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Louisa May Alcott – Good Wives

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Please note that this is a commentary of what is sometimes referred to as Little Women Part Two. Part One received its own post last week.

‘Cos I can’t help falling in love with you.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1869
Date Reviewed: 11th July 2019
Rating: 5/5

We open with a marriage: having fallen in love with Laurie’s tutor, John Brooke, Meg is getting married. It will be an interesting time for the family as all four daughters grow older and find their place in the world. Meg will want to make a good home for herself and John, Jo will want to write and travel, Amy will want to improve her art and find riches, and Beth just wants to feel like herself again. Meanwhile, Laurie will go to college as Jo wants him to, hoping to find success in doing what she wishes.

Good Wives takes us back to the March family and their friends, beginning a few years after the curtain fell in Part One. With a bit more plot and time away from home, whilst it has many aspects that will not please readers of the first Part, it succeeds in being incredibly thoughtful and an extremely good work in terms of both its general literary value and its value as a contextual look into Alcott’s life and dreams.

The novel is both a regular continuation of a story, and Alcott’s rebuke of the idea of marriage and the resulting lack of agency women of the period experienced. The rebuke involves passages that suggest a not-so-veiled personal affront she felt from readers about her life; whilst Alcott may not have made note of such in her journals, certainly the content of the novel’s text speaks directly her audience.

To speak of the idea of marriage first, none of the marriages in this book are particularly convincing. Whilst Meg’s marriage gets more time in terms of a show of the domestic space and post-honeymoon period, and the character John Brooke, Meg’s husband, was a part of Part One and thus was somewhat developed prior to the union, both Jo and Amy’s marriages are decidedly lacklustre. Debates abound regarding the suitability of both these marriages, which revolves around the fact that Alcott matches the wrong man to one of the women, with the woman he should have married later marrying a person who rightly or wrongly is consigned to be largely forgotten by readers. Whilst Amy’s marriage has enough of a backstory and prior development of the characters for the readers to understand what might happen later on, Alcott’s effective shoe-horning of Mr Bhaer into the story makes an already bad thread worse.

Alcott’s effective overturning of what would be the most natural and expected conclusion to the story is surely a further effect – following the inclusion of marriage in itself – of Alcott’s not wanting to go along with the social mores and expectations of the time and culture she lived in.

We see this first, perhaps, during the wedding ceremony for Meg and John, wherein Meg gives the first kiss to her mother, an inappropriate action if ever there was one, a fact which Alcott makes reference to in her narration. From there, whether we consider the kiss part of the problems or not, Alcott devises communication problems that led to resentment, wherein Meg is overwhelmed and bored of being in the home whilst John enjoys himself but doesn’t know what to do to change it. Alcott knows exactly what they should do; she has Meg go to her mother for advice. It’s a very basic issue that one would expect the couple to be able to work out themselves, but in contriving the scene Alcott makes Meg have to talk to Marmee about it instead.

Is there something in this defaulting to Marmee over relationship issues when it comes to Alcott’s dislike of marriage? Marmee’s advice had been sought before, but its inclusion in the daughters’ romantic relationships brings in a different aspect. In 2014, Sarah Rivas, then an MA student, proposed the concept of the ‘Cult of Marmee’, in which the four March daughters’ lives revolve around what Marmee thinks. This explanation has a lot going for it; the enmeshment and inability to do much if anything independent of Marmee’s views and wishes pervades both Parts of the book. The subject is too vast to be included further in this post, but Rivas’ point stands together with what we can see of Alcott’s use of marriage in Good Wives, this usage of something her readers had reportedly asked for in a sequel to their new favourite book, but twisted into a version that would help Alcott as she struggled with everything that marriage in her era meant for women’s agency.

Alcott does not mince her words. When speaking of the effects of marriage, she is always brazen, honest, and takes no prisoners. The following quotation is included during a scene which looks at Meg’s life after having given birth:

In France the young girls have a dull time of it till they are married, when ‘Vive la Liberte!’ becomes their motto. In America, as everyone knows, girls early sign the declaration of independence, and enjoy their freedom with republican zest, but the young matrons usually abdicate with the first heir to the throne and go into seclusion almost as close as a French nunnery, though by no means as quiet. Whether they like it or not, they are virtually put upon the shelf as soon as the wedding excitement is over, and most of them might exclaim, as did a very pretty woman the other day, “I’m as handsome as ever, but no one takes any notice of me because I’m married”.

Clearly Alcott saw the alternative used in France – where a woman could be married yet not burdened by domesticity – and liked it.

Of the second aspect of Alcott’s rebuke, the personal affront she saw, there is much to go on, all of it related to scenes revolving around Jo. Jo is largely based on Alcott herself, and as Alcott was a writer who did not marry, so too was Jo supposed to write and remain single. We see the beginnings of it all here:

Now, if she [Jo] had been the heroine of a moral storybook, she ought at this period of her life to have become quite saintly, renounced the world, and gone about doing good in a mortified bonnet, with tracts in her pocket. But, you see, Jo wasn’t a heroine, she was only a struggling human girl like hundreds of others, and she just acted out her nature, being sad, cross, listless, or energetic, as the mood suggested.

Themes beyond those discussed involve the American slave trade and slavery, an important topic that may nevertheless become forgotten for its seeming lack of inclusion; in Good Wives, Alcott’s support of abolition isn’t anywhere near as prevalent as her thoughts of female agency, but there is some diversity in terms of equality:

Gentlemen, which means boys, be courteous to the old maids, no matter how poor and plain and prim, for the only chivalry worth having is that which is readiest to pay deference to the old, protect the feeble, and serve womankind regardless of rank, age, or color.

The Alcott family in general did not support slavery and actively sought to help black people in difficult situations. We know from Ednah Cheney’s edited collection of Louisa’s journal and letters, published in 1889, that Louisa’s mother hid a fugitive slave in the family’s oven (p. 137).

Alcott’s decision to have Jo become a teacher of sorts is the way in which the author includes her own beliefs. Jo takes a ‘quadroon’ boy (a historic term for a person who is one-quarter black, often fathered by a plantation owner) into her school and it’s noted by Alcott that no one else would likely have taken the boy in. In light of this passage in the book, Sands-O’Connor (2015) says that Alcott’s father, Amos Bronson, had welcomed an African-American child into his school, and, due to this decision, the other pupils left and the school failed. We see, then, the way that the seemingly simple couple of sentences by Alcott about Jo’s acceptance of a child, and the fact that Jo’s school continues to be successful, is a direct response to a real life experience and likely an effort to make things right in the only way the author could.

Alcott was a nurse during the Civil War and wrote about her experiences in a book she called Hospital Sketches. According to Sands-O’Connor, she’d been viewed poorly by a fellow nurse for cuddling an African American baby; she later revised her nursing account to make it more nationally acceptable. The publisher of that book was the one who asked Alcott to write a children’s book and they said at the time that Alcott was not to include anything that would increase racial tensions (ibid.).

This accounts for why the racial equality in Good Wives remains a glimmer. Sands-O’Connor sums it up well: Alcott had learned from past experience what it meant to be a public supporter of abolition, and she needed the independence the money from her book would bring in (ibid.). This also accounts for why, in the first Part, we have a father going off to serve as a chaplain in the Civil War without any discussion of the war itself, only his physical wounds.

Good Wives continues the topic of the publishing industry and literary trends that was started in Part One; now that Jo is older and more like the adult Alcott, the information is detailed and incredibly telling.

“But Mr. Allen says, ‘Leave out the explanations, make it brief and dramatic, and let the characters tell the story,'” interrupted Jo, turning to the publisher’s note.

The above matches with what we know about Alcott’s writing; it fits in with what the two Parts do, except that Alcott narrates more than she lets the characters themselves tell the story. There are other passages like this, including one wherein Jo lets her family critic her work.

As Jo continues with her writing, so does Alcott continue on with her book-about-books. This Part contains many more references than the first; Charles Dickens is a favourite and Alcott includes myriad plays and poems, an influence, perhaps, of her adventures abroad.

The use of travel in this book expands on that in Part One in the way that it increases in its interest and scope. Like in the first book, Alcott ascribes some of her own journeys to some one else, the extent of her own travels being enough to make content for a number of characters’ storylines. We travel to Europe, to New York, and see glimpses of other places. The travels are undoubtedly a highlight of the book in terms of pure enjoyment, the cultural and other historical detailing vibrant and informative, the storytelling open and abundant.

It is unfortunate for Alcott that whilst Good Wives may have done well in her time, the use of domesticity aligning with what her contemporaries wanted, it is impossible to say it is quite as loved now, no matter how much it is still read. The choices she made for her characters are often understandably questioned; without all the historical context and even with it, it’s hard to finish the book feeling completely satisfied with where she takes her characters. It’s difficult not to wonder how the story might have flowed had Alcott been in a more liberal society; undoubtedly she would appreciate the debates we have today. The book is surely one of the best examples of the affects of society on an author’s output for all the reasons mentioned above and more. But it’s also just a very good book, enjoyable for what it says and does and an incredible primary source for the author herself. It may not satisfy the want for a solid story but it well satisfies everything else – it is arguably best read for both enjoyment and in its literary context concurrently.

Book References

Cheney, Ednah D (ed.) (1889) Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, And Journals, Roberts Brothers, Boston

Article References

Rivas, Sarah (2014) Defining Nineteeth-Century Womanhood – The Cult of Marmee and Little Women, Scientia et Humanitas, Vol 4, pp. 53-64
Sands-O’Connor, Karen (2015) Her Contraband: Diversity and Louisa May Alcott, The Race To Read, accessed 9th July 2019.

 
 

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