Lessons from Louisa

MAY / JUNE 2013: BY RACHEL McMILLAN

louisa

Louisa May Alcott never wrote without intent; her stories were vignettes: patched together into a quilt designed to provide her young readers with amusement while teaching them about morality, building their characters and speaking to their developing consciences.

Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom both begin with a dedication to her readers: bridging the gap between storyteller and listener and establishing warmth and friendship with her young audience as a voice of assistance, helpful criticism, altruism and instruction.  In the popular 19th Century trope of adding a preluding note to the reader, Alcott uses the beginning of Eight Cousins to cite Alec Campbell’s experiments: carefully constructed for his impressionable niece and refers to her work in the same novel as a type of experiment, suggestive of character building and amusement rather than the educational improvements one might expect of adults.

In short, Alcott tells stories of young readers for young readers—dividing the publishing line—writing specifically and blatantly in the tradition of instructive Horn books and other original tales penned specifically for young minds. Rather than condescend to her readers, instead she threads an immediate connection and builds rapport. The Sunday School morality tales that  precede her in the history of Children’s Literature don’t often allow for such easy camaraderie.

One of the many ways Alcott achieves this is to speak to children on their own level. Rose and her clan of raucous boy cousins are flawed and boisterous children who enjoy the songs, games and antics readers of Alcott’s era would find familiar. But, into this, she inserts a stronger message borne of her own convictions and her heritage as the daughter of strong-willed Bronson Alcott, acquaintance of Thoreau and a founding member of the  Transcendalist religion in Massachusetts.  Indeed, Alec Campbell, Rose’s smart and out-going boyish uncle, factors as a filter for many of Alcott’s own views: especially as pertains to women’s education and equality and the exploration and dissension of cultural norms of the time—such as corsets and high teas.

Alec is an explorer enamored with many cultures, a ship’s surgeon entrusted with Rose as guardian when her father dies. Rose’s aunts are unsure of his influence as a bachelor doctor; he has little experience with children and several years of sea under his belt; but Alec wants to honor his promise and try his hand at parenting …through original methods.

Unlike Rose’s dainty aunts at the Aunt Hill, Alec believes in equality for Rose: that she should run, play and frolic in the manner of her seven boy cousins and undertake any learning and ongoing instruction they receive.  Housework and domestic skills are also important for a young lady, Alec believes, but never at the sacrifice of the three R’s and medical and biological knowledge.  Very advanced teaching for a girl of her age and circumstance!

Alec is also determined that his niece be seen as more than a wealthy heiress—she must marry and acquire friends as bespeaks her learning, development of character and independence as a well-rounded woman. One way he accomplishes this is to figuratively and literally dispose of the corset and binding in her restrictive wardrobe: opting instead for clothes sensible and open to fresh air and running. A little shocking to mothers reading Alcott’s words aloud to their little girls, certainly, but also a little eye-opening too.

Alec also proves social boundaries are made to be broken in his encouragement of Rose’s friendship with (and his eventual adoption of) the housemaid Phebe. Her selfless productivity sets a wonderful example for Rose and Rose’s fondness for her company, despite her social status secures Alec’s belief that the two are perfect friends.

In the second novel, after a long tour of Europe, many of the life-lessons in Rose’s upbringing have been learned. Rose in Bloom, thus, centers on Rose’s coming of age, coming into her inheritance, and experiencing the first bliss and first heartache of love.

Alec is still given to experiments: letting Rose experience the social season, knowing full-well the whirlwind will tire her, and allowing her to pursue suitors who will nevertheless disappoint her, confident the seeds he sewed in formative years will lead her to make good decisions.  Rose faces disillusionment, loss, and heartache, but the moral compass built under her Uncle’s steering leads her into a happy future.

Alcott excelled at understanding a child’s world and developing immediate rapport with her readers. After establishing a kind, authoritative voice, she was able to speak to them directly, encourage them to listen to their budding consciences and strive to emulate the right and moral decisions embellished in her fun, humorous, entertaining and, yes, even educational tales. ♥

mayjune2013

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