By Monika Elbert
I am interested in Catholicism and the rosary’s presence within this very New England novel. In “Amy’s Will,” the Gothic momentarily intrudes in Aunt March’s household, where poor Amy is a captive slave in her role as attendant to the old woman. Aunt March’s maid, Esther, the “French woman” who is forced to change her name from the more Frenchified “Estelle”—“on condition that she was never asked to change her religion”—brings a sense of exoticism with “odd stories of her life in France” (192) and with her Catholic customs. Amy goes through Aunt March’s treasure trove of jewelry and chances upon a rosary, which she mistakes for a fine piece of jewelry. Indeed, it is the piece she most desires: she looks “with great admiration at a string of gold and ebony beads, from which hung a heavy cross of the same” (193). Esther concedes that she “covets” it as well, but “not as a necklace”: “to me it is a rosary, and as such I would use it like a good Catholic” (193). Amy wistfully admires Esther’s sense of devotion and the peace that she derives from the rosary, and in response Esther recommends that Amy indulge in some Catholic practices: “If Mademoiselle was a Catholic, she would find true comfort; but, as that is not to be, it would be well if you went apart each day to meditate and pray” (194) as she herself had done in the private chapel of her former mistress. This subtle attack on Aunt March’s Protestant household results in Amy’s momentary conversion. Esther arranges “the little dressing room” as Amy’s place of worship and advises her to retreat to this altar, composed of a little table and a footstool, when her aunt is fast asleep, and to pray for the health of her convalescent sister, Beth.
But Amy’s sacred space is an interesting combination of sensory delights and sacred images. Esther lends a painting of the Madonna, an image which Amy worships, though the divine and the earthly mother merge, as they did for Gladys in Alcott’s A Modern Mephistopheles: “Amy’s beauty-loving eyes were never tired of looking up at the sweet face of the divine mother, while tender thoughts of her own were busy at her heart” (195). Next to her New Testament and hymnal, Amy keeps a sentimental remembrance of Laurie’s affection: “a vase full of the best flowers Laurie brought her” (195), so that images of the sacred and the profane coalesce. Giving up her desire for baubles (in the shape of “a million turquoise rings” ), she prays for Beth’s recovery. She does not give in to the whole ritual of Catholic worship though, as she hangs the rosary but does not actively use it, “feeling doubtful as to its fitness for Protestant prayers” (195). Thus, Amy has an excursion into the exotic rituals of Catholicism in the Protestant household, even before her adventure to Europe, where she is introduced to more sensual aesthetics, in her quest to become an artist.
Christine Doyle, who also focuses on this scene in her study of Alcott and Brontë, makes Alcott more receptive than Brontë to the liberating possibilities of Catholicism.
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women, edited by Elaine Showalter, Penguin, 1989.
Doyle, Christine. Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Brontë: Transatlantic Translations. U of Tennessee P, 2000.
Elbert, Monika. “The Paradox of Catholicism in New England Women’s Gothic.” Transnational Gothic: Literary and Social Exchanges in the Long Nineteenth Century, edited by Monika Elbert and Bridget Marshall, Ashgate, 2013, 113-138.
Monika Elbert is Professor of English at Montclair State University and has published widely on Alcott, Hawthorne, and the Gothic, including Hawthorne in Context (2018) and, with co-editor Wendy Ryden, Haunting Realities: Naturalist Gothic and American Realism (2017).
Illustration by Frank Merrill (1880)