Monday, November 19, 2012

{review} too many cousins?

Louisa May Alcott Eight Cousins, or The Aunt-Hill (1875)
Louisa May Alcott Rose in Bloom (1876)

(I downloaded both of these for free from girlebooks)

"Well, now, there is one very excellent, necessary, and womanly accomplishment that no girl should be without, for it is a help to rich and poor, and the comfort of families depends upon it. This fine talent is neglected nowadays, and considered old-fashioned, which is a sad mistake, and one that I don't mean to make in bringing up my girl. It should be a part of every girl's education, and I know of a most accomplished lady who will teach you in the best and pleasantest manner."
"Oh, what is it?" cried Rose eagerly, charmed to be met in this helpful and cordial way.
"Housekeeping!" answered Dr. Alec.
"Is that an accomplishment?" asked Rose, while her face fell, for she had indulged in all sorts of vague, delightful dreams.
"Yes; it is one of the most beautiful as well as useful of all the arts a woman can learn. Not so romantic, perhaps, as singing, painting, writing, or teaching, even; but one that makes many happy and comfortable, and home the sweetest place in the world. Yes, you may open your big eyes; but it is a fact that I had rather see you a good housekeeper than the greatest belle in the city. It need not interfere with any talent you may possess, but it is a necessary part of your training, and I hope that you will set about it at once, now that you are well and strong."
In general, I do like old sentimental, morally improving young adult books with a touch of romance. I sometimes suspect that one gets more from them as an adult, too. Yet, for me, these two classics of nineteenth century American fiction did not jell. I felt, as I was reading, that I had passed too far beyond youthful innocence to believe in the characters' intensely black-and-white morality. The tactile relationship of Rose with her guardian and uncle Alec also seemed a little icky. Although I understand that different times have different customs - and also factor in the sentimentalization of children and infantilization of women - I started to get quite cross with myself for not being able to suspend judgement and for being so horribly cynical. It crossed a line for me - something which, of course, certainly says more about me than about Eight Cousins. 
Diving into one of the trunks that stood in a corner, he brought up, after a brisk rummage, a silken cushion, prettily embroidered, and a quaint cup of dark carved wood. "This will do for a start," he said, as he plumped up the cushion and dusted the cup. "It won't do to begin too energetically, or Rose will be frightened. I must beguile her gently and pleasantly along till I've won her confidence, and then she will be ready for anything."
Eight Cousins is the story of 13 year old orphan and heiress Rose Campbell, who comes to live with her guardian Uncle Alec (a doctor) in a town (Boston?) with - as the title (and subtitle The Aunt-Hill) suggests - a large number of aunts and cousins. Rose is a sickly specimen and Uncle Alec experiments on her with all his ideas of how young girls ought to be turned into healthy women. No tight undies, simple clothes, lots of running around, no coffee (she is to milk the cow for her morning milk), and definitely no racy French novels.   
"Upon my word, Rosy, I begin to feel like the man who bought an elephant, and then didn't know what to do with him. I thought I had got a pet and plaything for years to come; but here you are growing up like a bean-stalk, and I shall find I've got a strong-minded little woman on my hands before I can turn round. There's predicament for a man and an uncle!"
I finally found something to agree with, however:
"If you dear little girls would only learn what real beauty is, and not pinch and starve and bleach yourselves out so, you'd save an immense deal of time and money and pain. A happy soul in a healthy body makes the best sort of beauty for man or woman. Do you understand that, my dear?"
Rose gets into tiny bits of strife (I prefer L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables for properly excellent and amusing strife), all of which teach her to become a more giving (i.e. sacrificing) person (in the sick-room, for instance). She is "rather fond of telling instructive tales". The message of sacrifice (women's sacrifice) is blunt (the talented singer - and former kitchen-maid Phebe - will sacrifice her career for love).
But Uncle Alec lifted up the bent head and, looking into the eyes that met his frankly, though either held a tear, he said, with the energy that always made his words remembered: "My little girl, I would face a dozen storms far worse than this to keep your soul as stainless as snow, for it is the small temptations which undermine integrity unless we watch and pray and never think them too trivial to be resisted." Some people would consider Dr. Alec an overcareful man, but Rose felt that he was right, and when she said her prayers that night, added a meek petition to be kept from yielding to three of the small temptations which beset a rich, pretty, and romantic girl extravagance, coquetry, and novel reading.

Rose in Bloom has a different feel from Eight Cousins. This may be because Eight Cousins was published serially, but also perhaps because it is more overtly romantic in tenor. Rose returns home after a few years abroad with Uncle Alec. She is now turning twenty-one and is a good catch for a young man in search of a fortune. Her uncle has put the kibosh on her studying medicine, as he "thought it wouldn't do to have so many M.D.'s in one family" (hmmm...). Again, the morality is spectacularly strait-laced (one naughty suitor is killed off for liking a drink or two) as we follow Rose as she tries to make herself into a philanthropist (learning she should not expect gratitude for "saving Magdalens and teaching convicts") and attempts to find a mate who embodies moral perfection, can write poetry, and looks like her uncle. (Consanguinity is not a problem...)
"Dear love! I will. But I have no fear, except that you will fly too high for me to follow, because I have no wings."
"You shall live the poetry, and I will write it, so my little gift will celebrate your greater one."

"No you shall have all the fame, and I'll be content to be known only as the poet's wife."
"And I'll be proud to own that my best inspiration comes from the beneficent life of a sweet and noble woman."
"Oh, [redacted]! We'll work together and try to make the world better by the music and the love we leave behind us when we go."
In sum... My criticism of the Rose books has been shallow, I know. I wish I'd read these as a teen. A lot of stuff would have passed happily over my head, and I suspect I would have retained the same fondness that I have for Anne of Green Gables. I don't remember feeling this uncomfortable about Little Women, although the sacrificial elements did annoy the hell out of me. 

Incidentally... I have no aunts, uncles or cousins. None.

If you liked this...  anything by L. M. Montgomery. (I adored The Blue Castle {REVIEW}). Also, while reading Rose in Bloom, I thought that I was sadly lacking any Thoreau street cred. Good Thoreau advice: "Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all."


  1. It's hard for me to be objective about these books, which I still re-read occasionally, because I've loved them since childhood. But I can definitely see that coming to them as an adult would be a very different experience.

    But I still think Uncle Alec is the perfect foster father figure :)

    1. Thanks Lisa May - I know exactly what you mean. My childhood favourites remain favourites even though I know that some of their views are repugnant (for instance, almost every time Biggles encounters "natives"). I did like Uncle Alec's views on corsets though!

  2. I agree with you about the heavy-handedness of the morality, and why do Alcott heroines have to be so self-sacrificing? I will always love Mac, though.

    1. Thanks Elizabeth - I think we should do a poll on whether it would have improved the book to read Rose's question to Mac (yes, I loved Mac) in the modern sense: "Of all the queer boys you are the queerest! Do you really mean that you don't like or notice girls?"!

    2. It definitely would improve the book! Especially the scene where Mac spends an entire party talking to a geology professor instead of dancing.

    3. Oh yes. Maybe it was a coded dialogue!

  3. Hmm - I have Eight Cousins on my TBR and I think I may find myself a little irritated! It's many moons since I read Little Women which I loved as a child but I think it is hard to throw off our adult feelings and look at such books as we would have as children.

    Love the Thoreau quote!

    1. Thanks Kaggsy - I think you just need to find yourself the right sort of tolerant and sentimental mood. It wasn't a bad book by any means - we just did not click.


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