Monday, December 06, 2010

The Women Of An Old-Fashioned Girl

You guessed it, followers. Today we are considering gender in An Old-Fashioned Girl.

Louisa May Alcott covers a wide array of women in An OFG. Are they classic types? Are they stereotypes? In addition to Polly, whose perfection stems from her adherence to old-fashioned values, we have her friend, Fanny, who might be the only character with any real depth and certainly the only character who is at all dynamic, since she changes. 

She begins as a shallow rich girl, interested only in being with her friends and fashion. This is a character we see a great deal of in YA today. Even in books that are not of the teen-girl-gone-bad variety, adolescent young women are often portrayed as being fixated on friends, clothing, and boys. Personally, I have no idea whether or not they are or the adult publishing world simply believes they are. With Fanny, there is a sense that she, unlike most of the other shallow rich girls she knows, is just a bit troubled. Particularly after she reaches adulthood, she appears to be looking around with a "Now what?" attitude. (I see this as a twenty-something scenario, by the way, not YA.) Oddly enough, Fanny has what might be described as a posse, like the ones you see in many YA books today. The members of it are pretty much interchangable, which you often see today, also. In fact, you could probably switch some of Fanny's posse members with some from a contemporary posse without a lot of effort. A timeless element. Also, that's an idea for a book! I've got to remember to write that in my journal. 

Grandma Shaw is a revered elder woman. At the beginning of the book she is neglected and unappreciated by the young until Polly teaches everyone that she has much to offer them. Elderly people are often portrayed this way in all kinds of literature today, suggesting that writers are terrified of growing old.

Mrs. Shaw, Fanny's mother, is a minor but fascinating character if you know anything about late nineteenth century women's history. Lucky for you guys, I do. Mrs. Shaw is a sickly woman. The infirm woman is a late nineteenth century phenomena, of which much has been written. She appears in adult fiction in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper. (I am sure all you former women's studies students remember that fondly.) What is so intriguing about Mrs. Shaw is that the third-person narrator really, really dislikes her. Both the narrator (who occasionally breaks out of omniscient mode to address readers as "I") and Polly have absolutely no sympathy for Mrs. Shaw, who they portray as not pulling her weight as either a mother or a wife. I'm not an expert on nineteenth century fiction and can't recall reading many other fictional portrayals of invalid women from that period. I'd be interested to know whether or not this is a common attitude toward them or if Alcott is doing something unique here.

When Polly moves to Boston to work as a music teacher, she rents a room with a spinster (a word that appears to have no negative connotations for Alcott--maybe it didn't in her day), Miss Mills, who could easily end up being Polly's future if she remains unmarried. Miss Mills, maybe even more so than Polly, is a saintly character. She's poor enough to have to rent out rooms in her house but not so poor as to have to wait on others like the Irish women servants. Thus she is the right kind of poor. And being ennobled by poverty, she spends her time doing good works for others. 

So we have a lot of very traditional portrayals of women here--very good girl, shallow adolescent, revered grandmother, bad mom, and saintly caretaker. And then, out of nowhere, in a chapter called "The Sunny Side," we get something entirely different.

Polly takes Fanny, who, remember, is sort of at a loss as to what to do with her adult self, particularly since she hasn't been able to catch the attention of the guy she's interested in, to visit some friends we didn't know she had. They never appeared in the story before, and they never appear again. Becky and Bess are artists. I'm not sure what Bess does (except that she does it with a block and some tools), but Becky is a sculptor who is working on a woman's figure. It's supposed to be her "idea of the coming woman," and Polly, who, remember, is an old-fashioned girl with values rooted in the traditional past, finds it "bigger, lovelier, and more imposing than any we see nowadays; and at the same time, she is a true woman." These women then get into a discussion of what item to put in the sculpture's hand, an item that would define her. Becky, the sculptor, objects to the suggestion of a man's hand because her woman can stand alone; she says no to a child because her woman is going to be more than a nurse.

All of a sudden, in a very positive portrayal, we've got 1860s era bohemian women discussing the status of women. And then they're gone. How out of place is that scene and those women in this story? Go back to the Preface and look at Alcott's statement of her intentions for the book: "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 which make woman truly beautiful and honored, and, through her, render home what it should be,--a happy place, where parents and children, brothers and sisters, learn to love and know and help one another." In that statement Alcott is using a romantic view of women to keep them narrowly confined as wives and mothers. What were the bohemian women doing discussing women's status and work and living on their own and travel in a book that states straight out that it's about women in the home? Polly says at the end of the chapter that she and her friends will be showing Fanny "the sunny side of poverty and work," but they never appear again.

And just what is this sunny side of poverty and work that Polly is talking about? Intellectual stimulation? Independence? Art? I know I overthink things. Actually, I don't know that. I've been told that. But what I'm overthinking here is that Louisa May Alcott never lived as a wife and mother. She was a writer who needed to generate income to support herself, her parents, and maybe her sisters early on. She went off to nurse soldiers during the Civil War. In Minders of Make Believe, Leonard Marcus says she worked as a magazine editor for a while. Did she believe any of the "good old fashions which make woman truly beautiful and honored, and, through her, render home what it should be" stuff? Were those women artists the real Alcott leaking into this book? 

Does it matter what was going on with Alcott since what we're supposed to be talking about this week is whether or not her portrayal of gender is timeless, the kind of thing that makes a book a classic? Only to the extent that those women artists types/stereotypes butting up against the very traditional female types/stereotypes make for a little confusion.

1 comment:

Rebekah said...

I just finished An Old Fashioned Girl and was really blown away by the Sunny Side chapter,which really did come out of nowhere. I was particularly intrigued by the Bess/Becky relationship. looking back with 21st c. sensibilities we have 2 soul mates who probably would be more than just friends nowadays. Back then, so innocent and ignorant of lesbianism the thought probably never entered their minds. Bless their hearts.