An Old Fashioned Girl

Date: 8 September 2013

Books Completed: 169

Books Left: 31

I’ve been rereading my Louisa May Alcott books recently, and added one I’ve not read before. I never seem to tire of them and enjoyed this year’s new one (Eight Cousins) and last year’s new one (An Old Fashioned Girl) just as much as I loved the March family books when I was a girl. One of the fifth graders checked out Little Women this week, and I hope she will enjoy it, although to be frank, I’ll be surprised if she does. Most of the girls who attempt to or actually do read it don’t seem to have an appreciation for it. I suspect the very thing I love most about it and all Miss Alcott’s books is the thing that makes them less engaging for today’s 10 year olds.

Miss Alcott definitely had a personal point of view that she inserted into her works. She was raised by a father (Bronson Alcott) who had very out-there ideas on child rearing and education—at least out-there for his day. He believed in sensible food and exercise, educating girls equally with boys, forgoing body-constricting devices for girls’ underclothing, and children being children. I’ve read a biography of Miss Alcott that was definitely anti-Bronson and implies that his relationship with Louisa was somewhat cold and distant. Considering that her father’s philosophies ended up in her books I have to wonder if the biography’s portrayal was indeed the case.

In addition to espousing her father’s educational viewpoints, Miss Alcott also put a theme of the importance of moral courage into her books. Whether it’s Marmee, Jo, Polly, Uncle Alec or someone else, a character always moralizes at some point about striving to be good, working to help others, and keeping oneself above the temptations of the “fashionable world” in Miss Alcott’s day, the “in crowd” in mine.

I think this is the element that today’s young readers don’t care for and what ultimately turns them off Miss Alcott’s books. Ironically, it’s one of the things I like most about her work.

Miss Alcott had a definite message she wanted to convey, but her books are actually not pedantic in tone—something that was a bit unusual for her day. Children’s books in the Victorian era were, primarily, written to be instructional: idealistic children in idealistic situations demonstrated how children were supposed to think and act, without a single regard to authenticity. Good characters were rewarded while bad ones had their lives ruined. Miss Alcott’s characters are not all good or all evil; all of them have flaws, even the angelic Beth, and occasionally they make bad choices and must deal with the repercussions of those choices without being condemned as societal outcasts.  In short, they were like the children who would be reading about them.

While Miss Alcott’s books are not pedantic, they do have preachy moments. These moments are brief, however, and the author even pokes fun at herself about her “sermonizing.” I’m not sure if it’s the occasional preachy moment that turns today’s readers off, or if it’s the message itself—especially the one about staying away from negative influences, even if it means going against what’s popular. When young celebrities who pass as role models today wear, say, and do provocative things simply for attention, reading about 4 sisters who are covered from the chin to the ground, concentrate on improving their characters, and who hold modesty in high esteem can seem like pretty dull stuff.

I can easily see why Miss Alcott’s stories appeal to me now—I wish young girls were more innocent and modest and acted like (gasp!) children. I’m curious as to what the attraction was when I was a young girl. Perhaps since times were less risqué then, the gap between me and the March sisters was not so vast. Perhaps I could relate better because of that. Or perhaps since it was one of my first sister books I was so fascinated that I didn’t mind that the Marches were out of it and so not cool. Whatever it was, I will continue to have Little Women on my library shelf with the hope that one of my students will pick it up and enjoy it as much as I do, one old fashioned girl to another.