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Michelle Obama – Becoming

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The journey to the White House.

Publisher: Viking (Penguin)
Pages: 421
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-33414-0
First Published: 13th November 2018
Date Reviewed: 16th July 2019
Rating: 4/5

Michelle Obama, previous First Lady of the United States, was born on the South Side of Chicago to working class parents. Her family strove to ensure she and her brother had all they needed to ‘launch’ successfully. Michelle went on to study law at the prestigious Princeton University, and then started work at a law firm. Her path in life was altered by the arrival of a socially-conscious and driven, yet very casual, intern.

In Becoming, the lengthy and detailed autobiography, Obama (from now on referred by her first name) tells us her story from birth to the end of Barack’s presidency. A fairly honest account (understandably limited), the book provides a lot of information about the workings of the presidential office, and a well-written and considered critique of American society, mostly in the context of childhood and education.

Becoming is split into three parts – Becoming Me, Becoming Us, and Becoming More, with the rough alignment of life stages you would expect. Several pages of photographs are slotted into the middle and, at least in the hardback edition, more photos line the inside of the front and back.

The first section has a fair amount going for it in terms of preference due to the relative lack of politics involved in a person telling the story of their childhood, and the fact that Michelle is able to spend more time on the subjects she most wants to discuss in the way she wants to discuss them. It is where Michelle has the time to talk about the make-up and complexity of American society, Chicago in particular, her experience as a black girl and later teenager in a working class area of a big city, together with the more general experience as a person in that time (1960s) informing the text; Michelle shares vast insights about issues that remain to this day, issues that have naturally had a knock-on effect on the decisions she made in terms of the creation of First Lady sociopolitical campaigns. (First Lady is not considered a job but does come with sociopolitical requirements.)

During the first section, Michelle talks about the way her neighbourhood, and by extension her school, was composed of a racially diverse group of people, and how the mass migration of the white population away from the area during her elementary (primary) school years had a huge effect on the lives of those remaining. The subject is one of the forerunners of Michelle’s book-long exploration of the issues children from less advantaged backgrounds have to deal with in the education sector. It’s an excellent study wherein the author situates her thoughts on the side of the kids:

If you’d had a head start at home, you were rewarded for it at school, deemed “bright” or “gifted,” which in turn only compounded your confidence. The advantages aggregated quickly (p.18).

Now that I’m an adult, I realize that kids know at a very young age when they’re being devalued, when adults aren’t invested enough to help them learn. Their anger over it can manifest itself as unruliness. It’s hardly their fault. They aren’t “bad kids.” They’re just trying to survive bad circumstances (p.22).

Michelle’s look at life in the suburbs of Chicago includes her father, who worked in the boiler rooms at a factory, her mother, who kept the home and also found work in a bank, her grandfather who for reasons related to his social position distrusted the medical profession, and her great aunt whose house the family lived in and who taught Michelle to play the piano. There are a couple of mentions of Michelle’s great-great-grandfather, necessarily less detailed. He was a slave.

When it comes to Barack, who enters in the second section, there is a surprising amount of honesty. Michelle details his personality, particularly in the social and domestic sphere where his drive for a better local and then national community is often on the same page as his lack of attention regarding household duties. So honest in the household area of life it is, in fact, that it goes almost too far to where it feels as though Michelle’s words are there to persuade you into thinking the couple were (and are) not well suited enough, which surely was not the intention. Thankfully, it comes to an end before the end of the section and the narrative as a whole remains relatively unaffected. Perhaps it needed to be better written. Certainly with three pairs of eyes continually on the manuscript (Michelle acknowledges the contributions of another writer and her speech writer) it would have helped the book in general if various repetitions had been omitted.

The final section, where the Obamas look at the possibility of the White House, moves back towards the success of the first half. It is here where all the thoughts about children’s education and lifestyles come full circle as Michelle moves into a position that allows her much more freedom in regards to doing what she wanted in her previous roles (the second section had discussed her early work for lawyers and charitable organisations).

Michelle was coming into the idea of growing your own food and teaching children just as a number of researchers were starting to promote the idea. Robin Shulman, whose book, Eat The City, a look at the quiet revolution in New York high-density housing areas where residents used any patches of unused land to grow vegetables, cited Michelle’s then-new campaigns in the afterword to her book. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, published a little after the garden was started, also had favourable words to say (though they were in an article rather than his book).

The main thread of the final section however, is of course that of Barack’s presidency. The information included will for many people be a culture shock, as the family are unable to open any windows, go outside or even simply go to another part of the building without 30 minutes debate from security; a date night involves shutting down access to all the streets on the journey and checking anyone who is unfortunate enough to have booked their table for a time after the Obamas got there. In many ways, non-American readers will gain a lot more from this section than Americans.

Michelle’s stories include those that show why some people wouldn’t have been happy with Barack leading their country – the book continues in its honesty and this relative objectivity is a good thing. She is honest and harsh in her thoughts of the man who took over, but that’s to be expected; it also explains her choices at the inauguration where her lack of smiles was noted.

A big shining light of the final section is the family as a whole; with the children now old enough to understand the basics, and Michelle’s mother living in the White House, the parts that focus on the individual members are, for all their briefness (for privacy’s sake), often the best parts of any one chapter. Michelle’s mother remained relatively free to come and go and the two girls’ conduct and answers to various questions they receive show a level of maturity that’s compelling.

As much as Becoming is lengthy, it’s also a pity when it comes to an end; you will find yourself investing a lot of different mental resources in this book. It could definitely have done with more editing. It could also have done with more of what’s only touched on, but given the people involved, this is one of those few occasions where that can’t be called an active drawback. Becoming isn’t perfect but the subjects it looks at in detail, namely those more unique to Michelle than to Barack and the rest of his team, are fascinating. The social history, the social present, and Michelle’s chosen angle for her commentaries, are compelling. There is plenty here to learn and be inspired by and more than a few stories you’re going to want to jot down and remember.

I received this book for review.

 
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.

 
Louisa May Alcott – Little Women

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Please note that this is a commentary of what is sometimes referred to as Little Women Part One. Part Two, also known as Good Wives, will be discussed in a separate post.

Playing the part but not without diversions.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1868
Date Reviewed: 4th July 2019
Rating: 4.5/5

The four March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, and their mother – are living in relative poverty; their father had been let down by people whose businesses he had invested money in. Now it’s Christmas, and Mr March is serving as a chaplain in the American Civil War. As the girls look towards a lacklustre season and future, their mother reminds them of what they do have – a home and each other – and as time goes on, the four take it on board and live life to the full, making friends with the boy and his grandfather next door, working for money, and loving each other.

Little Women is a book of family, hope, and love, and all those wonderful things we still long for today.

Looked at in the context of our 21st century, it must be said that the book is fairly low on content. Alcott herself disliked some of the book, which she had written under pressure from her publisher1; her publisher also found the first chapters very dull and it was only after a young girl read the book, and following this the manuscript was passed to others, that it was given the go ahead for publication (Wikipedia, n.d. a). After this it became a bestseller and Alcott was asked by readers to finish off the story which she did swiftly – hence Part Two. (Perhaps the pressure was the reason Alcott chose to make the book semi-autobiographical. Little Women is based on the author and her sisters: Alcott is Jo – her life, personality, and the language of her letters are very similar to that of her character’s – and Amy her artistic sister May who became well-known; thus it was likely very easy to write. Certainly a lot of both Little Women and Good Wives mirrors her life – some things she writes about as the experiences of the others were in fact her own experiences2.)

The book is little difficult today. The most obvious issue is the sugary sweet nature of it, what we might think of as too goody-goody and overly wholesome, but a full reading shows off the moral values that we don’t adhere to so much any more. Whilst the love of family and being kind within the unit are still very relevant, the wish for girls to be interested in house and home beyond all else has largely become a thing of the past, and therefore in a way, it is far better to read this book as a product and example of its time than it is anything else; this is to say that the values it promotes for children, particularly girls, are often irrelevant, some even potentially harmful as we move away from the idea that women should be polite and modest beyond all else; thus it may no longer be wholly appropriate for the target age it was written for, but an older child and adult readers will appreciate the novel for what it is. (Children can of course still read it, but support of parents in terms of questions they may have will be required for many and would be beneficial for reasons above and beyond questions of morality.) We should perhaps look to a near-contemporary opinion of the book for guidance: editor Ednah Cheney noted in her commentary that ‘One of the greatest charms of the book is its perfect truth to New England life. But it is not merely local; it touches the universal heart deeply’ (Cheney, 1889, p. 190).

And Cheney is right about its charm; the use of place, albeit that most often scenes take place in only one or two houses, is lovely. Rather like the Anne Of Green Gables series in terms of life on Prince Edward Island in Canada (a book that was published just less than half a century later), Little Women shows well life for the average person in New England – Concord, Massachusetts, to be exact, if we trust that Alcott’s hometown is the setting. It introduces us to the general atmosphere of the place and the diversity of society in its nextdoor neighbour set up of a newly poor family residing beside a rich one, and the way Mrs March visits the homes of families who are even worse off than her own. As well as this, despite the fact that it could be something not so much universal as simply important to Alcott, the book shows the humanity and humility in charity, helping those worse off than oneself, putting others ahead of your own comfort. This is where Amy, otherwise a bit frivolous and vain, shines, adding a subtly to Jo’s more obvious acts of kindness.

Where the domesticity and general life goals of the March family do not match with us today, there is a bright light in Josephine. Alcott’s writing of Jo as a personality match for herself means that Jo’s independent nature and dreams for her future have more relevance than before; Jo is known for having inspired girls of the time, with Alcott providing both the social norm of domesticity and an instance of the value in having individual identities3 but our present day wider acceptance of female agency, and our drive for it, makes Jo perhaps the most resonant character for all. And the slight to moderate gender nonconformity (it’s hard to say exactly how much due to Alcott’s limitations) has surely more worth today than ever before, bringing in new conversations that would have been unthinkable in Alcott’s time (though quite possibly welcomed by the author if they could have happened).

Continuing on that positive note and offering a reversal of something that has already been said, the quietness, that lack of action and the dull quality that Alcott and her publisher found – as much as it’s a drawback it is also a major highlight of the book. The relative solitude of the family and their limited times away from home does well to remind us of the value to be found in a more laid-back way of life – or just a laid-back few days. Time full to the brim with busy-ness and travel is excellent, but a ‘staycation’, to use an instantly-recognisable example, can be just as wonderful if for very different reasons. There are treasures in life’s monotony.

It is due to this that Alcott’s lack of any plot – in its formal terms – and her concentration on characterisation and conversation over all else works. The everyday hobbies of piano playing and games of make-believe are enjoyable to read. And as much as some of the traits of the characters can be difficult – anyone who has worked for weeks or months on a hobby could be forgiven for feeling that Jo is hard done by by the author in the episode of Amy’s revenge – they slowly work their way into your heart.

The book-about-books factor is omnipresent. A fan of Dickens and other authors of her time, Alcott peppers her work with references both obvious and, to our time almost 200 years in the future, more vague. (Of Dickens the references are particularly plentiful and to no surprise – Alcott and her friends made a point of seeing the English author on stage when in Europe4 – however the novel also pays a fair debt to Puritan writer John Bunyan’s 1678 Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, including the book as an item the girls own that they use in their favourite imaginary games. Away from the Bunyan, the various book references span centuries and include both timeless classics and bestsellers of the day.

It wouldn’t be wrong to speculate that with the continued passing of time, Little Women will inch towards being viewed less for its story and more for its great value in terms of the history it includes of time and place, the further movements towards gender equality and female independence and choice, the extremely detailed information it offers on the life and opinions of its author, and the slight material on the trends in publishing at that time, which when placed beside Alcott’s letters and journals is a vast amount5. Certainly questions already abound the Internet as to the suitability of the novel for children – especially girls – in terms of content as well as language; you do have to be on the ball and in the know if you’re to catch the various references that will give you a better idea of how a reader in the 1800s would have understood and received it.

This book has never been out of print and it’s not hard to see why. Suitably ending with a note that suggests the not-so-neatly-tied threads can be undone for another book if the reader so desires, and with all its morals and background, its purpose was achieved and then some. It may not tick every literary box or every reader box today but it ticks more than enough of them. It is fun, it is sweet, and for all the reliance on Alcott’s particular Christian denomination, its lessons are of worth to all.

A note on the religious aspect: the debt owed to The Pilgrim’s Progress pervades the book (even the chapter headed ‘Vanity Fair’ is more about a place in Bunyan’s novel than it is Thackeray – ‘more’ because Alcott liked Thackeray, too, and Thackeray’s own use of the name was due to Bunyan). As much as Little Women isn’t called a Christian book, it well could be, however it’s more along the lines of The Lord Of The Rings than The Chronicles Of Narnia, the religion there for the taking if you have the wish or knowledge – it’s a long way from being pushed on you.

Footnotes

1 In her edited collection of Alcott’s journals and letters, published in 1889, Ednah Cheney includes this entry:
“September, 1867 – Niles, partner of Roberts, asked me to write a girls’ book. Said I’d try. … Began at once on both new jobs; but didn’t like either.”
The editor follows this up with a commentary: ‘…in May, 1868, they [the publishers] repeated the request through her father, who had brought to them a collection of short stories for publication. Miss Alcott’s fancy had always been for depicting the life of boys rather than girls; but she fortunately took the suggestion of the publisher, and said, like Col. Miller, “I’ll try, sir.” The old idea of “The Pathetic Family” [this appears to be her description of her own family] recurred to her mind; and she set herself to describe the early life of her home. The book was finished in July, named “Little Women,” and sent to the publishers, who promptly accepted it, making Miss Alcott an outright offer for the copyright, but at the same time advising her not to part with it. It was published in October, and the result is well known. She was quite unconscious of the unusual merit of the book, thinking, as she says, the first chapters dull, and so was quite surprised at her success. “It reads better than I expected,” she says; and she truly adds, “We really lived most of it, and if it succeeds, that will be the reason of it.”‘(pp 186, 189-190)
2 Louisa travelled to Europe, seeing all the sights she would later ascribe to another sister/character.
3 Wikipedia (n.d. a) says, with a quotation from Alcott scholar Joy Kasson: ‘In the 1860s, gendered separation of children’s fiction was a newer division in literature. This division signaled a beginning of polarization of gender roles as social constructs “as class stratification increased”.’ The page continues, quoting Barbara Sicherman: ‘After reading Little Women, some women felt the need to “acquire new and more public identities”, however dependent on other factors such as financial resources. While Little Women showed regular lives of American middle-class girls, it also “legitimized” their dreams to do something different and allowed them to consider the possibilities.’ These comments cover both Parts of the book combined into one – it could be argued, considering the notes about dreams and possibilities, that they are most relevant to the second, but this is not exclusive.
4 ‘Went to a dinner-party or two, theatres, to hear Dickens read, a concert, conversazione and receptions, seeing English society, or rather one class of it, and liking what I saw.’ (Alcott, 1866, in Cheney, 1898, p. 183)
5 Good Wives unarguably takes the publishing trends and readership information a lot further, resulting in a fair overview of the time.

Book References

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

Article References

Wikipedia (n.d. -a) Little Women, accessed 4th July 2019
Wikipedia (n.d. -b) The Pilgrim’s Progress, accessed 3rd July 2019

 
Anne Brontë – Agnes Grey

Book Cover

Against the odds.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: December 1847
Date Reviewed: 4th March 2019
Rating: 5/5

Heading towards poverty, and with a need to help her family, nineteen-year-old Agnes sets out to become a governess for the wealthy – people who had been her mother’s peers. In doing this she finds many awful moral codes, but she soldiers on, her desire to help and her hope in the good in people continuing.

Agnes Grey was Anne’s début, and is the more easy-going of her two novels. The book is an interesting mix of routine, mundane, content and highly satisfying theme work. It’s well-written and even during the low moments sports a hard-to-put-down quality. Anne takes a far shorter time to tell her tales than her more famous sisters, Charlotte in particular, and at least in the context of our present day it pays off. For this, Agnes Grey is also a lot calmer.

Anne covers a number of topics simultaneously, the most notable being the lifestyle and general attitudes of the wealthy seen from the position of a servant, and animal abuse; the book is largely based on Anne’s time as a governess, and the animal abuse included is unfortunately in context1. These aspects are very difficult to read at times; Anne details Agnes’ inability to discipline her charges due to rulings laid out by their parents, with the appalling result this has on their personal development. There are only two governess jobs in the book; Anne uses the second to show how all the wealth in the world doesn’t necessarily mean happiness, as she shows the affect of rose-tinted glasses on dreams that were ripe for the taking.

Agnes herself is an interesting character, being both winsome and somewhat unaware of herself. Her personality reflects the general purpose of the book, calm and informative, thoughtful, but there are occasions wherein she seems to misunderstand that people’s thoughts about her are in tandem with the way she comes across – she has a tendency to suggest people are, for example, snubbing her, without reflecting on what she did before that quite likely gave them to believe she wanted distance.

Religion is ever present, Anne’s devote faith in full force. However the use is temperate – it’s natural and devoid of any preaching, a simple aspect of Agnes’ character and understandably spoken of given Anne’s background. There is also a budding romance, nestled among the rest of the text in a way that means it’s important enough without crossing the genre line.

Lastly, it’s worth noting the value in the more philosophical aspects of the book. It is in Anne’s general thoughts, presented as Agnes’ musings, that the book is at its best, often transending time:

It is foolish to wish for beauty. Sensible people never either desire it for themselves or care about it in others. If the mind be well cultivated, and the heart well disposed, no one ever cares for the exterior. So said the teachers of our childhood; and so say we to the children of the present day. All very judicious and proper, no doubt, but are such assertions supported by actual evidence?

Likewise:

If a woman is fair and amiable, she is praised for both qualities, but especially the former, by the bulk of mankind: if, on the other hand, she is disagreeable in person and character, her plainness is commonly inveighed against as her greatest crime, because, to common observers, it gives the greatest offence; while, if she is plain and good, provided she is a person of retired manners and secluded life, no one ever knows of her goodness, except her immediate connections. Others, on the contrary, are disposed to form unfavourable opinions of her mind, and disposition, if it be but to excuse themselves for their instinctive dislike of one so unfavoured by nature; and visa versa with her whose angel form conceals a vicious heart, or sheds a false, deceitful charm over defects and foibles that would not be tolerated in another.

Agnes Grey is a stunning novel, in the sense of the words, what is said. It’s not difficult to see why it’s not as famous as the works of Charlotte and Emily – it’s far too calm and quite frankly far too considerate, though in a good way – but it’s worth its weight in gold.

Footnotes

1 In her biography of Charlotte, Gaskell recounts: ‘I was once speaking to her about “Agnes Grey” – the novel in which her sister Anne pretty literally describes her own experience as a governess – and alluding more particularly to the account of the stoning of the little nestlings in the presence of the parent birds. She said that none but those who had been in the position of a governess could ever realise the dark side of “respectable” human nature; under no great temptation to crime, but daily giving way to selfishness and ill-temper, till its conduct towards those dependent on it sometimes amounts to a tyranny of which one would rather be the victim than the inflicter. We can only trust in such cases that the employers err rather from a density of perception and an absence of sympathy, than from any natural cruelty of disposition. Among several things of the same kind, which I well remember, she told me what had once occurred to herself. She had been entrusted with the care of a little boy, three or four years old, during the absence of his parents on a day’s excursion, and particularly enjoined to keep him out of the stable-yard. His elder brother, a lad of eight or nine, and not a pupil of Miss Brontë’s, tempted the little fellow into the forbidden place. She followed, and tried to induce him to come away; but, instigated by his brother, he began throwing stones at her, and one of them hit her so severe a blow on the temple that the lads were alarmed into obedience. The next day, in full family conclave, the mother asked Miss Brontë what occasioned the mark on her forehead. She simply replied, “An accident, ma’am,” and no further inquiry was made; but the children (both brothers and sisters) had been present, and honoured her for not “telling tales.” From that time, she began to obtain influence over all, more or less, according to their different characters; and as she insensibly gained their affection, her own interest in them was increasing. But one day, at the children’s dinner, the small truant of the stable-yard, in a little demonstrative gush, said, putting his hand in hers, “I love ‘ou, Miss Bront&euml.” Whereupon, the mother exclaimed, before all the children, “Love the governess, my dear!”‘ (Gaskell, 1857, pp. 189-190)

References

Gaskell, Elizabeth (1857) The Life Of Charlotte Brontë, Vol 1, 2nd ed, Smith, Elder & Co, London

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Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

Book Cover

When things on the outside seem to be going well but they are actually not.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 234
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-22616-0
First Published: 14th January 1963
Date Reviewed: 10th September 2018
Rating: N/A (4.5/5 in usual terms of literary enjoyment and study)

Esther has always been an A grade student. Now, working for a ladies’ magazine in New York during a break, she struggles to get things right, and when she leaves the magazine to go back home she finds she hasn’t been accepted onto the summer course she had planned her holiday around. Along with this, she has a perpetual problem with a set of parents who want her to marry their son; she dislikes the boy and his pompous attitude. Somewhat related to this, she is afraid of what sex can mean for a woman, as well as annoyed at the double standards for women and men. Lastly, she misses her father. This all comes to a head and she beings to feel that life isn’t worth living.

The Bell Jar, set in the 1950s when the author was at university, is Plath’s famous novel, a book that is highly autobiographical and succeeds in being both enjoyable on a literary level, and in giving you a lot of information about Plath and her struggles with clinical depression. (The title references the feeling the character has of living in a bell jar.) Published a month before her death, the book has inevitably been viewed not only in the context of itself and Plath’s younger years, but in the context of her death. And it is hard to write about it without referring to her. (It’s also difficult not to talk about the ‘plot’ extensively, though I have tried to leave as much as possible out of this review.)

This is a dark book. There are times when Plath is graphic in her descriptions of what Esther does in terms of self-harm, and the various ways she considers killing herself. There is a lot about the hospitals and treatments she undergoes, things we would now consider barbaric. Yet there is also a distinct lightness to the text, most prominent in the first handful of chapters but also eked out even until the end of the book, where Plath, whether consciously or not, lifts the text from the darkness. It is in these sections that her talent most often shines through, however the times in which you can see another reason for her depression rearing its head are also full of thoughts and the phrasing of those thoughts, that show further literary talent.

Two chief areas in this regard are female agency and sex. Plath writes her thoughts about the double standard that applied to men and women, using the story of her forced sort-of relationship with Buddy Willard (either largely or somewhat true to life) when he tells her he’s slept with women, and she later muses on the fact that society would expect her to be a virgin if/when she married but that that isn’t fair. Following this she looks at the way a woman would have a baby and her life would change forever but a man could be a father and be the same person as before.

I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.

With these and other subjects, namely her potential change in career prospects and her memories of her father, The Bell Jar gives you a fair grounding in why Plath/Esther was depressed, and although it begins and ends at university, it shows the sorts of thoughts and feelings that would have taken Plath further in her writing career and added to the problems she found in her marriage.

It’s worth reading up about Plath’s life in context with what is in the book – for example the shock treatments included are actually taken from the work of Mary Jane Ward, whose semi-autobiographical book The Snake Pit featured them1, as well as the relationships she had with Dick Norton and Richard Sassoon that influenced Buddy and Irwin.

Plath had the book published under a pseudonym as she didn’t want her mother to know she had written in, worrying about her reaction, but whilst there is dislike, there’s empathy there, too:

Hadn’t my own mother told me that as soon as she and my father left Reno on their honeymoon – my father had been married before, so he needed a divorce – my father said to her, ‘Whew, that’s a relief, now we can stop pretending and be ourselves’? – and from that day on my mother never had a minutes’ peace.

In terms of study, whilst most of the book relates directly to Plath, there is enough about society in general to take away from it, and due to Plath’s work and career, a fair amount about literature and poetry, albeit that names have been changed (they’re easy enough to find out). There’s also Plath’s use of terms we would now consider racist that set the book firmly in its time and show how terminology would be used even when there was no aim to be actively discriminatory.

As much as it’s an autobiography The Bell Jar is also a real work of literature, with so much attention to detail having been put into it. It is absolutely worth reading, just be cautious of timing – whilst there is a lot of true enjoyment to be had, and whilst it’s quite short, it can and will take a toll on you whilst you are reading it.

Footnotes

1 From Wikipedia, date unknown (a): ‘Plath later stated that she had seen reviews of The Snake Pit and believed the public wanted to see “mental health stuff,” so she deliberately based details of Esther’s hospitalization on the procedures and methods outlined in Ward’s book.’ (But it seems Plath experienced similar treatments herself – see Wikipedia n.d. b.)

Online References

Wikipedia (n.d. -a) The Bell Jar, Wikipedia.org, accessed 10th September 2018.
Wikipedia (n.d. -b) Sylvia Plath, Wikipedia.org, accessed 10th September 2018.

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