A Year of Feminist Classics

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Tag Archives: Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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.