September 13, 2004

An Old-Fashioned Girl, Lousia May Alcott

Such things are great fun when you get used to them; besides, contriving sharpens your wits, and makes you feel as if you had more hands than most people.

The beginning and end of the story are conventional, if not old-fashioned for their own day; Polly, who is as virtuous as a child with living parents and no consumptive disease could imaginably be, teaches her rich relations about love and self-reliance. In the end she marries her boyish cousin rather than a sophisticated, kind, older suitor.

The first virtue the book has in itself is Alcott's characteristic view of family life. Everyone has flaws, even Polly, and everyone's flaws are a little funny and fixable, especially Polly's. It would work as a sitcom. (Alcott was writing for a living, of course, and probably on a regular schedule.) The second virtue is Polly's career between childhood and marriage; she and all her friends are single girls determined to make their own livings. They lever the rhetoric of the virtuous, sensitive, artistic nineteenth-c. woman nearly as far as it can go in the service of getting that woman out of the house and into employment. Even this is not too preachy or defensive in the novel; it reads like a plausible account of the justifications these women would have used, in friendly company, at the time.

Alcott forestalls the sisters-until-marriage issue:

"When are you and Becky going to dissolve partnership?" asked Polly, eager for news of all.
"Never! George knows he can't have one without the other, and has not suggested such a thing as parting us. There is always room in my house for Becky, and she lets me do as she would if she was in my place," answered Bess, with a look which her friend answered by a smile.
"The lover won't separate this pair of friends, you see," whispered Polly to Fan. "Bess is to be married in the spring, and Becky is to live with her."

I should think they won't be separated; they're Bostonians, and were introduced so:

One stood before a great clay figure, in a corner. This one was tall, with a strong face, keen eyes, short, curly hair, and a fine head. Fanny was struck at once by this face and figure, though the one was not handsome, and the other half hidden by a great pinafore covered with clay. At a table where the light was clearest, sat a frail-looking girl, with a thin face, big eyes, and pale hair, a dreamy, absorbed little person, who bent over a block, skillfully wielding her tools.

I did notice that Alcott's virtuous women spend a lot of their effort picking up after men; for instance, in Polly's case, doing her brother's mending while working to pay his tuition. I hope he at least chopped her firewood, because he doesn't send her to Vienna to study when he's working. He would clearly take care of her if he needed to, if he noticed, which he might but isn't expected to do. The rhetoric of selfless virtue won't get you better than a distant second place in this world.

Project Gutenberg etext #2787

So wrote clew in Fiction (19th c.). | TrackBack
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