Saturday, March 17, 2012

In defense of Louisa May Alcott

Does she sometimes feel the need to broadcast the many morals of her stories in utterly un-subtle ways?

Does she regularly douse us with flowery, over-descriptive prose?

Does she, at times, make awkward executive decisions regarding the romantic destinies of her characters?

Yes, yes, and (read: Jo + Laurie) yes.

But if you're about to surrender the entirety of Alcott's corpus into your dark sea of bad 5th grade American lit memories, then you obviously haven't discovered the world of Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom.

The premise of Eight Cousins presents (in my opinion) the pinnacle of feminine escapist literature. 13-year-old Rose Campbell is shy, melancholy, and, on top of it all, recently orphaned. Her world changes entirely when she goes to live with her father's side of the family. Into her life step a total of seven male cousins – some are younger than her, some are older; but each comes to dote on her in his own way. And as if it couldn't get any better (being suddenly surrounded by seven guys who can be both brother figures AND potential love interests, because of the social norms of the 1800's), the package comes with a dashing, eccentric guardian to boot. Uncle Alec is the type of uncle who shakes his fist at the idea of corsets (because they constrain growing, breathing girls); instead, he dresses his niece in Indian harem pants that he picked up during his travels, so that she can run around and climb trees and such, and also encourages her to read lots of books and eat as much as she likes. (Last time I checked, life doesn't get much better for a teenage girl in 19th century America.)

Oh, yeah, and the whole family is SCOTTISH, and delightful cultural references abound! Tams and kilts are worn! Bagpipes are played! Jigs are jigged! Drinking songs are sung! And they're all Catholic, too, which is such a sweet touch that just makes me want to give Louisa a hug, seeing as she, herself, was Protestant (although perhaps a non-traditional one – her papa was a transcendentalist and bff's with Emerson and such).

Rose in Bloom begins when Rose is 20ish. The book tells of her coming into her own as an intelligent, independent woman – and also of her dealings with romance, and how she ultimately falls for and ends up with one of her cousins (of course!). I won't tell you which one it is, but I can promise that it will be exactly who you were rooting for (and you'll probably have already decided who you're rooting for by the middle of Eight Cousins). Alcott pulls out all the stops in creating a satisfying love story here: you will be jumping up and down by the last page!

Now, no review of these two books would be complete without a tribute to whom I consider to be one of the most swoon-worthy characters in all of western fiction. (And anyone who is familiar with how frequently I crush on fictional persons knows that this is a hefty claim.)

Alexander Mackenzie Campbell, or Mac, is essentially perfect. If he were real, I would marry him. He's a book lover to the point where he's known as “the Worm”. He has eye problems (at some point in Eight Cousins he almost goes blind from reading too much by candlelight - so romantic!), and therefore wears big ol' glasses (so stylish!). He's as sweet as can be, but hopelessly socially awkward. His hair is always a mess. He's perennially absent-minded. He's a science geek (becomes a doctor). But he also reads poetry. And writes poetry. He quotes Keats and references ancient Greek mythology. Basically, he's the guy every hipster chick wants. (amirite?) But he ALSO also takes in and cares for abandoned children, saves the lives of beloved uncles with his M.D. skills, and is just all-round a true gentleman with a heart of gold. Check out this passage from Rose In Bloom, where Mac calls on his cousins to respect women and aspire to real manhood:

“...'this I will say,- the better women are, the more unreasonable they are. They don't require us to be saints like themselves, which is lucky; but they do expect us to render 'an honest and a perfect man' sometimes, and that is asking rather too much in a fallen world like this,' said Charlie...

'No, it isn't,' said Mac, decidedly.

'Much you know about it,' began Charlie, ill pleased to be so flatly contradicted.

'Well, I know this much,' added Mac, suddenly sitting up with his hair in a highly dishevelled condition. 'It is very unreasonable in us to ask women to be saints, and then expect them to feel honored when we offer them our damaged hearts, or, at best, one not half as good as theirs. If they weren't blinded by love, they'd see what a mean advantage we take of them, and not make such bad bargains.'

...'Going in for perfection, are you?' asked Charlie...

'Yes, I think of it.'

'How will you begin?'

'Do my best all round: keep good company, read good books, love good things, and cultivate soul and body as faithfully and wisely as I can.'

'And you expect to succeed, do you?'

'Please God, I will.'”

Perfection, indeed! If only there were more Macs in this world...

On a more serious note, there are two timeless things that I simply adore about Alcott's Campbell clan books. One is the celebration of both authentic femininity and authentic masculinity, by way of contrasting the two. In Eight Cousins, Rose is very much a girl, and her seven cousins are very much boys. She's like a wild, red rose, and they're like the leaves and brambles that surround her – also wild, but in a different way (actually, this metaphor might actually be employed at some point in the book...). Their differences are what make their interactions exciting and beautiful. Rose is utterly intrigued by the Campbell boys, and vice versa: it's the fascination with the beauty of the other, the different-than-I. And yet, it's these very differences that allows Rose to grow so close to her cousins.

Side-note: I have to say, one thing that Alcott is good at just about all the time is promoting true femininity. The first feminists (Margaret Fuller also comes to mind here) really understood what it's all about. We're not celebrating women if we think that women should be encouraged to imitate men in all things. We're different. That's the whole point. That's what makes it so bewilderingly, breathtakingly, head-spinningly beautiful when man and woman fall in love: on a superficial level, it doesn't seem as though it should be sustainable, or even possible. And yet, it happens: harmony is achieved, and it's a positive, creative achievement, for new life comes forth, adding to the harmony. It makes so much sweet sense when, almost in a crowning of what has come before, Alcott's story ends with the romantic union of Rose with one of her male cousins.

The other thing I love about these books is their unadulterated celebration of big families. Rose is surrounded by dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins. They're loud and boisterous and they're clashing personalities. But there is so much life in such a world. And because there's life, there's also a lot of love – and that's what heals Rose's heart; that's what helps her grow into the beautiful young woman referenced in the title Rose In Bloom.

So, if you're in the mood for something different this spring, give these lovely little novels a shot. Keep in mind that you'll easily be able to find racier, edgier, less morally-grounded, and more concisely-written teen fiction by just browsing through the B&N website. But there's something undeniably attractive about these books – they paint the idyllic sort of world that everyone wants to escape to. Alcott's writing glows, and I think it's at least partly because she's not afraid to extol the beauty of virtue. It's wonderful, and it's something that we don't often see these days. So take a look. You'll be pleasantly surprised.


Image source found here.

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