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.