I have been extremely busy for the past couple of weeks, thanks to the beginning of the school year. Whenever I’m stressed or sick or unhappy (and thankfully I’m only stressed at the moment), I turn to familiar re-reads, and Louisa May Alcott is about as familiar as it gets. Despite my obsessive re-reading of The Saturdays, by Elizabeth Enright, when I was in grade school, and my near-memorization of Gaudy Night in late high school and college, it is probable that Little Women is the book I have re-read most often during my lifetime.
This time, I took two books off the shelf that are slightly less well-known and well-loved than Little Women (probably deservedly): An Old-Fashioned Girl and Jack and Jill. These books have their flaws, and are certainly not as infinitely re-readable at all ages as Little Women is, but I find them satisfying, historically and culturally revealing, and some of Alcott at her enjoyable best.
Jack and Jill is the slighter of the two. As the title implies, it’s about two friends who get in a sledding accident and are badly injured (… and Jill came tumbling after!). While Jack gets off with a broken leg, lively Jill must stay in bed for months with a sprained back. The book revolves around the pair’s families and friends, and the healing and education the children receive while they are forced to stay indoors. The book is extremely episodic, with a theatrical scene, an investigation into the “missionary” endeavors of three girl friends, the death of one of the young people, and a few milder ups and downs. Alcott is didactic, as always: patience is a virtue, children are better with healthy bodies than with overstuffed minds, etc. etc. Usefulness is a primary theme here: how can dreamy boys and girls turn into useful men and women? But there’s plenty of fun here, too, and the historical context (the entire town turning out for a kids’ play about George Washington! the dangers of croup on a wet head!) is fabulous.
An Old-Fashioned Girl is better at both the didacticism and the context. This is the story of the happy, healthy, unspoiled little country mouse (Polly) who comes to visit the dissipated, sophisticated-beyond-her-years, bored, and dyspeptic city mouse (Fanny, her brother Tom, and her little sister Maud.) Alcott doesn’t allow Polly to be flawless or smug: she makes mistakes and covets Fanny’s wealth and possessions as much as any normal girl would. But the reader (with Alcott’s occasional lift over the rough places) draws her own conclusions about which way of life is best. There are even some funny comparisons between the mid-19th century and what simplicity and dissipation looked like still earlier, when Fanny’s grandmother tells stories of her own childhood. (She met Lafayette!)
The second half of the story has more romance, but also a more robust look at what these two kinds of upbringing lead to in adulthood. Polly and Fanny each step into their lives as they expect to live them: Polly teaching music lessons for a living, and Fanny going to dances, reading novels, and visiting friends, with no useful occupation at all. Despite Polly’s occasional struggles with tedium, she finds real happiness in helping others and in her work. Here Alcott steps out in a clearly feminist vein, introducing women characters who have all sorts of accomplishments, from housekeeping to sculpture to writing novels (!), and showing that as long as a woman has purpose in life, and a ballot-box to show she has earned the right to that purpose, she will not be unhappy. The end of the story, despite its pairings-off, keeps to that theme: the partners intend to go forward hand in hand, mutually loving and mutually supportive.
These books are not as rich as Little Women, for which Alcott is deservedly famous. But I turn to them for comfort reading for a reason; they are solidly satisfying escapades in Alcott’s second-best style. Give them a try next time you’re looking for a quick read.