Published in book form 1870
(Reviewed as part of the Classic Club challenge)
I came to read this book by happy accident. DailyLit.com was proving troublesome; I used one of the first books in its catalogue (ordered alphabetically) as a test subject. The test failed; I forgot I had added the book to my virtual library and some weeks later, when the glitches had been fixed, I began receiving installments in my inbox. Of course, I couldn’t possibly ignore them.
Before this, I had only known of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women series: all read when I was a child. I’m currently half way through reading them again; An Old-Fashioned Girl has become sandwiched in the middle. It’s proved to be a perfect time to be coming to other works by this much-loved children’s author. I shall continue re-reading from a very different perspective.
An Old-Fashioned Girl was originally serialized in 6 parts, covering a visit made by country girl, Polly, to the home of her wealthy friend, Fanny Shaw, in the city. The city is apparently Boston: described by Alcott, according to a rather scathing contemporary review in The Atlantic in 1870 as: “the most conceited city in New England”. And this perhaps sets the tone of the book: Fanny and her family live a shallow life determined by the demands of the city and its society-loving populace, whilst Polly hails from a simpler, rural home where strong wholesome values are espoused.
The premise of the story is simple: through her own example, and the lessons she comes to learn in her own life, Polly enables the family to see the benefits of values other than fashion, frivolities and financial gain. Love, integrity and independence – and a happy ending for all – come to the fore.
The first episodes proved so popular that a further sequence was written, moving the story on from its beginnings, when Polly and Fan were in their early teens, to six years later, when they were young women. By this time Polly returns to the city, not specifically to visit the Shaws but to earn her own living giving music lessons. She refuses the family’s kindly-meant offers of accommodation and instead takes a room with Miss Mills – one of my favourite characters in the book. In this later section of the book, Polly struggles through various trials, and strengthens her sense of self and purpose, and continues to support the family emotionally when they fall on hard times themselves.
I came to this book having never heard of it and knowing nothing about Louisa May Alcott beyond the seemingly sugar-coated tales she penned in Little Women and its sequels, where everything seemed idealized and people were simply too good to be true. An Old-Fashioned Girl seemed cut from the same cloth: a sweet, didactic, easy-to-read portrayal of nineteenth-century New England, written, read and enjoyed by those who prefer their rose-tinted glasses to be fixed firmly before their eyes. (I should mention that I do love Little Women and love even more my own much-used rose-tinted glasses.)
We are told quite early – in Chapter 7 – of Polly’s mission:
“… she felt so proud and happy at this proof of the truth of her mother’s words, when she said that ‘even a little girl could exert an influence, and do some good in this big, busy world’.”
Now back in the city as a young woman living independently in this ‘big, busy world’, Polly takes a room with Miss Mills. I was very surprised to come across this redoubtable lady. And I started to wonder about just what it was I was reading. A kindly, unmarried soul, Miss Mills epitomizes goodness in the way of Mrs March – living a simple, blameless and caring life. Behind her do-gooding lies a woman of strong beliefs and character with a fierce understanding of the trials and deprivations suffered by many in the city, and a clear set of principles which determined her role in supporting wherever she could. Polly arrives home one evening, demoralized and weary and filled with her own troubles. Miss Mills has taken in another young woman, Jane, who had tried and failed to kill herself, unable as she was, to see any way forward. Having spent time in the company of the wealthy echelons of the city’s society, where Polly felt deeply uncomfortable, she now begins to gain insight into the lives of the city’s true poor and dispossessed, and she finds a group of people – women – dedicated to making their own way and enabling others to do the same. Polly begins to find her own niche in the world and hidden among the words which overall remain as sweet and syrupy as ever, comes some hard grit.
“Through Miss Mills, who was the counsellor and comforter of several, Polly came to know a little sisterhood of busy, happy, independent girls, who each had a purpose to execute, a talent to develop, an ambition to achieve, and brought to the work patience and perseverance, hope and courage. Here Polly found her place at once, for in this little world love and liberty prevailed; talent, energy, and character took the first rank; money, fashion, and position were literally nowhere; for here, as in the big world outside, genius seemed to blossom best when poverty was head gardener. Young teachers, doing much work for little pay; young artists, trying to pencil, paint, or carve their way to Rome; young writers, burning to distinguish themselves; young singers, dreaming of triumphs, great as those of Jenny Lind; and some who tried to conquer independence, armed only with a needle, like poor Jane. All these helped Polly as unconsciously as she helped them, for purpose and principle are the best teachers we can have, and the want of them makes half the women of America what they are, restless, aimless, frivolous, and sick.”
There is a passage in which one of the aspiring artists is sculpting a woman that she wishes to epitomize womankind in general. It caught my eye immediately:
“Give her a sceptre: she would make a fine queen,” answered Fanny.
“No, we have had enough of that; women have been called queens a long time, but the kingdom given them isn’t worth ruling,” answered Rebecca.
“I don’t think it is nowadays,” said Fanny, with a tired sort of sigh.
“Put a man’s hand in hers to help her along, then,” said Polly, whose happy fortune it had been to find friends and helpers in father and brothers.
“No; my woman is to stand alone, and help herself,” said Rebecca, decidedly.
“She’s to be strong-minded, is she?” and Fanny’s lip curled a little as she uttered the misused words.
“Yes, strong-minded, strong-hearted, strong-souled, and strong-bodied; that is why I made her larger than the miserable, pinched-up woman of our day. Strength and beauty must go together. Don’t you think these broad shoulders can bear burdens without breaking down, these hands work well, these eyes see clearly, and these lips do something besides simper and gossip?”
Fanny was silent; but a voice from Bess’s corner said, “Put a child in her arms, Becky.”
“Not that even, for she is to be something more than a nurse.”
“Give her a ballot-box,” cried a new voice, and turning round, they saw an odd-looking woman perched on a sofa behind them.
“Thank you for the suggestion, Kate. I ‘ll put that with the other symbols at her feet; for I’m going to have needle, pen, palette, and broom somewhere, to suggest the various talents she owns, and the ballot-box will show that she has earned the right to use them.
There is a lot more to this book than candied prose and rose-coloured glasses. There are the various vignettes and adventures that befall Polly and the family over the years. And there are moments of real poignancy within the family: the grandmother is a wonderful character, finely drawn. And there is, of course, the love interest and the happy-ever-after ending – although Alcott is almost reluctant to provide it. But there is also a clear message of independence and education for women: a feminist beacon among the honeyed sentimentality! There is a lot more to this book, and a lot more to Louisa May Alcott than meets the eye.
Henry James described Alcott as: “The novelist of children… The Thackeray, the Trollope, of the nursery and the schoolroom.”
And The Atlantic’s review opens thus: “If we said that Miss Alcott, as a writer for young people just getting to be young ladies and gentlemen, deserved the great good luck that has attended her books, we should be using an unprofessional frankness and putting in print something we might be sorry for after the story of the Old-fashioned Girl had grown colder in our minds.”
I now know that Alcott was born of transcendentalist parents and was raised in the company of – and sometimes taught by – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller. I know that contrary to what I had always supposed, Little Women was loosely auto-biographical. I know that Louisa was an abolitionist and a feminist – and wrote to earn her own living and to support her family. Indeed, she wrote for The Atlantic Monthly herself. I know that I’d like to know a great deal more about this fascinating lady and her life within such an exulted circle. Why is it that writers are often so very interesting! Her diaries and letters, and a biography now have to be added to the to be read list…
As for whether I consider this book to be a classic: its author requires that it remains safely within the pantheon of classic children’s literature and I actually prefer it to Little Women. However, it would not find a place on my personal shelf of classic children’s favourites. For me it belongs on the shelf below, alongside I Capture the Castle: the shelf labelled ‘young adult fiction that I discovered too late’.