Old Friends and New Fancies: An Old-Fashioned Girl

Louisa May Alcott, An Old-Fashioned Girl (1869-70)


An Old-Fashioned Girl is really two books. The first few chapters appeared as a serial in a magazine, and form an episodic narrative centered around a materially poor but morally upright girl who is on a visit to some wealthy friends. Polly, the “old-fashioned girl,” loves the Shaws but is baffled by how they can be so discontented and naughty when they have so much to be grateful for. Under her gentle influence, they begin to see the error of their ways.

The second, longer section is headed “Six Years Later” and (by popular demand, it seems) follows the young people as they grow up and make their way in the world. Polly, determined to support herself and help her family, is teaching music in Boston, a completely honorable undertaking which nevertheless in her day meant putting herself outside the bounds of polite society. Her friend Fanny, is restless and dissatisfied, unwilling to pursue any purpose in her life beyond the social round and the marriage market. Fanny’s brother Tom is enjoying himself but learning little in college, while Polly’s brother Will earnestly works toward a future as a minister. The rest of the novel chronicles some of their trials and triumphs, along with a dash of romance.

As usual in Alcott’s children’s books, there is an overtly didactic strain to the narrative, with small lectures about honesty, hard work, and selflessness. Although that did not bother me unduly, I found the characters to be less distinctive and nuanced than in Little Women, and Polly is a bit too much of a paragon to fully blossom into life. But there are some scenes of the type that Alcott does best, portraying the domestic details of family life with a wry sense of humor. She also gives us an unusual, sympathetic portrait of the life of a nineteenth-century working woman. I don’t think Alcott was unaware of the irony embedded in her title — her “old-fashioned girl” is actually the one who is least a slave to fashion and the most in tune with what she truly wants and needs. By remaining steadfastly “old-fashioned,” Polly heralds the new, forward-looking potential of women for self-determination and independence.

Along these lines, in the middle of the second part there’s a startling scene where Polly introduces Fanny to some of her friends, a community of happy, busy single women with vocations of various kinds. One of them is an artist working on a sculpture of the woman of the future, a figure she refuses to portray holding any of the conventional female symbolic attributes in her hands. At her feet, along with a needle, a pen, and other instruments of her power, the sculptor places a ballot box — quite a daring statement for the time.

Alas, after this the story devolves into a fairly conventional love quadrangle plot. There’s a reversal of fortune, which allows for a demonstration of how moral character is developed through poverty. Misunderstandings cause some tension and suffering, but reconciliation comes in the end. In a mischievous coda, after promising to match up everyone in sight, Alcott leaves one of her characters as a contented spinster — a hint at how she might have stretched the bounds of convention, if she hadn’t felt compelled to defer to her audience.

In the scene referred to above, Alcott also seems to have placed a self-portrait, an author who “wrote a popular book by mistake” and now is worn-out and ill, a slave to her own success. It’s endlessly fascinating and frustrating to contemplate what Alcott might have produced if she had been able to develop her talent more freely, bolstered by good health and financial security. In An Old-Fashioned Girl, she at least gives us some glimpses.

Back to the Classics Challenge: Children’s Classic 
Classics Club List #28 


12 thoughts on “Old Friends and New Fancies: An Old-Fashioned Girl

  1. Great review Lory.

    You raise an interesting question as to how Alcott’s writing carrier might have been more fruitful had she faced more favorable conditions in life.

    There is the old stereotype that artists tend to produce great works under adverse conditions. Though I do think that history has shown this to be true in some cases. I do agree that the opposite is true in others. Perhaps this is so for Alcott.

    From what I know about Alcott she was an extraordinary person nonetheless.


    1. You’re right, too much comfort is not always a good thing. A difficult balancing act for many authors. In Alcott’s case, it seems a particular pity that her robust health was unnecessarily ruined by the harmful medicines of the time.


  2. I discovered this book years after I’d read the Little Women books and also the Eight Cousins books. But it quickly became one of my favorites. I agree it’s didactic, though I think that’s true of all Alcott’s books. I really enjoyed Polly’s bumpy introduction to Boston society and the Shaw family, and then her independence later in life. Also I quite like the hero of this book!


    1. I LOVED Polly as a professional woman in Boston, such an unusual point of view for a children’s book of the time. And the hero was lovely too, you are right.


  3. Sounds like this one isn’t quite as good as Little Women, but still worth reading. There’s something about these old-fashioned children’s books that I really like. I look forward to giving this one a try.


  4. Is this your first time reading this? I read all the Louisa May Alcott books when I was a kid, not just Little Women, so they all have that warm glow of nostalgia for me, and I don’t mind so much about the didacticism. I think the first half of Little Women is better than this book, but this one’s better than the second half of Little Women. (God Meg is such a bad parent.)


    1. I basically stuck to the Little Women/Men/Jos Boys trio growing up so I’m catching up with Alcott’s other children’s books now. Interesting comparison with LW, you have a point about the second half. I also want to read the adult novels Moods and Work that explore some of the same material.


  5. Sounds a little on the preachy side. I do like that Alcott left someone a contented spinster at the end. I might read this one just for that reason alone.


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