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?

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