An Old-Fashioned Girl (re-read)

I’ve been down and out for the last week with a terrible cold. The best thing about having a cold, if there is a best thing, is that I do my best re-reading when I’m sick. Some people turn to light and fluffy reading in times of stress — chick lit or Wodehouse — but I turn to childhood favorites. This time, sneezing and coughing and wiping my streaming eyes, I reached for Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl.

The book starts out as a fairly basic tale of country mouse coming to visit city mouse. Sunny, sweet-natured Polly is coming to make her friend Fanny a visit, and when she arrives she finds that nothing is quite as she expected. Fanny, despite being only thirteen years old, is the complete young lady: she dresses, makes visits, rides in a carriage, and walks around with young gentlemen as if she were an adult. Polly doesn’t know what to make of this. She’s used to a hearty, healthy, little girl’s life at home, and feels left out, poor, and backward compared to Fanny’s elegant contrivances. Tom, Fanny’s brother, doesn’t help her feel at home, either, with his constant pranks. But little by little, all the children begin to understand that good hearts and common sense are more to be prized than ruffles and gold earrings, and that parental love is better cherished than rejected as smothering.

So far, so simple. The characters are sweetly drawn, and there are some nice bits, but this first part of the book feels episodic to me. I don’t know anything about the publication history of An Old-Fashioned Girl, but it feels as if it could have been written as a serial, and some of the episodes feel padded. However, in the second half of the book, which takes place six years later, all this improves enormously. Fanny is a blasée, jaded girl of 18, Tom is a dandy, Polly is trying her luck as a music teacher, and all three are in for some interesting lessons in friendship, character, and love. The writing is much smoother, and there’s humor and earnestness in it that was underdeveloped in the first half. Alcott manages to give Polly some spice and make her a little more human, which is enjoyable. I also had to laugh — in the last chapter, when all the lovers finally get together with their partners, Alcott says, essentially, “I took the liberty once of ending a certain book as I liked, and no one appreciated it, so in this book I’m pairing everyone off I can get my hands on!” Apparently even at the time, people objected to Jo marrying Mr. Bhaer instead of Laurie! (I was never one of those, by the way. Nerds are my thing.)

If you’ve only read Little Women, you really should try some of Alcott’s other books. This one is lovely, and I’m also very fond of Eight Cousins and Jack and Jill. Perfect fare for a couple of hours whiling away a cold.

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17 Responses to An Old-Fashioned Girl (re-read)

  1. Jenny says:

    Jack and Jill is my favorite. But I’ve grown to like An Old-Fashioned Girl better over the years, even though it was one of my least favorites as a kid.

    You are one of the only people I’ve ever talked to who liked Mr. Bhaer. Don’t get me wrong, I love nerds, and if Louisa May Alcott didn’t want to marry Laurie and Jo to each other, that’s fine. But I have always deeply resented Mr. Bhaer for telling Jo to stop writing the stories she was writing. Patronizing!

    • Jenny says:

      Of course that’s a good point! But I always saw it as a gentler, 19th-century equivalent of pointing out to your journalist girlfriend that she doesn’t have to shoot smack in order to write about drug cartels. He saw it as hurting her, so he gently intervened. Patronizing, probably, but still well-intentioned, and she thought it out for herself without blindly obeying. Yes, I guess I am a Bhaer fan. The lone wolf. Howl.

  2. bookssnob says:

    I want to read this! I was having trouble finding a copy in England but now I’m in the US I think it will be easier. I need to have an Alcott FEST and then go and visit her house. Bliss!

    I wish Jo had married Laurie. I have to admit, I felt cheated. She married an old man! An old man! When she could have had Laurie who has hot stuff!

    • Jenny says:

      Mr. Bhaer wasn’t supposed to be an old man! Just older than Jo. I admit Laurie was young and hot, but… well… leave the young hotness to Amy, that’s what I say. After all, I am a real big fan of Patrick Stewart, and that’s all I’m saying.

  3. Oh, what a comforting, cozy re-read for a day down with a cold. That’s what’s lovely about colds. They make you sick enough so that you can’t follow your usual routine, yet well enough so that you can enjoy a good read!

    I loved Eight Cousins, too, and an Old-Fashioned Girl.

    It’s so nice to know that no matter what happens–famine, feast, or war–Alcott’s books will always be there!

    Hope you’re better soon!

    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you, Judith! It was immensely comforting. And I love Eight Cousins, too — something about all the wholesome food and clothing, I think.

  4. Carin S. says:

    Thanks for the reminder – I’d forgotten about this one! Jack and Jill was a favorite when I was about 10. I should keep an eye out for these.

    • Jenny says:

      I love Jack and Jill! Very satisfying, and rather like What Katie Did, by Susan Coolidge. They definitely make good re-reads.

  5. bybee says:

    I read the Little Women trilogy and Eight Cousins, so I’d probably like An Old-Fashioned Girl. I go through stages in which I’m All About Alcott.

  6. Kristen M. says:

    I haven’t read any Alcott besides Little Women so I will definitely put her on my list of authors to explore a bit more deeply.

  7. Dorothy W. says:

    I read this book and other novels by Alcott as a kid and teenager — read and reread — and loved them all. I remember a girl in junior high making fun of me for reading a book called “An Old-Fashioned Girl,” which tells you a lot about my junior high experience, I have to say!

  8. pburt says:

    I too would read and reread these books (my mother still has her childhood copies).

    Eight Cousins was a big favorite but no one has mentioned Rose in Bloom – its sequel. I think it is one of her better books about becoming an adult.


  9. christopher lord says:

    It has always been one of my goals in life to work through all items listed on the “Authors” card game of many years ago. I fear, however, that “Eight Cousins” and “The Talisman” may escape me, along with almost all of the Fenimore Cooper Titles (I did make it through the Deerslayer). So I admire your fortitude. Perhaps you’ll consider adding “A Child’s Garden of Verses,” “Twice-Told Tales,” or “Idylls of the King” to your extended TBR list?

    Love the blog….

  10. Kathleen says:

    This sounds like the perfect comfort read!

  11. Pingback: The Literary Horizon: Belinda, An Old-Fashioned Girl « The Literary Omnivore

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