By Dee Anne Anderson
Little Women is the book of my older childhood. Some people have Anne of Green Gables, the Nancy Drew series, or other books about intrepid and plucky young women. But for me, it will always be the March sisters. I read and re-read Volume 1 of the novel throughout upper grade school. (Volume 2 was not as interesting to me at that age, and so I often skipped it and just returned to the beginning.)
Of course, Jo was the character with whom I most closely identified and wanted to imitate. She was brave and fierce and deeply loyal to her sisters. But as I entered those awkward middle school years, one bit of Little Women came to mind often. When “Meg goes to Vanity Fair” in Chapter Nine, I went with her. Meg wanted to fit in with the cool girls, and she wanted to wear clothes that were fashionable but out of reach financially. And so did I. At that time, my family somewhat echoed the Marches’ situation, in that we were privileged in many ways but lived on a tight budget with no room for extras. I longed to be welcome at the cool kids’ lunch table, and Meg’s visit to the Moffats’ home struck a chord with me.
Clothing is often a message we send to the world, and this can be both empowering and enjoyable. I am currently a vintage fashion enthusiast who lives in New York City, and the delightfully performative nature of fashion is all around me. However, as a young girl, I was with Meg as she discovers the superficial nature of both her costume and her hosts. She is embarrassed at how she allowed the other girls to dress her up, and says, “I only wanted a little fun, but this sort doesn’t pay, I find, and I’m getting tired of it.” It was a powerful suggestion to me that perhaps the group I longed to join wasn’t as fun as they looked from the outside. And perhaps the name brand clothes I hoped would make me cool wouldn’t change me at all. (Although, to be honest, I still desperately wanted that pair of GUESS jeans. I just knew they could change my social future forever.)
I read Chapter Nine with the uncritical eye of a child, and I didn’t then notice the problematic messages that the worth of a woman was in her roles as wife and mother. As a single woman in her 40s, I find Marmee’s advice—that if Meg and Jo are “love-worthy,” they will be assured of finding husbands—a bit jarring. However, the idea that I could be a worthy and respected person without the acceptance of the cool kids or the fashions of the moment was a powerful one for a young girl.
Dee Anne Anderson is a high school English teacher working with at-risk students in New York City and an adjunct professor at New York University.
4 thoughts on “Chapter IX. Meg Goes to Vanity Fair”
Reblogged this on Louisa May Alcott is My Passion and commented:
from LW150 blog: How many of you longed to be part of the cool crowd? “Meg goes to Vanity Fair”
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Love this blog entry! When I interviewed adolescent girls about their reading years ago, I was struck by the fact that what most engaged their imaginations, what they took most to heart, was often NOT the traditional ways in which the protagonists’ dreams were tamed in the conclusions of books. Instead, their own dreams were authorized by the aspirations and unconventional behaviors of the girls they read about like Jo, Caddie Woodlawn, and others, just as your reading privileged the “brave and fierce” Jo of volume one. Thanks.
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Good thoughts about the ongoing importance of Little Women! I met this chapter first in the movie from 1994 (the part about Mr. March is wrong here) because it was cut in my German translation. Thinking about the message, this is really something also for nowadays.