Sunday, April 23, 2017

6 Books for the Amy Marches Among Us

In Little Women, Amy March comes closest to ideal womanhood, at least in the nineteenth-century sense of the term, of all her sisters. Louisa May Alcott was extremely ambivalent about this ideal and this ambivalence is perhaps reflected in the polarized reactions that readers have always had to Amy. For some, she is the favorite sister, but plenty of readers have found her quite horrid.

The youngest of the four sisters, Amy is cossetted and pampered more than the others and her primary struggle is with materialism and selfishness. Amy is fashionable, artistic, and at times affected. As she grows older, she loses many of her affectations, but remains highly concerned with her appearance and her reputation and sets much store by social mores and conventions. Determined from her childhood to marry well, she is the only one of the four that considers a mercenary marriage, though ultimately the 'old-fashioned' values so beloved of the Marches win out and she marries the boy next door, who, conveniently enough, has pots of money. Some have complained that Amy the woman is a tad flat compared to Amy the girl, but the later chapters about Amy show her quite literally molding herself into the sort of woman she aspires to be - that woman must fit into the model that Amy most admires and that model is fairly conventional.

Those who dislike Amy often cite her selfishness. What fascinates me about this dislike is that Amy's selfishness is probably her most transgressive quality. She, far more even than Jo, is determined to get everything she wants in life; that is, her selfishness is one aspect of a deeply practical strategy to overcome the limitations placed on the women of her time, without losing, hopefully, her respectability or her self-respect. Feminists express disappointment that Amy gives up on her artistic ambitions, though it doesn't seem quite fair to insist that professional success, which so often depended on male patronage in the nineteenth century (and let's face it, often still does, in the arts particularly), be the measure by which a character's feminism is measured. Amy's somewhat contentious relationship with Jo certainly lies at the bottom of many readers' dislike; she gets the trip to Europe that Jo so desperately wanted, she marries Laurie, while so many readers want him to marry Jo, and, worst of all, she burns Jo's manuscript! But, enviable as her traveling and romantic fates are, Amy is a woman who successfully navigates a dangerous sea. She may not 'have it all,' but she orchestrates her own life, sacrificing as little as necessary and gaining a great deal in exchange.

Here are six books (and a bonus!) for the Amy Marches:

Eight Cousins & Rose in Bloom - Louisa May Alcott
Though today these books would seem anything but revolutionary, at the time of their publication they were quite daring. More obviously educational than Little Women, Eight Cousins advocates for a way of bringing up young girls very much in opposition to the contemporary norms. Rose is encouraged to wear less restrictive clothing (corsets come in for quite the diatribe, as do high-heeled shoes), learn about far-away cultures, keep her own accounts, and, most stunningly, understand the anatomy of her body. Her most significant friendship is with Phebe, a housemaid, in a rare example of a genuine cross-class friendship. Rose, blonde, beautiful, and too tempted by costly luxuries, strongly resembles Amy, but it is fascinating to see a different, yet still radical, model of young girlhood in Alcott's writing. The sequel, Rose in Bloom, brings its heroine into full womanhood. 

Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
Jane Austen's tremendously popular novel also concerns a family of sisters, with a father usually confined to his study, though Mrs. Bennett and Marmee could not be more unlike. It is tempting to equate Lizzie Bennett with Jo, but she is in fact much more like Amy, for both young women have strong moral centers, a clear understanding of propriety and a high regard for their own respectability, and contentious relationships with their more unruly sisters, not to mention a taste for pretty clothes. Austen shares with Alcott a rather gimlet-eyed view of gentility and marriage and both excelled, though in stylistically diverse ways, at comedy. Pride and Prejudice and Little Women are together perhaps the greatest novels ever written in English about sisters.

What Katy Did Next - Susan Coolidge
The third novel in the What Katy Did trilogy takes Katy Carr on a tour of Europe. Unquestionably influenced by Little Women, the novel sends Katy to wealthy relatives when her brother contracts scarlet fever, has her read Dickens and find European customs inferior to American, and gives her a staunchly old-fashioned point of view with which Alcott's little women would have heartily concurred. Susan Coolidge's novels are also modeled on her own childhood and, like Alcott, she includes examples of poetry written by her characters. 

Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
Amy's selfishness tends to overwhelm all her other qualities in adaptations of Little Women, and this selfishness is an especially gendered one. Her "selfish little ways" as Marmee says in the 1949 film are rooted in materialism and a desire to appear, rather than actually be, the perfect young lady. The decidedly not feminist Dickens explored female selfishness in more malevolent form in more than one novel; in Great Expectations, the ethereally beautiful Estella is raised by the embittered Miss Havisham to wreak a scourge of vengeance on all men, and poor besotted Pip falls head over heels for her. Amy is not out to wreck the lives of men who fall for her, but she, unlike her sisters, is far savvier, and thus more calculating, than her sisters, knowing well the value of a dollar. Luckily for her, she has Marmee instead of Miss Havisham.

Anne of the Island - L.M. Montgomery
Though many might liken Anne Shirley to Jo, Anne is anything but a tomboy, and though she may love literature, she is fixated on romance and grows up into a stylish lady, who wears the puffed sleeves of her dreams. In Anne of the Island, Anne leaves for Redmond College to earn her B.A. and, far from her cozy Green Gables, she tries her wings. Like Amy, Anne eventually relegates her artistic ambitions to a pastime rather than a potential career and finds reluctant romance with a very old chum. Anne has accepted her red hair, never to dye it (green!) again, just as Amy has accepted her less than impressive nose, putting by the clothes-pin that had long been her favored night-time accessory. These stylish, romantic women have grown from occasionally ridiculous youngsters and blossomed into heroines.

Bonus: Victorian and Edwardian Fashion: A Photographic Survey - Alison Gernsheim
Since Amy is the fashionista of the March girls, this fascinating collection of nineteenth-century photographs is an essential companion. It includes some information about the fashions, but the bulk of the book is given over to reproductions of photographs, some of them among the very earliest ever taken. Many of them are of ordinary, middle-class people like the Marches and they offer an intimate view of what clothing such people actually wore.

Are you a Meg, Jo, or Beth?

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

6 Books for the Beth Marches Among Us

While Meg, Jo, and Amy of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women never fail to find readers who identify with them, sickly Beth has far fewer admirers. This is perhaps no wonder given that we live in a culture that equates health with personal worth, and who would aspire to live a life of quiet, uncomplaining helpfulness and protracted, painful illness? Beth's angelic nature strikes many today as 'unrealistic,' but I believe that a good part of this reaction can be ascribed to our modern discomfort with mortality. If the Victorians were sentimental about dying children, they had good cause to be: it is only since very recently in history that we have been able to regard the death of a child as an extreme anomaly. Like Dickens's Little Nell, Beth is a nearly purely selfless and good being, so devoted to her loved ones that she hardly has any desires for herself. Modern readers don't like this; feminists see her mired in subjugation so ingrained that her individuality disappears, while those less invested in such politics rebel against a role model that offers no wish fulfillment.

Nevertheless, Beth represents an iteration of womanhood that opens up a space for those who might otherwise be excluded from Alcott's band of healthy, ambitious girls. Meg, Jo, and Amy enjoy excellent health, while Beth's physical weakness is both a reminder of our common mortality and fallibility and a refusal to exclude a model of a woman whose ill health is not framed as a fault. Today, there is little sympathy to be found for those who struggle with chronic pain and illness, little tolerance for the idea that someone might not be able to achieve good health, even with the most assiduous self-care. Beth, both in her character and in her actions, urges us to embrace those who fail to live up to such aspirational standards.

Here are six books for the Beth Marches of the world, few as they may be:

Jack and Jill - Louisa May Alcott
One of Alcott's lesser-known novels, Jack and Jill is inspired by the nursery rhyme and concerns the two eponymous children, best friends, who are badly injured in a sledding accident. Both in terms of tone and incident, this novel resembles Little Women more than any other of Alcott's novels, exploring with grace and jaunty good humor both divisions and reparative bonds across class lines, childhood friendships that may promise more mature passions, and moral decision-making and the ambivalent value of money. Like the March girls, these children enjoy home theatricals and hand-crafted Christmas gifts. However, the wholesomeness of the book is constantly undercut by the viscerally described pain of the protagonists, whose good spirits dwell in shadow. I have an especial soft spot for Jack and Jill, and I imagine that for invalid children in the nineteenth-century, this was a precious book indeed.

Silas Marner - George Eliot 
George Eliot's deceptively simple novel follows Silas, an embittered and miserly weaver, estranged from his community, whose heart is painfully and passionately stirred by a little girl he finds abandoned in the snow. He adopts her, christening her Eppie, and is thus slowly reintegrated into the village of Raveloe. Though Silas Marner delves into the worst miseries of addiction, greed, religious doubt, cruelty, and betrayal, it is ultimately and full-bloodedly hopeful. Eliot celebrates family, both by birth and more importantly by adoption, as the strongest assurance of human happiness, tacitly criticizing industrialization and capitalism and their disruption of those bonds. Golden-haired Eppie is highly reminiscent of Beth, sweet of temperament and deeply attached to her adoptive father.

Cranford - Elizabeth Gaskell
The heroines of this delightful novel by the author of North and South are unmarried middle-aged women. Such protagonists, usually ignored, mocked, or depicted as pitiable figures in literature, receive a richly deserved airing at the center of their own stories, lives that at first glance may appear uneventful, but are anything but. The book has a loose-limbed and capacious structure and reads like a series of pleasant, gossipy letters. Cranford can be both uproariously funny, particularly in terms of the relationships between these women and their animals (Miss Barker stitches pajamas for her bald cow), and poignantly sweet, though Gaskell never strays into the maudlin. Since Alcott was persuaded to marry off Jo, Beth is the only one of the March girls who never marries, and indeed it is hard to imagine her, timid, bashful, and retiring as she is, being swept up into even the most mundane romance. As such, these unmarried women living their busy, domestic lives are Beth's sisters in kind.

The Diary of Alice James
Invalids were not generally viewed as interesting in the nineteenth century and in the twenty-first they are viewed with outright contempt, as we arrogantly assume that good health is a matter of will-power and effort. Alice James, sister of William and Henry James, was her brothers' intellectual equal, but she didn't receive the same advantages of education and struggled with terrible health problems, physical and mental, her entire life. Towards the end of her life, Alice kept a diary, in which she recorded what she read, who she saw, the gossip she heard, her opinions on politics and literature (she obsessed over the Irish Question), and lobbed some artfully feline gibes at her brother, who blithely used his sister's words in his novels, but to whom she was deeply devoted, and he to her. This diary is an extraordinary document, a testament to the agile mind and sharp wit of a woman who, despite her wealth, was denied the education, freedom, and strength to fight past the limitations imposed on her as a woman.

Precious Bane - Mary Webb
Precious Bane ought to have a prominent place in the literary canon, but, like so many books written by women, it has fallen into obscurity. Prue Sarn is a farmer's daughter whose prospects of marriage are considered nonexistent because she has a 'hare-shotten lip,' or a cleft palate. Prue doesn't resign herself to loneliness though; instead, she learns to read and write and devotes herself to the care of the farm and her troublesome, headstrong brother. Written in the Shropshire dialect that Prue speaks, Precious Bane has the potent intensity of a Hardy tragedy and the sensibility of a working woman's Flaubert. A period piece with no frills or furbelows, this novel puts blood in the veins and voices in the throats of ordinary men and women of the past, and Prue Sarn is a heroine for the ages.

Flush - Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf's highly experimental biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's pet spaniel, Flush, would surely have pleased Beth March immensely, for Beth adored her pets, her kittens and her canary, and might easily have felt a kinship with the retiring invalid poetess. Indeed, Barrett Browning unites the principal qualities of Jo and Beth, refracting their relationship into one person. Flush is remarkable for its evocation of a dog's-eye, or rather dog's-nose, perspective, for Woolf conjures robustly complex bouquets of scents and stinks; the strange sensuality of this approach both permits the reader to feel one with a doggy nature and estranges her from it, so accustomed as we are to rely on the visual. Few critics consider this novel-biography equal to the achievements of To the Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway, but Woolf succeeds to brilliant effect in the task of writing a canine biography. Its treatment of feminine illness, shyness, love of home, ambivalent attachments to family, and the bonds between animals and humans affiliates Flush with the less salient story of Beth, the quietest and least ambitious of the March sisters.

Are you a Meg March or a Jo March?

Friday, April 14, 2017

6 Books for the Jo Marches Among Us

Jo March is perhaps one of the most beloved heroines of American literature. Of Louisa May Alcott's little women, she is the one that readers most frequently identify with. Her literary ambition has elevated her into a small pantheon of fictional benefactresses for women writers. Her rather meandering path to literary success, which in the novels, she doesn't genuinely attain until she is well into middle age, makes her all the more attractive for women struggling to get their work published.

Jo fits more easily than either Meg or Amy into modern ideas of womanhood. She defies conventions, insists that she doesn't need a man, dislikes housework, moves away from home, and works throughout her entire adult life, whether she is writing, teaching, or working as a companion or governess. She is unquestionably the most overtly feminist character in Little Women (though Alcott would write even more transgressive and radical female characters in other books, especially those written for adults).

Nevertheless, Jo is prickly, easier to embrace in memory than in the actual text, particularly for twenty-first century readers. Frustration is expressed at her refusal of Laurie, though this refusal could probably be considered the most blatant and considered independent decision that she makes in her life, purely on the strength of her own feelings, hopes, and ambitions. Her eventual choice of Professor Bhaer, too, has made many readers cringe, and many also find her occasional flippancy and hard-headedness difficult to like. Her sexuality is repressed to an unusual extent, even for a nineteenth-century heroine. Having said that, Jo is in many ways an extraordinarily beloved female character, whose likability defies those prickly qualities. Those less likable elements in her character are part of what make so many women identify with her: she's not a paragon, but at bottom, she's kind, optimistic, and good. She gives us permission to be scapegraces without losing our self-respect.

Here are six books for the Jo Marches among us:

Moods - Louisa May Alcott
Moods was Alcott's first novel and it behooves the reader to get a copy of the revised version she published nearly two decades later, which restored much of the radical politics that her publisher had her cut out. The heroine, Sylvia Yule, is much like Jo, a prickly, passionate, gadabout tomboy, who gets worsted when two different suitors approach her. With less of a head on her shoulders than Jo, Sylvia marries the wrong man; the novel is principally concerned with the tangled mess this bad match creates. Moods is more overtly feminist than Little Women, for Alcott delves deep into complex women's issues, without offering prescriptions. Sylvia's moodiness, her difficult personality, is at the heart of her poor choice, but so is her total inexperience. Thus Alcott insists on a heroine that simply can't adjust to prescribed models of femininity without destroying herself, while demonstrating that ignorance and innocence doom women - as well as their spouses - to unnecessary and avoidable misery. 

Shirley - Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte Brontë was one of Alcott's favorite authors and this socially engaged feminist masterpiece would have suited Jo to a T. Brontë's heroine, Shirley, is a land-owner and shrewd businesswoman, her ideas afire with zealous dreams of reform. This philanthropic, passionate, and brilliant woman's most important relationship is her friendship with Caroline, a more traditional woman, an orphan, but her quiet meekness conceals a perceptive and contemplative mind. As in Little Women, readers are confronted with the romantic and marital choices of these women, choices that refuse to conform to the usual paradigms. Brontë and Alcott were both extremely invested in the issue of marital fitness, decrying marriages based merely on social class, wealth, or similar superficial concerns without reference to the individual temperaments, interests, and values of the two people involved. 

The Mill on the Floss - George Eliot
George Eliot's spirited heroine, Maggie Tulliver, has much in common with Jo, including a fervid love for reading, a ravenous intellectual curiosity, an ambivalent understanding of her poverty, a deeply complex relationship with a Laurie figure with more overtly queasy incestuous undertones, that is, with her brother Tom, a struggle to resign herself to the dependence of being female in a patriarchal world, and amorous interest in a suitor few would identify as a romantic hero. Many critics have also considered this novel largely autobiographical, as in Alcott's case, though I would recommend taking that statement with a healthy grain of salt. The Mill on the Floss is a tragedy, unlike Little Women, but there is no question Jo would have relished the dramatic climax.

Far from the Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
My second favorite Hardy novel (after Jude the Obscure), Far from the Madding Crowd satisfies on myriad fronts: it is both the tale of an independent, empowered, and determined woman who runs her own farm and a deliciously torrid romance, in which the gorgeous Bathsheba is pursued by no less than three interestingly tortured, secretive, and ulteriorly motivated men, a panoramic vision of rural life both droll and heartbreaking and a darkly tinged fable of sexual obsession. Whether Hardy qualifies as a feminist is hotly debated in academic circles, but I am inclined to consider him at the very least proto-feminist, given his harsh critiques of the structural conditions that foster a culture of rape, exploitation, snobbery, entrapment, and corruption, conditions that, he acknowledges, were far crueler towards women than men and towards the poor than the rich. This novel, too, I suspect, would have been relished by Jo. 

Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father - John Matteson
Louisa May Alcott drew a parallel between her most popular heroine and herself, so much so that it was not unusual for her to receive fan-mail addressed to Mrs. Josephine Bhaer, but the true story of Alcott's life included moments far darker and more radical than the relatively contented and smooth trajectory of her alter ego. John Matteson's dual biography of Alcott and her dreamy, intellectually (and literally) peripatetic father is both a brilliant work of scholarship and the most illuminating and beautifully written book about the Alcotts. Matteson dissects the complexities of Louisa's relationships with her parents and her sisters, especially the resentments, conflicts, and interdependencies of their highly unusual family dynamics, and analyzes her feminism both in her fiction and in her activism. Eden's Outcasts is essential reading for any Alcott fan.

Daddy-Long-Legs - Jean Webster
Jean Webster's novel is one of my most beloved books, but, unlike Little Women, it has failed to retain a cohort of passionate readers. Written in the form of letters and diary entries (with delightful pencil sketches!), Daddy-Long-Legs tells the story of Jerusha, called Judy, an orphan whose anonymous benefactor sends her to a women's college. Like Jo, Judy writes a novel based on her childhood experiences, and, also like Jo (and Louisa), she is anxious to earn money by her pen, in her case to pay back the wealthy man she refers to as her Daddy-Long-Legs. Judy is certainly a less saucy heroine than Jo, but then, her sufferings are far more severe; where Jo has Marmee and Orchard House, Judy has Mrs. Lippett, who finds names for the orphans on tombstones, and the overcrowded John Grier Orphanage. A paean to women's education, a protest against the social indignities visited upon children, especially girls, without families, and a sweet, delicious, vivacious treat, its sentiment cut with a clear-eyed social conscience, Daddy-Long-Legs has faced intense, and I believe undeserved, criticism from feminists, who have failed to recognize its insistence on women's independence and freedom to pursue educational, artistic, and professional ambitions.  

Are you a Meg March?

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

5 Books for the Meg Marches Among Us

Readers of Little Women tend to be fanatical readers. If they read to the end in this age in which the favored modes of expression are snarkiness and grittiness, the book usually exerts a power to which only works of true sincerity can lay claim. For more than a century, girls have identified with the March girls, and classified themselves as Meg, Jo, Beth, or Amy.

Meg certainly boasts fewer followers than Jo, but she has an advantage over the other three in that she actually fulfills the ambitions that most women today still have: she establishes a happy, stable monogamous relationship and has children. These desires are not fashionable; in feminist circles, we have been taught to proclaim that we have no need of romantic relationships, but the truth of the matter remains that most people hope to find a partner. Meg is, in many ways, the most obviously relatable of the four sisters because she conforms more than the others. Today, most people are keen to emphasize their individuality, their uniqueness, but the need to declare that uniqueness is, in fact, conformity: it is cool to be unique. Meg understands that pressure, that desire to be liked, admired, and comfortable in the circles in which she travels. While she bucks certain values that were especially distasteful in Alcott's eyes, she continues to struggle even after her marriage with the faults that make her so relatable. She has a materialist streak, coveting pretty things over necessities, and an intense need to appear to be the perfect housewife, a desire that we in the social media age ought to understand well indeed. These struggles are part of what make her such an attractive character. She's also kind and sweet, without the self-abasement of Beth or the snobbery of Amy.

Here are five books for the Meg Marches out there:

An Old-Fashioned Girl - Louisa May Alcott
This novel was the first Alcott published after Little Women and it examines a number of the same themes. Polly is a poor relative, come to stay with her wealthy relations, the Shaws. Though Polly occasionally feels tempted by the exquisite clothes, glamorous nights at the opera, and carriage rides that her cousin takes for granted, at heart she prefers to live within her means, enriching herself with the friends that her kindness, honesty, and warmth earn her. When the Shaws lose their fortune, Polly becomes their benefactress, not because she can help them financially - she is poor and struggling to earn a living - but because she cares deeply about them and reminds them that hard work and family ties are worth more than grand pianos, silver earrings, or any other luxury. This novel is highly reminiscent of the chapters of Little Women in which Meg kowtows with the tony Moffats and Gardiners. It is one of Alcott's best juvenile works. 

Agnes Grey - Anne Brontë
Meg works as a governess for the Kings, and though compared to most governesses, she seems to have a fairly easy time, her complaints - the tedium, the snobbery of her employers, her jealousy of their wealth - are common. Anne Brontë's first novel draws on her own experiences as a governess, critiquing the abuses and miseries heaped on educated, single women who had few respectable options for work. Agnes, like the March girls, is determined to be self-sufficient and be beholden to no one, but more so than Alcott's relatively fortunate heroines, Agnes suffers the degradations of genteel poverty, used and manipulated by her charges and forced to witness the pampered son of her employers torture animals. Brontë's moral indignation simmers beneath her narrative and her socially didactic purpose is in harmony with Alcott's. Both authors were passionate feminists and both expounded cogently and vigorously on reforms that would improve, and even save, women's lives.

Dombey and Son - Charles Dickens
My favorite of Dickens's novels, Dombey and Son critiques the rise of capitalism, exposing the seedy underbelly of a ruthless business world where compassion and charity are disdained. The heartless Paul Dombey views his children much as he views his investments, though as rather disappointing ones. His inability to perceive his daughter Florence Dombey's extraordinary virtue and her value as a woman (perhaps not a human being - Dickens punished his more wayward, less perfect heroines harshly) signals the justice of his eventual comeuppance at the hands of his slippery employee, Mr. Carker, a man possessed of a disturbingly toothy smile. Like Meg, Florence wishes to marry a good man, rather than a rich one, and she has the moral backbone to disregard the more sinful distractions and temptations of fashionable society. Dickens's vision of happiness in this novel harmonizes perfectly with Alcott's gynocentric domestic utopia. 

Pat of Silver Bush & Mistress Pat - L.M. Montgomery
Pat Gardiner is far less popular than Montgomery's better-known heroines, Anne Shirley and Emily Byrd Starr, and this is no wonder: unlike them, she has no professional or artistic ambitions. She is unfailingly domestic, devoted to her home and her family and unswervingly bent on preserving them intact. As such, she would certainly not be considered a modern heroine, for she does not have the slightest inclination to 'have it all.' That being said, Pat is a nuanced character, even if she is not exceptional in her talents or pursuits, and, like Meg, she finds her happiness ensconced in the select company of her family, extended to a beloved housekeeper, Judy in Hannah's place, and dear friends. Sisterhood, likewise, is a major theme of these novels, particularly the rifts that develop when one sister gets married, as is the relationship between a mother and her daughters. Sweet, funny (those who laugh and cry over Meg's failed jelly will adore the comic chapters), and wistful, the Pat novels are sure to please the Meg Marches among us.