Wait’ll you hear what she says when her aunt wants her to expose her shoulders.

I spend some of my cyber-time on Project Gutenberg, the online effort to have every existing public-domain book ever transcribed and available by…whenever. They’re good and noble people no doubt, but their header-writing leaves a bit to be desired, clarity-wise.

Anyhow, I was originally inspired by the chance discovery of the Pollyanna sequel. Yes, you read that correctly. Pollyanna Grows Up. And yes, a truly adult Pollyanna is an oxymoron. Thus I do not recommend this book except to those investigating a possible Chinese Cheerfulness Torture.

(Which, come to think of it, is an intriguing concept. "Hey, don’t sweat it, boy! You still have nine fingernails left! Whoops! OK, make that eight. Still, think of all the money you’ll save on manicures!")

‘Tennyrate, I got intrigued by the possibilities and did some further digging. As it turns out, not only is there a Pollyanna sequel, there are Five Little Peppers sequels. There are Further Chronicles of Rebecca. Heidi Grows Up, too. The Betsy/Tacy series actually continues on until both are married and one is expecting. It’s kind of funny really; from this vantage point we’re thinking ‘timeless once-in-a-lifetime-classics’, and it turns out that back in the day they were thinking ‘Sweet Valley High’. Only, y’know, with  fewer crazed spa owners wanting to steal Mrs. Pepper’s face.

It becomes especially amusing when you realise many of the best-known of these women are iconic for the one  novel that isn’t representative of their output.

Eleanor Porter, author of Pollyanna, otherwise wrote stories that espoused a sensible, no-nonsense attitude to life and especially charity. Frances Hodgson Burnett, who created little, plain Mary Lennox (and to a certain extent Sara Crewe), spent most of the rest of her artistic career revelling in the melodramatic swath cut by her impossibly beautiful, noble, indomitable heroines (and at least one hero).
The most outlandish variant on this phenomenon is Louisa May Alcott. Who — members of her family solely and as it turned out memorably excluded — just could not write female characters to save her life. The instant Little Women was over, the sequels switch focus to the Little Men and Joy’s Boys, and you can positively hear the authorial sigh of relief. She was not kidding, when she had her avatar declare a preference.

Not, of course, that she only wrote for girls under duress. More that the passages featuring female protagonists have a very conscious moral message, and that’s all they have. In the early stories, this does verge on the comical — it must have, even at the time. Girls are told over and over again that their duty is to remain pure in heart, healthy in body and fresh in mind. All solely that they may in the best possible way exert their ‘unconscious influence’ over male hearts.

That’s literally the whole of their character development, how well they can espouse the virtues. Remember how Alcott has Jo write a first book that "might have been called an essay or a sermon, so intensely moral was it"? And how it’s cute and funny? Check out this passage from Debby’s Debut, as young country mouse Debby Wilder speaks to her wealthy town suitor:

"Making hay; ah, that is the pleasantest fun in the world – and the better exercise, my mother says, for soul and body, than dancing ’till dawn in crowded rooms, with everything in a state of unnatural excitement. If anyone wants real merriment, let him go into a new-mown field, where the air is full of summer odours, where wildflowers nod along the walls, where blackbirds make finer music than any band, and sun and wind and cheery voices do their part, while windrows rise, and great loads go rumbling through the lanes with merry brown faces atop. Yes, much as I like dancing, it is not to be compared with that; for in one case we shut out the lovely world, and in the other we become a part of it, ’till by its magic labour we harvest something better than dried buttercups and grass."

…and this is just the response to "So, what do you do for fun, Miss Wilder?" Preach Transcendentalism, evidently.

Boys, on the other hand, are described as individuals, in warm, exuberant, auntie-like tones (it’s no accident that the students at Plumfield all call her ‘Aunt Jo’.) They don’t escape the Aesops — nobody ever does, in an Alcott novel — but their trials and tribulations are far more interesting, their moods indulged, their ideas given equal weight with their ability to inspire others.
Boys have fun in Alcott novels. Girls, never, unless — as in Eight Cousins and its sequel Rose in Bloom — they adopt tomboyish modes of behaviour (which, to Alcott’s credit, was quite the controversial innovation itself, at that time).  These two books, told from the POV of one girl’s effect on her seven male cousins, make for particularly vivid illustrations of the principle.

After Alcott took up suffragism and the attendant docrine of woman’s rights, this thankfully morphs a bit further, into admiration for strength generally. Gone are the heroines who ‘naturally’ clutch their little brothers’ arms when frightened. By Part Two of An Old-Fashioned Girl we see a female sculptor working on the strong, noble ‘Ideal Woman’; the adult Rose asks her chauvinist cousin ‘Would you like to be told that your only purpose in life was to marry, bear children, and then do nothing until you die?"; and Jo’s Boys features a female med student, a co-ed college and several pointed discussions of the subject.
But even these encouraging signs have a weird flipside. Again, what Jo says about detesting ‘namby-pamby little chits’? Her creator is not kidding. So not kidding. Men are often derided as ‘weak and womanish’, and in Little Men Aunt Jo calls little Nat ‘my daughter’ explicitly because of his sensitive and docile nature. As per Aristotle, men are very much the active force in Alcott’s world. Women gain strength by partaking of male nature, not on their own unique merits.

Barring The One Big Exception, they never quite move out of their roles as inspirational types, cutout dolls for the author to pin colours on; even in Jo’s Boys there is Amy’s lovely daughter Bess, called ‘The Princess’ without a shred of irony, and existing solely to serve as a shining inspiration and unattainable Ideal to whatever boy is being spotlighted at the time. Bess is, in short, the Ideal of girlhood of her time, and it never seems to occur to her creator that she kinda dilutes the point of the whole. Alcott’s heart maybe with tomboy Nan, the medical student, but her duty as she saw it clearly lay in training little girls to be Purity Sue.

It shows up even more pointedly in Jack and Jill. The same exuberance celebrated in young Rose leads Jill into disaster — serious spinal injury in a toboggan crash — and she spends the subsequent year of recovery learning how to be more saintly, patient and brave, while her friends take up similar self-improvement courses as ‘home missionaries’. Just like Alcott’s early heroines.

Meanwhile, in the same book, an entire chapter is devoted to Jack’s older brother and his thrilling mishap with a runanway train car. He gets penalised for it, of course — everybody does, in an Alcott novel — but you can tell which side of the tracks his creator would rather have been on.
hits counter


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: