A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

Louisa May Alcott and the Wise Woman

This is my second contribution to this month’s discussion of Little Women.

One issue which is seldom discussed when appraising feminist themes in literature is the role of women in old age. Too often older women are invisible, just as Doris Lessing observed in her novel The Summer before the Dark.

Last year, when we discussed Herlandby Charlotte Perkins Gilman,

I was impressed by Gilman’s description of an all-female society where older women are both honored for the lives they have led and employed for their wisdom and self-control. Here the male visitors are greeted:

“If they were only younger,” he muttered between his teeth. “What on earth is a fellow to say to a regiment of old Colonels like this?”

In all our discussions and speculations we had always unconsciously assumed that the women, whatever else they might be, would be young. Most men do think that way, I fancy.

“Woman” in the abstract is young, and, we assume, charming. As they get older they pass off the stage, somehow, into private ownership mostly, or out of it altogether. But these good ladies were very much on the stage, and yet any one of them might have been a grandmother.

Although Louisa May Alcott is writing about a real 19th-century world – not a fantasy like Herland – she also recognizes the powerful role older women can take in understanding and counseling the young as they try to make their way in life. Marmee in Little Women is a clear example. Her opinions are usually conservative.

“Learn to know and value the praise which is worth having, and to excite the admiration of excellent people by being modest as well as pretty, Meg.”

Also,

“I’m not ambitious for a splendid fortune, a fashionable position, or a great name for my girls. If rank and money come with love and virtue, also, I would accept them gratefully, and enjoy your good fortune; but I know, by experience, how much genuine happiness can be had in a plain little house, where the daily bread is earned, and some privations give sweetness to the few pleasures.”

At the same time, Marmee unites with Mr. March in not accepting poverty passively. When the girls propose to find work,

“Believing they could not begin too early to cultivate energy, industry, and independence, their parents consented, and both fell to work with the hearty good-will which in spite of all obstacles is sure to succeed at last.”

What is most striking to a modern parent is not that the girls’ mother gives advice – all mothers do that – but that the girls take the advice so seriously.

Alcott’s next successful children’s book after Little Women was An Old Fashioned Girl. In it, Alcott continues to show the strong role an older woman can take in a sometimes dysfunctional household. Young Polly – pretty, gifted and poor – comes to stay in the Shaw household. The Shaw children are friendly but spoiled. Polly receives understanding and support not from their mother, but from their grandmother. When they meet, unsophisticated country Polly is praised by Grandmother Shaw because she is still a child:

“Well, dear, I’ll tell you. In my day, children of fourteen and fifteen did n’t dress in the height of the fashion; go to parties, as nearly like those of grown people as it’s possible to make them; lead idle, giddy, unhealthy lives, and get blas, at twenty. We were little folks till eighteen or so; worked and studied, dressed and played, like children; honored our parents; and our days were much longer in the land than now, it seems to, me.”

But children were not idle at all:

“Yes, and we all learned to make bread, and cook, and wore little chintz gowns, and were as gay and hearty as kittens. All lived to be grandmothers and fathers; and I’m the last, seventy, next birthday, my dear, and not worn out yet; though daughter Shaw is an invalid at forty.”

“That’s the way I was brought up, and that’s why Fan calls me old-fashioned, I suppose,” said Polly.

This function of advice giver and reinforcer of conservative family values is given to Uncle Alec in another successful children’s book, Eight Cousins. But still, the many aunts in the story sometimes get a word in and the elderly great aunts, Peace and Plenty, stand firmly for the good old days and good old values.

Even in her adult novel, Moods, Alcott finds a place for a wise woman. When Sylvia is grieving over the unfortunate marital choice, she has a “sudden memory”:

“If ever you need help that Geoffrey cannot give, remember cousin Faith.”

This was the hour Faith foresaw; Moor had gone to her in his trouble, why not follow, and let this woman, wise, discreet, and gentle, show her what should come next.

Faith diagnoses that Sylvia has two spirits contending in one body, and “…each rules by turns, and each helps or hinders as moods and circumstances lead.” Advice and comfort are then given and gratefully received.

Louisa May Alcott wrote two sequels to Little Women. In Little Men and Jo’s Boys Marmee does not completely disappear, but Jo is now clearly in charge of the family destiny. Whereas she was once the harum scarum tomboy who wanted independence of action, now she follows the fortunes of others and guides them on their various ways. Jo is now the wise woman.

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13 responses to “Louisa May Alcott and the Wise Woman

  1. jeanlp July 21, 2012 at 8:44 pm

    I was just thinking about Marmee the other day. I like the fact that she has just as bad a temper as Jo, and when Jo realizes that her temper is really screwing up her life (seriously, she lets Amy get into a situation that nearly kills her!), Marmee is right there knowing how she feels. Jo is then able to observe her mother getting angry but keeping her temper.

    • SilverSeason July 21, 2012 at 9:03 pm

      You are right. And if Marmee, with her temper, could become a wise woman, then so could Jo. This is something that Alcott understood. Those with the energy to feel strongly (and be very angry) can also accomplish great things.

  2. Bonnie Jacobs July 22, 2012 at 3:34 am

    Thanks, SilverSeason, for your astute observations about older women in Louisa May Alcott’s books. I’m a little dismayed that all the older women seem to be old-fashioned and conservative thinkers. Since I’m 72 and a progressive thinker myself, I know that we older women don’t ALL want our girls to be old-fashioned in how they act and think. Women have come a long way since the 1970s, when I was part of the Second Wave of feminists.

    • SilverSeason July 22, 2012 at 11:03 am

      When I went back to review what the various wise women had said, I was surprised myself to find how conservative they were. I had remembered Marmee as progressive, but her main advice was to reject material standards in favor of love and service. She did support independence up to a point, letting Jo go off to live on her own at a time when few parents would have considered that for an unmarried girl.

      • jeanlp July 22, 2012 at 2:37 pm

        She also told May not to focus solely on home and children, but to be informed and pay attention to world events. And of course we know that the Marches were abolitionists and anti-corsetry. I don’t think you can call anti-materialism either conservative or progressive, do you? I am not sure that Marmee and co. are as old-fashioned as they claim to be; or at least, their version of it is Louisa May Alcott’s brand of philosophy, which is more Transcendentalist and ‘sturdy independent American’ than anything else. I kind of think of the ‘old-fashioned’ label as a little bit of PR.

        So my question is, what exactly are we calling ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ in an early American environment? Are we using the American definitions of those words from back then, or the European definitions (in which ‘conservative’ means ‘pro-aristocratic’ and ‘liberal’ means something more like republicanism)? Would Marmee be in favor of women’s suffrage?

        • SilverSeason July 22, 2012 at 3:22 pm

          You ask very good questions and make me consider what I meant by “conservative.” I did not mean anything political, but the desire to conserve the old values. This is true of all the Alcott books I have read. They join in recognizing economic and social change but plead for traditional values of home, family and simple living. Now, as to how to conserve good values from the past, here Marmee and Grandmother Shaw are not conservative at all in the current political sense. They welcome activities that are unconventional at the time for middle class girls, but true to those values. Marmee tells Jo not to make a marriage from which she predicts future conflict because that would violate her value of a harmonious home. She tells May to look outside housewifery and children so as to be a better companion for her husband and, again, promote a happier home. So, as I said in my previous post about Little Women, it’s a real mixture. Alcott documents a new day — women work outside the home, they are fully educated, they dress and eat sensibly — but she is a savvy writer who needs to sell, so she mostly coaches it in terms of helping the family. Still, Jo’s need to express herself and to be recognized for it is also in the book. Marmee’s advice is “conservative,” but she recognizes Jo’s ambitions; I don’t think Mr. March ever does.

        • jeanlp July 22, 2012 at 8:43 pm

          Hm, I hope this reply thing works; it might show up above the post I’m replying to. I’d agree that Mr. March doesn’t recognize his daughter’s ambitions, but then he doesn’t do anything much except to be a comforting presence in the background. I suspect that LMA loved and admired her father’s philosophy but found him rather hard to actually live with.

          I do not know if I think that home, family, and simple living are conservative (or liberal) values. They might just be values that appeal to a lot of people. As I said, I think LMA was engaging in a little PR with her talk about ‘old-fashioned’ values when they’re just the values she wants to sell. I do think you could say that she is referring back to American roots and glorifying an image of early American values (egalitarianism, independence)–but those values were themselves quite radical in the wider world.

          With Marmee and May, I don’t think Marmee just wants a happier John and home. May herself is miserable, and there is an element there of ‘If mama ain’t happy ain’t nobody happy.’ May doesn’t know how to combine the roles of wife and mother and self, and Marmee helps her figure it out.

  3. Bonnie Jacobs July 23, 2012 at 2:58 am

    When you say “May,” do you mean Meg? If there was a May, I’ve forgotten her, but Marmee would be helping her own daughters figure out life, right? Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.

    • jeanlp July 23, 2012 at 4:28 am

      Argh, yes. MEG. My brain is gone, it’s too hot. :p

      • Bonnie Jacobs July 23, 2012 at 5:02 am

        LOL, yes, it’s too hot. I played Marmee in my 6th grade play, which was TWO HOURS long. Very ambitious of our teacher. We practiced all that school year for our two performances on two different days in the sping of 1952, so I got to know my “daughters” very well. Mr. March, at age 12, was shorter than I was, so the cast photo in the newspaper makes him look more like “my son” than my “husband.” For the record, “Meg” and I are still friends at 72, and we celebrate our birthdays together every spring by going out to lunch together.

        • jeanlp July 23, 2012 at 6:28 pm

          And I just read the book too! Dang.

          That’s so fun about your school play, and that you still know “Meg.” My daughter just turned 12, and all this year the girls have been sprouting up and turning into teenage beauties while the boys are little and zany. It’s a funny age. 🙂

  4. Melissa August 1, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    Great post!

    It’s so interesting to hear from people who have grown up with this book. This was my first time (and I’m almost 31). I just finished the audiobook, so hopefully I’ll have my post up by the end of the week.

  5. mdbrady August 9, 2012 at 6:11 pm

    Alcott’s Work has an even strong depiction of a wise woman and also more about the lack of adequate paying work for a woman who needs one–it’s more progressive than Little Women in some ways and less in others.
    Among my favorite “old, wise women” is May Sarton’s I Hear the Mermaids Singing.

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