Thursday, December 02, 2010

An Old-Fashioned Girl: What Is It?

We're in the midst of the Cuchi Mata discussion period for Louisa May Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl. We're going to be considering how race, ethnicity, gender, and class are treated and whether or not those treatments stand the test of time.

I am so overwhelmed with thoughts about this book that it's going to take more than one post to contain them.

First off, what is this thing about? According to the author's own Preface, An Old-Fashioned Girl is really two books. The first book is about Polly Milton, a poor, old-fashioned girl who comes to Boston to visit her much better off friend Fanny Shaw and her family. Polly, I believe, is around fourteen and Fanny a year or two older. A visit back then means two months. (It's an accepted fact in my family that I can only tolerate being with other people for three hours. I can double that for a holiday, but I will need to rest most of the next day. I found the idea of a two-month visit both fascinating and horrifying.)

This portion of the book reminded me a lot of Best Friends for Never, the one volume of The Clique series that I've read. You've got the same outsider less-well-off girl circling the group of wealthy girls. In that way, you do seem to have a timeless situation here. The big difference is that Alcott provides an extremely judgmental third-person narrator. There is absolutely no doubt that Polly is Polly Perfect, that old-fashioned country values are far preferable to nineteenth century Boston's big city ways.

Evidently that first half of the book about fourteen-year-old Polly was the original book. The second half takes place six years later and appears to have been written because Alcott received requests for a sequel. Polly has been visiting the Shaws regularly over the years and now comes to Boston to work, while Fanny is sort of struggling with ennui and her brother, good-natured Tom, is living the good life at college. This second half would probably not be published as a children's book or even a YA today. While the characters are determining what kind of people they are going to be (good old-fashioned sorts or bad modern types), a theme that I associate with YA, they are also all in their twenties and sorting out work and settling into marriages, not a YA situation. The third-person narration makes it clear that Polly's work ethic and values are still to be preferred over all but those of an older spinster who has committed her life to serving others.

This is hardcore nineteenth century instructive, improving literature for the young. In her Preface, Alcott is very clear that this is no accident. She knows exactly what she's doing:

"The 'Old-Fashioned Girl' is not intended as a perfect model, but as a possible improvement upon the Girl of the Period, who seems sorrowfully ignorant or ashamed of the good old fashions..."

"If the history of Polly's girlish experiences suggests a hint or insinuates a lesson, I shall feel that, in spite of many obstacles, I have not entirely neglected my duty toward the little men and women..."

Speaking of little men and women, I suspect that there was a lot of this same type of instruction in those two works I loved so when I was young. This makes me wonder if children can tolerate preaching a lot better than adults can.

Okay. The stage has been set.

3 comments:

Charlotte said...

viz children vs adults tolerating preaching--I didn't like this one at all as a child, because (I think) of the MESSAGE, but I enjoy it lots as an adult...but I think the opposite is true for other books, so I guess it all just depends...

gail said...

I never read this particular Alcott as a child. I had no problem at all with the three Jo March books. I can see some similarities between OFG and my recollection of Little Women (party scenes, playing outside in the winter, poor girls having to deal with wealthier people). I suspect that if I had all the time in the world and could read Little Women again, I'd find some of the same instructive material that appears in OFG.

Beth said...

As a kid who liked old books, I had tons of experience with navigating past shoals of instruction while reading. Even now people seem to feel that kids' books should be at least somewhat educational, so kid books are stuffed with some sort of lesson or information.

So I think any kid who reads widely soon learns to ignore chunks of message. I know Jo Walton has talked about this on tor.com a few times.