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.