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. 

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