Advent Reading Challenge: Little Women

7th December

‘Christmas with the March sisters’

an extract from Little Women (which was the subject of a previous post ) Louisa M Alcott

Christmas Flowers

Christmas Flowers

Little Women opens with Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy regreting the prospective lack of Christmas presents. Mr March is away at war, which is naturally hard for the family left behind who miss him a great deal. Money is also scarce in the March household but Mrs March (Marmee) has assured the girls that there will be one special gift under each of their pillows:

Jo was the first to wake in the grey dawn of Christmas morning. No stockings hung at the fireplace, and for a moment she felt as much disappointed as she did long ago, when her little sock fell down because it was so crammed with goodies. Then she remembered her mother’s promise, and, slipping her hand under her pillow, drew out a little crimson covered book.

The book was John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and each sister received a copy that Christmas morning. Marmee had reminded the girls how much they had enjoyed playing at pilgrims when they were younger, taking bundles on their backs and travelling from the City of Destruction (the cellar) up to the Celestial City (the attic).

Marmee says to her daughters that they should ‘begin again not in play, but in earnest, and see how far you can get before father comes

Pilgrim's Progress

Christian bearing his bundle

home‘. In fact, the March girls begin their progress that very day by giving up their Christmas breakfast to a desperately poor family, the Hummels, living nearby.

The true spirit of Christmas in action…

Note: The Pilgrim’s Progress was first published in England in 1678. The illustration above is taken from a 1778 edition (thanks to Wikipedia).

Photograph: Chris Mills

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A Tale of Four Sisters: revisiting Little Women

colour illustrations of the March sisters

The March family

A few posts ago, I mentioned that I had bought a biography of Louisa May Alcott at the Trinity College Book Sale. This book by Martha Saxton conveniently ties in with my Landing Project since Alcott’s best-known novel Little Women and its sequels are residents on the landing. Little Women was written in 1868 and Good Wives, the second volume in 1869. Both stories were published together in 1880 as Little Women. Alcott continued the saga in Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886). Sadly, none of my volumes dates from that early on so they have no financial value. I think I bought all of them in second bookshops several years ago to replace my original childhood copies. They are from a series called Juvenile Library and all have a colour plate in the front depicting the characters. Only Jo’s Boys still retains its illustrated dust jacket. As you can (just) see from the photograph the girls are depicted as rather more glamorous than is consistent with the novels.

In common with so many other teenagers, I read and loved Little Women and I am sure that I was not the only one to identify with and be inspired by, the lively, tomboyish character of Jo March. In sharp contrast, Meg was too good and youngest sister Amy was too fine and fussy. Poor saintly Beth died after illness and decline, which would not have inspired anyone a great deal. I also remember being deeply disappointed that Jo eventually married Professor Bhaer instead of Laurie, the wealthy boy next door. I wanted fun, romance and frivolity but got practicality and companionship instead.

It is strange to pick up an old childhood favourite to re-read and then perhaps to revise long held memories of a cherished book. I started to read the opening chapters of Little Women, revisiting the March sisters as they prepare for their Christmas festivities. After such a lengthy passage of years, I now find myself not particularly in sympathy with the constant striving for goodness and selflessness on the part of the girls. While I can appreciate the solid work ethic and the ability of making the best of what they had, so much virtuousness is hard to take. The emphasis on womanly attributes and virtues is of course strange from a twenty first century perspective. During the progress of the novel, poor Jo is urged to put away her boyish ways and become a woman; an angel of the home. This is in contrast to the eldest sister Meg who is already well on the way to conventional, domestic womanhood.

Until I picked up Martha Saxton’s biography, I had not read anything about Alcott’s life. I had always assumed that her own family inspired the March family portrayed in her work. Which indeed it did, but there was much more to the story than a straightforward re-working of her family life. The March sisters were fictional versions of Louisa and her sisters: Anna (Meg March), Louisa (Jo March), May (Amy March) and Elizabeth (Beth March). Similarly, Bronson and Abba Alcott inspired the characters of Mr and Mrs March; but Louisa’s relationship with her parents was much more problematic than her fictional counterpart’s was with her parents.

I would like to return to Louisa Alcott and her family in a future post, but meanwhile please let me know which was your favourite March sister and why…

Jane Robinson’s Bluestockings: Heroines of Education

This post came about because I have been reading a couple of biographies at the same time: one about the Crimean heroine Mary Seacole (Jane Robinson) and the biography of Louisa May Alcott (Martha Saxton) that I mentioned a while back. While thinking about the role of women in the nineteenth century as a result of this reading, I remembered that I had another book by Jane Robinson tucked away. This one is a fascinating account of the long struggle for the right of women to be educated. Robinson is an engaging writer on various aspects of women’s history and I thoroughly recommend her work. I read Bluestockings over a year ago and wrote a couple of short posts on the topic for a student site. I’ve dug them from the archives:

Bluestockings: the story of female undergraduates

 

cover of Bluestockings

Bluestockings

I’ve recently been reading an excellent book about the early years of women’s university education in England, Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story of the First Women to fight for an Education by Jane Robinson. It is still shocking to realise that women were at one time not considered to be capable of serious study. And worse than that, the (male) medical profession of the Victorian era thought that women would lose the use of their wombs (atrophy would set in apparently) through the effect of all of that dreadfully tiring brain activity. It would be just too much for the poor things. Early women students also really had to fight hard to be taken seriously and accepted as equals by male academics who didn’t think that women could produce work of a comparable standard. Though to be fair, some women also held similar views, believing that women’s place was in the home and that women had more to lose than to gain by trying to attain an education and a degree. Apparently no man wanted a clever wife, so an educated woman risked throwing away her chances of marriage and children. And of course this was at a time when many professions were still closed to women.  

Robinson’s book deals with the struggle that females had to get into universities (and on equal terms) in England, but at one time the picture in Ireland wasn’t much better either. Apparently Trinity College Dublin fought hard against the monstrous regiment of women undergraduates and only finally gave in and admitted them in 1904. Even then however there were many restrictions governing their conduct and access to various parts of the university which lasted well into the twentieth century.  A Danger to the Men? A History of Women in Trinity College Dublin 1904-2004, edited by Susan Parkes gives a fascinating picture of women’s life in the realms of higher education here in Ireland. It makes you fully appreciate how far women have come when you read of the determination that the early female students needed to prove that they really could stay the course (sorry about the pun). And naturally they still needed to be full of the womanly virtues at the end of it all.

Maybe every college and university should have one day in the academic year where the previous cohorts of women students are honoured for the courageous trailblazers that they were (with or without blue stockings). What do you think?   

 

 More Shades of Blue

In this follow up to my first blog I want to mention a few of the heroines (and heroes) of the fight for women’s education on both sides of the Irish Sea. It’s such a big subject with many people playing a part that it’s difficult to pick out names, but here goes. In Ireland one woman at the forefront of the struggle was Anne Jellicoe who was to become founder of Alexandra College, Dublin. She was a pioneer of women’s education, who along with Ada Corlett began the Dublin branch of SPEW, the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women in 1861. The society, which was renamed the Queen’s Institute gave classes to women to help them get jobs in offices or as sewing machinists. The emphasis was on helping to equip women who had to earn a living to find ‘respectable’ employment. Later on, there was more focus on girls’ higher education as the college forged strong links with Trinity College. I did mention heroes at the beginning, and so an honourable mention goes to one man who was involved in women’s education in both England (Queen’s College London) and in Ireland. Anglican Archbishop of Dublin Dr Chenevix-Trench was a prime mover in the establishment of Alexandra College (1866), enlisting Anne Jellicoe to help develop the college.  In 1879 the Royal University of Ireland was created, which awarded degrees to women right from the start (Trinity didn’t crumble until 1904) thanks to robust representation by a committee set up by Isabella Tod. She had previously successfully campaigned to have the new Intermediate Exams opened up to girls in 1874, which paved the way for university education. The fight to open Trinity College to women was a long one, assisted by the first women graduates from the RUI such as Alice Oldham and Mary Hayden. For anyone who wants to know more about women’s education, the two books I have mentioned provide a wealth of information and some fascinating personal accounts.

Originally I posted the previous articles up on Campus Dig (a student web site) on  8/1/2011 and 18/1/2011.

All should have bonnets: a letter from Louisa M Alcott

After the dedication of my #LetterMo writing challenge efforts have faded gently away, I have decided to return to the compendium of historic letters that I mentioned in one of my earlier entries. Having struggled to post at least one item of correspondence every day for a month, I can truly say that I stand (pen poised) in awe of the sheer effort involved in letter writing pre-Microsoft Word technology. After all, even keeping up with just a few relatives in the last century would have been a Herculean task. But thank goodness that so many people did just that, providing a mine of information and insight that would otherwise have been lost to later generations.

One of the epistles in The World’s Great Letters is one from Louisa M Alcott to her sister Anna and while it could not be claimed to hold huge historical importance, it does give you a glimpse into the life of a would-be writer who was struggling to support her family. Alcott was also mired in domestic chores as well as suffering the frustration of waiting for editors to reply to her story submissions.

Alcott’s letter, written around 1861 describes the trials and tribulations of fashioning a decent bonnet (a social necessity) with only one dollar to spend; the contents of Alcott’s ribbon box supplemented the lack of cash. She makes the whole enterprise into an entertaining anecdote for Anna Alcott, but she clearly would have loved to be able to go out and buy a smart piece of headgear. She describes her attempts to trim the one-dollar bonnet thus:

I extracted the remains of the old white ribbon (used up, as I thought, two years ago), and the bits of black lace that have adorned a long line of departed hats. Of the lace I made a dish, on which I thriftily served up bows of ribbon, like meat on toast.  Inside put the lace bow, which adorns my form anywhere when needed. A white flower A.H. gave me sat airily on the brim, – fearfully unbecoming, but pretty in itself, and in keeping. Strings are yet to be evolved from chaos. I feel that they await me somewhere in the dim future.

 

book cover with portrait of L.M. Alcott

Louisa May

All this occurred before Alcott struck gold with the phenomenally successful Little Women, which was published in 1867. At that time, she was still a ‘young woman with one dollar, no bonnet, half a gown and a discontented mind’ as she described herself. In one of those moments of literary serendipity, I spotted a biography of Louisa Alcott (Martha Saxton, 1978) while rummaging in the Trinity College Booksale on Saturday. I was meaning to re-read Little Women after seeing The Gate’s sell out production last month. As Little Women and its sequels reside on the landing I can justify doing just that, but I will have to make (yet another) exception for reading the Louisa May Alcott biography. But, one of the joys of reading is that you never know what is going to be around the next corner of the bookshelf!

What have you discovered this week? And how is your Reading Challenge going? Drop a line in the comment box…