Sometimes it’s difficult to get underneath the text and find where LMA is actually writing her own philosophy rather than “moral pap for the young.” I don’t think it’s really a surprise that she didn’t like the books she was writing, was startled at their success, and would rather have been writing the Gothic thrillers she liked so much. So it’s hard to find her in her novels, and since it’s her philosophy I want to get at, I’ve been thinking about the way she writes about the March sisters and what that might say about her own ideals.
She did not 100% approve of her sister Anna’s (the one Meg is based on) ideals, particularly her marriage. Anna, like Meg, was the super Victorian one who fit right into the ideal of true womanhood, and her husband was very dominant and she was very submissive. LMA doesn’t seem to want to criticize that ideology, and in fact praises it quite a bit, so if you’re reading the books to try and get an idea of LMA’s way of thinking, Meg’s chapters are probably not it. For example, one of the formative chapters on Meg is the chapter in which she goes to hang out with her rich friends and, because being poor really sucks and it sucks even more when you realize other people get to have nice things through no particular accomplishments of their own, she gets all hussied up and feels bad afterward. To me, Meg is the least interesting character in the book (except for Beth), but I sympathize with her completely on that point: it is really, really hard being poor. She comes home and asks Marmee if she really has “plans” for the girls’ futures, the way Mrs. Moffat thinks she does. This is Marmee’s response:
“I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good. To be admired, loved, and respected. To have a happy youth, to be well and wisely married, and to lead useful, pleasant lives, with as little care and sorrow to try them as God sees fit to send. To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman, and I sincerely hope my girls may know this beautiful experience. It is natural to think of it, Meg, right to hope and wait for it, and wise to prepare for it, so that when the happy time comes, you may feel ready for the duties and worthy of the joy. My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world-marry rich men merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting. Money is a needful and precious thing-and when well used, a noble thing-but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for. I’d rather see you poor men’s wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.”
Super helpful, Marmee, thanks. Being chosen by a good man is pretty much last on my list of things I care about, and I don’t think it’s really that high on Jo’s or LMA’s lists either, so I’m not sure what that was all about. Later in the book there’s another section where Meg is wrong and her husband is right and she has to fix it, and LMA actually writes: “a woman’s happiest kingdom is home, her highest honor the art of ruling it not as a queen, but as a wise wife and mother.” Which…what? No. LMA never married, was never interested in being married (I’m pretty sure that, like me, she preferred the ladies), and probably had seen enough “domestic bliss” to last several lifetimes.
So where is LMA’s real voice here? It’s definitely in any of the chapters about teaching children, but where else? I can never be certain. In the chapter in which Jo gets published for the first time, her father’s reaction is to say, “You can do better than this, Jo. Aim at the highest, and never mind the money.” Which is kind of a dick thing to say to your daughter when she’s been successful at something, but it comes up again and again: don’t write trash,
Louisa Jo. You don’t see him complaining when she gets paid tons of money later on and he gets to be president of the college she pays for, now do you? Is it too obvious I’m not a fan of Bronson Alcott/Mr. March? I guess I’m not very fond of a someone who would let his kids starve so he can pursue his ideals. I think maybe that will get me kicked out of the Transcendentalist club, but LMA was a Transcendentalist and she certainly seemed to realize making filthy lucre was a necessity of life if you didn’t want scurvy. Only a page or two later, she says,
Wealth is certainly a most desirable thing, but poverty has its sunny side, and one of the sweet uses of adversity is the genuine satisfaction which comes from hearty work of head or hand, and to the inspiration of necessity, we owe half the wise, beautiful, and useful blessings of the world. Jo enjoyed a taste of this satisfaction, and ceased to envy richer girls, taking great comfort in the knowledge that she could supply her own wants, and need ask no one for a penny.
I think this is more her style. Hard work, yes, independence, yes, but money is not a bad thing and it’s very nice to be able to eat.
However, it generally seems that when she describes Amy’s life, this is what she thinks of as the ideal. Or maybe that’s me talking, because Amy is my favorite, and if I were to take any of the characters as models, it would be her. She’s diplomatic, artistic, practical, and kind, which are all things I would like to be. When I was younger, I was really scared of everything and would have tried to be more like Jo, not letting people run all over me. I went in the opposite direction for a while and was very sarcastic and kind of horrible. But the older I get, the more I want to be a kind and compassionate person. Everybody hates Amy because of the book-burning thing and because she ends up with Laurie and Jo doesn’t, but for my part I’d much rather be Amy than any of the other characters.
I think if I’m going to get at LMA’s real thoughts, I think I’m going to have to go outside the text and read her biographies and journals. Am I going to end up a Louisa May Alcott scholar by the end of this project? I feel like this is destined to end with me in a huge taffeta dress, reciting things in front of an audience at Orchard House, but nothing on earth could make me do my hair like this. What were you thinking, Louisa May Alcott?
Next week: talkin’ bout work, work, work.