A Little Bit of Alcott

jack and jill 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 girlAn 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.

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24 Responses to A Little Bit of Alcott

  1. Lisa says:

    Alcott is high on my list of comfort reads! I’ve been reading & re-reading her books for so many years that it’s hard to be objective, though I do notice the moralizing and the didactic tone more now. An Old-Fashioned Girl is my favorite of her books I think – I love Polly, Maud & Tom. I don’t re-read Jack & Jill very often, but then I read it so often as a child that I feel I know parts of it by heart.

    • Jenny says:

      I think the only Alcott books I haven’t re-read to rags are Under the Lilacs and Jo’s Boys. I love all the others. Just because I can see some of the flaws doesn’t mean I don’t adore them to pieces — and she does certain things so well. I love her flavor of “we know what kids like, don’t we?” that she puts into her novels.

      • Lisa says:

        I only recently read Under the Lilacs. It was in the set my mother bought for me when I was 8 or so, but I never read it, which is odd because I read the others so regularly. Jo’s Boys I did read many times, I loved seeing where everyone’s lives took them, especially Nan and Josie.

      • Jenny says:

        You know, I liked Little Men, but for some reason Jo’s Boys just doesn’t appeal to me. It strikes me as more moralistic for some reason. Maybe I need to give it another try; I haven’t read it since I was a teenager.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I’ve reread these two books many times too. I love Polly’s independent life and her awesome circle of friends! (Although I’m not sure I could survive on her “simple, healthy” diet of cream, bread, and baked apples.)

    • Jenny says:

      Hmmm. Even though that’s true, it’s also true that cream, bread, and baked apples are things that make life worth living. I love the part where Polly “makes over” Fanny’s wardrobe!

  3. biblioglobal says:

    Like Lisa, as an adult, I can certainly see all the flaws of Jack and Jill, but as a kid it caught my imagination wonderfully. I don’t know why, but I re-read it much more than I read Little Women.

    • Jenny says:

      There are some wonderful scenes in Jack and Jill! I think the idea of Jill being sick for so long and having all those contrivances made for her was really fun to me as a kid.

  4. Alex says:

    I know I’m ill or stressed when I go back to Helene Hanff. I need a kindred spirit when life is getting me down. I don’t know these Alcotts but I have enjoyed ‘Eight Cousins’ and ‘Rose in Bloom’.

    • Jenny says:

      I do think it’s that sense of a kindred spirit — and also the sheer familiarity and predictability. I love Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom! I think my favorite part of Eight Cousins is when Rose gets her new “sensible” dress, the brown one with scarlet trimmings.

  5. Oh, how I have loved and have read Eight Cousins!! Since the age of 13, when I first read it, I’ve been captivated by the fantasy of being a girl cherished by a very caring, solicitous uncle and lots of male cousins. Scrumptious.
    I, too, adore, adore, adore The Saturdays! Such a wonderful, comforting, fun read.

    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

    • Jenny says:

      Eight Cousins has some wonderful scenes! I really like the part where Mac loses his eyesight and has to be dependent on Rose for a change. Nice feminist stuff.

  6. vanbraman says:

    I have a copy of An Old-Fashioned Girl on my shelf, but have never read it. I need to take it off the shelf and put it in one of my to-read piles.

  7. I always wanted to read Jack and Jill as a child but never managed to track down a copy! I remember putting it on my Christmas list when I was ten or so and my parents came back with a James Patterson novel…same title but not quite the same thing. I was never a huge Little Women fan but I LOVED (and do indeed still love) An Old-Fashioned Girl.

    • Jenny says:

      If you love An Old-Fashioned Girl, then you’ll see the joys of Jack and Jill. But how can you not love Little Women? Honestly, I’ve loved it differently at all different times of my life. What a great novel!

  8. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

    Cream, bread and baked apples sound pretty good. I’ve not read either of these, but Jack and Jill reminds me that I want to read What Katy Did again, and An Old-Fashioned Girl sounds totally brilliant and very appealing.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, yes, good call — the lively-girl-in-bed-with-a-damaged-back motif is very similar in the two books. I adore What Katy Did (and the sequels too!) That would be a good candidate next time I’m in the mood for re-reading!

      • vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

        You’ve inspired me to dump what I was going to read and start An Old-Fashioned Girl — really charming!

      • Jenny says:

        I’m so pleased you’re enjoying it — can’t wait to hear what you think when you finish.

  9. Aw, I love Jack and Jill. I love all the things they think of to do when they’re stuck in bed, even though you’re right that the book as a whole isn’t nearly as strong as some of Alcott’s others. And damn, it has been way too long since I read An Old-Fashioned Girl. It’s good stuff, although I always felt sorry for Polly that time she impulse-bought the boots and couldn’t afford any Christmas presents.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, those bronze boots burning a hole in her conscience! But even better is the moment when Fanny and Tom and Maud are reading her journal and getting their comeuppance, and Polly gets all righteously mad. That’s a good scene.

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