy from The Silver Threads blog is hosting the discussion of Little Women at A Year of Feminist Classics.

She proposes that the book puts forth opposing messages: a feminist message of independence and self-expression, and a message of social conformity. She asks, which is it – a liberating view of female possibilities or an imposition of community expectations? Her proposition is that Little Women delivers both messages. The tension between them is what makes the book so real and so memorable.

What do you think? Click here to join in the conversation.

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Abba Alcott’s contribution – behind every great woman stands a mother

You know how they say that behind every great man is a great woman? How about behind every great woman? In studying the life of Abba Alcott through the reading of Marmee, the Mother of Little Womenby Sandford Meddick Salyer, there indeed was a great woman behind Louisa May Alcott. She was a mother whose vitality, intelligence, resourcefulness, support and example shaped one of the great authors of our time.

Excellent lineage

Abba, coming from May, Sewall and Quincy stocks, possessed great intelligence and a fighting spirit. She had a heart for others and their plights. These traits served her well through her difficult life.

Louisa of course, immortalized Abba as Marmee in Little Women and she was all those things. But Abba was also a pioneer in many ways, paving the way through her example of womanly autonomy and independence, all motivated by love.

Talent passed down

Louisa came by her writing talent honestly. Salyer describes Abba as a gifted wordsmith in her own right with a rich background of storytelling in her family:

“Abba was a born storyteller. She had once had aspirations to be a writer. Perhaps she should have been. It was her talent that Louisa inherited, her ingenuity, the vigor and dash of style which Abba could show at times but seldom did. It was certainly Abba’s suggestions and encouragement that helped make Louisa’s books. Alcott has told us that many of Louisa’s plots were suggested by her mother’s recital of incidents she recalled. Abba knew, too, many of Colonel May’s stories; and after her mother’s death Louisa sent Sam for her grandfather’s notebooks, from which she derived many more suggestions.” (page 75, Marmee, the Mother of Little Women).

Budding actress

Abba also had a flair for the dramatic and even nursed ideas of becoming an actress when she was a child (pg. 110). Anna and Louisa, of course, loved to stage plays and Abba fully supported them, knowing it was a good way to channel energy and imagination as well as stress. Undoubtedly, this proved to be an important coping mechanism through the difficult early years the family faced.

The May household was always filled with friends and neighbors eager to listen to Colonel May weave his stories. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!

A mind for reform

A lesser known facet of Abba’s life is her pioneering work as a relief worker. With Bronson unable (or unwilling) to work for a living wage, she became one the first modern social workers out of necessity. Her family was often nearly as poor as the people she served. Salyer writes glowingly of  her work which showed a marked flair for organizing while caring for the poor from her heart. :

“For two years Abba continued her noble work. How noble it really was, only those could tell to whom she personally ministered. Her reports, vivid and vigorous as they are, cannot begin to show all she accomplished and all she learned. She came to know how true had been some of the portrayals of London slum life which she had before thought overdrawn and oversentimentalized. Louisa saw some of what to her mother had become familiar, and Abba later recalled scenes and incidents that Louisa used freely in her books, notably in Work[: A Story of Experience]” (pg. 148)

From mother to daughter

Louisa learned from her mother’s example and developed a passion for reform, seeking pragmatic rather than philosophical solutions. She worked for women’s suffrage both on a national stage and in her hometown of Concord (being one of the first women to vote). She would visit prisons and homes for orphans. She often signed her letters, “Yours for reform always.” And her writing, especially on the juvenile level, sought to expose young people to reformist ideas, especially about women (see post on An Old-Fashioned Girl).

These are just a few examples of the profound nature of Abba’s influence on Louisa.. She is the finest example of a mother who poured herself into her children and saw great results. Abba was very gifted and in today’s society could have enjoyed great success professionally. However, she used her gifts just as well, if not better, by pouring herself into her family.

Is there someone in your life who has stood behind you and made you great? “Great” has many definitions . . . think about it. 🙂


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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.