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Thursday, May 24, 2012

 

First sentences: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

'Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,' grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

Little Women is, in many ways, an 'improving' book. It was not, though, written for moral ends; it was 'very hastily written to order', according to Alcott, and its improving aspects - mild for their day - were more a question of genre necessity than authorial aspiration. Alcott, working because her family needed the cash, went so far as to conclude her first volume by declaring that there might or might not be a sequel depending on 'the reception given to the first act of the domestic drama, called LITTLE WOMEN'; you can almost hear the sigh of relief as she lays down her pen and the shrug as she prepares to hand it over, the book written so fast you really can't tell if it's any good being an experience common to many writers. Still, there are many moments of more or less direct edification: moral uplift tends to provide a convenient plot structure, and the March sisters learn lessons big and small, are admonished by both family and circumstances, grow out of things, move towards virtuous womanhood. Proto-feminist as it also is, it's easy to forget this and be surprised by the didactic tone of some of its passages ... and the fact that we forget, and are surprised, and come back to the book in love despite the unfashionable nature of some of its lessons, is the book's masterstroke. Alcott chides gently, with an air of affection, and it's that affection that we remember the most. And more than affection: simple interest. The reality of the characters is what keeps them on the move, and what, in consequence, moves us.

The 'little women' - not quite women, not quite young girls - have lessons to learn, true. But what they are, from the very first page, is human - and human girls at that. For a book first published in the 1860s - a time of great political turmoil in its home country, we should not forget - there is a whiff of revolution about that, even in so hallowed a domestic sphere as the Marches occupy. Gender roles are not directly challenged, but we see four intelligent, self-willed, individual girls struggling to maintain their senses of identity in a world that imposes certain roles upon them. In other words, for all the didacticism of some of its chapters, its essential approach is not didactic but sensitive. It may prescribe and proscribe on moral and practical grounds, but it does not dictate personality. Within a strongly moral framework - which some personalities may find harder than others - character, selfhood and spirit are taken as a given. It speaks, in its naturalism, more subtly than an overt statement of principles, and therefore more memorably.

And perhaps its greatest saving grace is this: Alcott, in her own words, 'never liked girls nor knew many except my sisters,' nor did she entirely like the requirements of her commission: 'I do not enjoy writing "moral tales" for the young,' she wrote; 'I do it because it pays well.' The intensity of semi-autobiography is fired by the need for models - 'lively, simple books are much needed for girls, and perhaps I can supply the need', she commented ... though again, it's worth remembering that the book was primarily written for pragmatic reasons: she needed to raise money, and her editor, Thomas Niles, approached her in the belief that she was a writer with the talent to fill a gap he had identified in the market. Alcott didn't like or know much about 'girls' - which is to say, she had no preconceptions about girlhood in general, and she certainly had no particular zeal to edify them. She'd toyed before with the idea of a book based on her childhood, and in the absence of any better ideas to fulfil Niles's condition, and with no clear notions of generic femalehood, she had to resort to what she could lay her imagination upon: accurate portraits of what she'd seen. And it's that particularity, the workmanlike integrity of a writer trying her best to fulfil a task that needs to be done as well as possible, that resulted in the book that she found read 'better than expected' because it was 'simple and true'. There just wasn't the time or the inclination to prettify - and in a culture where girls are oppressed from all sides by the tyranny of dainty falsehoods, oh, how we need unpretty stories.

So we start with Jo, wayward, ambitious, tomboyish and imaginative Jo, for whom the path to adult womanhood is going to be particularly hard. The door to the March home is opened to us by its least conformist member. The fact that the first name we hear is androgynous should not be overlooked for starters: the affectionate abbreviation of 'Jo' allows for a certain freedom of movement within the traditional roles. (Freedom that's physical as well as political, in fact, as witness her unladylike lolling on the rug; no crossed ankles and folded hands here. The informal atmosphere makes for relaxation of the body as well as of the conventions, and Jo enacts both in a conveniently direct manner.)

So much, so obvious, but it's also worth noting the fact that it's an abbreviation at all: it may be the most boyish name, but Beth and Meg are no more 'Elizabeth' and 'Margaret' than Jo is 'Josephine'. Of the March sisters, in fact, only the ladylike Amy keeps her full name, and after all, Amy is a hard name to shorten. What we hear is not only the flexibility of roles that a single-gendered community often allows, but intimacy: we are at home, hearing pet names first. We're not told their last name for some time, and in fact we quickly move into a conversation which both helpfully establishes more of their circumstances and personalities, and also borders, with an agreeable air of imperfection, on a mild quarrel. There are no barriers to entry here.

Certainly there are no barriers in what Jo says. Here we have our unladylike girl complaining - actually complaining, refusing to accept her lot with good grace. More, she's honest enough to be complaining about money, presents, material things: the kind of things that matter a lot to a kid, but which angelic children are not supposed to care about. The verb 'grumbled' is deftly chosen: neither entirely sympathetic nor fully condemnatory, it's a delicately observed description. Jo is grumbling: it's not exactly perfect behaviour, but it's not unnatural. Too, it suggests a fundamentally cosy atmosphere: grumbling is not the behaviour of someone deeply distressed. Jo's grumble allows us to identify with her situation - a Christmas without presents is indeed an easy woe to imagine - without either feeling ashamed for also liking to have nice things or getting too upset about it. (Considering her circumstances, after all, Alcott could speak from personal experience about the worries of poverty.)

It's interesting, too, that it's Christmas Jo's complaining about. This detail does several things at once. First, it locates us in time with a combination of the spiritual and the secular: the Marches are religious and virtuous, but when they talk about Christmas in private, it's the material aspects they're thinking of. Not only that: Christmas, its religious aspects aside, is the touchstone of family ritual in most households, the time when families celebrate together, develop their own traditions and customs, mark another year spent with each other. The intimacy of the family nicknames, Jo's stretched-out pose and the affectionately critical 'grumbled' is furthered by placing it in the context of that most familial of festivals.

So there are no barriers to the March home in the tone Alcott strikes. But the openness is not only that of tone - it's a simple sentence, simple in its vocabulary, structured as plainly as a sentence on the blackboard of a grammar class, with no verbal hurdles to leap. And it's also simple in its information: Jo's lament very quickly tells us what's what. The family has been accustomed to have presents at Christmas - otherwise the lack of them wouldn't be felt unChristmassy - but it won't be having them this year. The obvious conclusion, clear without having to spell it out, is that they have fallen on harder times. The story of Little Women is fundamentally a story of transition from youth to adulthood, but the context that shapes that transition is the story of the Marches' attempts to cope with, and essentially to transcend, their poverty. Finding meaning in non-material wealth is the name of the game here, and it would ring hollow and sink into obscurity if we didn't acknowledge right at the start that, however valid and uplifting that meaning may be, material wealth is still a nice thing to have and a frustrating thing to lack.

Alcott's style is very simple: no descriptive pyrotechnics are on display in this first sentence, no complicated phraseology, just a straightforward voice speaking directly to us. Perhaps influenced by the circumstances of its creation - Alcott recorded in her journal while writing that she did not 'enjoy this sort of thing', and was writing as fast as she could - Little Women is almost rough in its writing, each sentence getting the point across as quickly as possible with no more time for polish than Jo has for finery. In the hands of a less skilled writer, this could produce many infelicities, but Alcott's writing is transfigured by its fundamental honesty: with no time to elaborate, there is no time to falsify, and the run-on tone becomes the naturalism of a writer almost 'talking' to her readers. The imperfections of style - 'grumbled Jo, lying on the rug' is not a thing of particular rhythmic beauty, for instance - transmute into a sense of companionship, an author who doesn't put on airs. Daphne du Maurier, another author who knew the pressures of time, called her preferred domestic style a 'jam-a-long', and that's what Alcott is offering us here. We come in, sit down and listen, taking off our hats and coats in our own time: despite the pressures on the author, the style of the book is notably unpressuring for the reader, who can muddle along with the characters as best she can, and if she didn't wipe her feet before coming into this fictional world, well, neither did Alcott.

'We really lived most of it, and if it succeeds that will be the reason of it', Alcott wrote, and the hastily hammered out truth feels really lived. Alcott's subtlety lies not in her style but in the light precision of her observations, the naturalistic care of her choices, which add up to a picture complex not because of worked-up devices but because life itself is complex. Her renderings are lucid, almost ingenuous - but what she renders is what she sees, and what she sees is a room full of real girls. It's easy to read, but very few writers ever manage it.


*Note: quotations are taken from the introduction to the Oxford World's Classics edition.

Comments:
Home is where when you grumble, they have to like you anyway?

Or maybe, home is where, when you want to grumble, they let you.

And "grumble" is really almost a friendly little word, as unhappy words go. "Complain" sounds harsh and serious. "Whine" sounds seriously unpleasant. (I like your British "whinge," though, as a word. Hurt animals whine, and it's horrible to hear. People whinge. It's a good distinction.)

But "grumble" is just a little rumbling among friends.

she's honest enough to be complaining about money, presents, material things: the kind of things that matter a lot to a kid, but which angelic children are not supposed to care about.
So when Beth is the only sister, in the next paragraph, who doesn't complain, we should have known then.

I always wondered where the March parents got Amy's name from. "Elizabeth" and "Margaret" are traditional English names, suitable for Bostonian descendents of the so-called Pilgrims. "Josephine" is in honor of rich Aunt March, who seems to have some French (Huguenot?) connections. But "Amy"? Where did that come from?

...oh God, there I go on about names again.

In other words, for all the didacticism of some of its chapters, its essential approach is not didactic but sensitive. It may prescribe and proscribe on moral and practical grounds, but it does not dictate personality.

It's interesting that the March parents rarely give direct orders to their daughters. They may offer advice, make recommendations, expect a certain standard of conduct, but they don't issue commands. Highly unusual when compared with some of the other "improving" books for girls that were popular at the same time. "Mild for its day," indeed.

I loved Little Women as a girl, but my daughter had no interest in it at all. She and I usually have different tastes in books anyway, but I'm wondering if it is still read, as a matter course, at some point during every American girl's girlhood? Maybe, even though it's a much better book, it's doomed to go the way of Elise Dinsmore or The Wide Wide World. That would be sad.


(I hope this posts correctly; I'm having trouble with Blogger's Preview button lately. One of the verification words is "written" which seems both appropriate and a good omen, so I'll hope for the best.)
 
Similar to Amaryllis's daughter, I started reading it when I was a little girl and never finished it. I think part of it was the edition I used - the letters in particular were in italicized, very small font - but for whatever reason, it didn't told my attention. Which is very strange because I finished everything I started and liked other books with similar semi-historical backgrounds like Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie. I should pick it back up again - I might even have the same copy I started all that time ago.
 
My daughter had no interest in it -- nor in JANE EYRE, which I considered an essential novel for young women.

(She, in turn, has told me that Cashore's GRACELING is the one novel she wishes every teenage girl should read, for whatever that's worth)

But the intimacy of the nickname did catch my attention. I've mentioned before that I *loathe* pet names as twee affectations, always have, and deliberately gave my children "un-nickname-able" names. My children would be addressed with DIGNITY, goshdarnit.

And what happened? I almost always call them not by their names, but as "Princess" and "Bug."

Hard to get more twee than that.

There is a more powerful impetus behind nick-names than I ever realized.
 
I wonder if it may be partly influence by the absence of a 'thou' form in common usage?

For instance, my husband's name is Gareth, and he's been called that all his life. At university, however, his friends felt uncomfortable calling him something that felt formal to them, so shortened it to 'Gary', even though 'Gary' is actually a completely different name etymologically speaking, and even though he really, really doesn't look like a Gary. But 'Gareth' just seemed to feel wrong to them, as if saying it would sound as if they didn't like him.

This may partly be a cultural thing; these were English young men, and English lads have (or at least had) a habit of shortening everybody's name as much as it could possibly be shortened, and these particular lads were less familiar with a name like 'Gareth' because it's Welsh. English men don't hug much, but they do nickname, and I think it's their way of showing friendship.

(This was a factor in naming our son, actually; we were pretty sure that whatever we called him would wind up in a single syllable when he was old enough for friends. We liked the name 'Nathaniel', but the fact that we also liked 'Nat' was a major factor - and in fact, we just call him Nat, figuring we might as well start as he would probably go on. And yes, I call him pet names as well, but I probably shouldn't record them for posterity and give his future schoolmates ammunition against him!)

But that said, I think 'Bug' is nice, and not too twee. (Can't say that 'Princess' isn't twee, I fear, but it's sweet.) Does it originate from babyhood? I'm wondering if I'll still be calling Nat his baby names when he's a teenager...

...though I suspect the answer is 'Only if he permits it.'
 
Well, I blush to confess ...

...but "Bug" is actually a shortened form of "Snugglebug" and "Cuddlebug."

So, yeah, just this year hapaxson has requested, VERY POLITELY, that I stop calling him that in public.

(Also to stop ruffling his hair. Alas, the heartbreaks of having a teenaged son.)
 
I wouldn't blush if I were you! Small boys don't get nearly enough acknowledgement that they need and want cuddles. The fact that you did is probably the reason he was able to ask you so politely. :-)
 
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