Chapter XXVI. Artistic Attempts

By Chris Fahy

Take Two

Alcott’s essentially comic examination of Amy’s artistic apprenticeship, a mania replete with examples of singed wood, a foot embedded in plaster, and distorted human forms, is consistent with her depiction of fledgling female artists in the short story “Psyche’s Art.” Here the love of art is depicted as a form of communicable disease: its victims “besieged potteries for clay, drove Italian plaster-workers out of their wits with unexecutable orders, got neuralgia and rheumatism sketching perched on fences and trees like artistic hens” (“Psyche” 207). There can be something absurd about a woman desiring to be a genius, who mistakes “enthusiasm for inspiration” (LW 328). Such mockery is not extended to the male Laurie who unrealistically desires to be a composer only to find he has limited talent.

For all her satire, Alcott affirms that Amy does possess talent: her pen and ink drawings show “taste and skill (328); her crayon sketches were “wonderfully fine” (331). Through trial and error she may even come to possess a type of feminine genius. To be sure, Amy renounces her ambition in despair when she views (male) artistic mastery in Rome. But her rendering of her frail daughter at the end of Little Women is her best work, inspired by love not some powerful, impersonal afflatus. Here again she resembles the eponymous heroine of “Psyche’s Art”—in dedicating herself to unselfish household duties Psyche makes possible the affection that will guide her hand to create a perfect likeness of her deceased sister. So, too, this resembles the end of Diana and Persis when Persis renounces the inspired state that led her to create the painting of the lark ascending [listen to Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Lark Ascending” to get a sense for the spirit of this painting] for the more personal, domestic stance that will lead to a rendering of her infant child as Cupid.

Alcott respects Amy’s perseverance. She quotes Michelangelo’s dictum that “genius is eternal patience” (LW 331) to characterize Amy’s stance. As this is also quoted in “Psyche’s Art” it appears that the saying was an important one for Alcott. It may well summarize her feelings toward her own work.

Having said that, the question of genius is a fraught one. The inspiration for Amy, Psyche, and Persis was Alcott’s sister May. But May achieved her greatest recognition as a copyist of Turner. In the character of Hilda in The Marble Faun, Nathaniel Hawthorne depicts the copyist as a person who renounced her own (limited) genius to become a handmaiden for the Old Masters. She is inspired not by a female muse but by the spirits of the male painters. May Alcott certainly does not go to the extreme of Hilda but it is clear, through the person of Amy, that she ceases to compete with the Old Masters. Instead her inspiration will be the heart rather than a towering imagination.

A powerful imagination is seen in the male sculptors Paul Gage of “Psyche’s Art” and Stafford in Diana and Persis. The eponymous female sculptor Diana also achieves power in her work. It is not the sole domain of men, but it comes with a chill, because its force is achieved at the cost of her personal relationships. The sculpture of Puck, co-created with Stafford as a tribute to his son, is seen as a more appropriate feminine expression of genius.

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. The Annotated Little Women, edited by John Matteson. W.W. Norton, 2016.

—. “Psyche’s Art.” Alternative Alcott, edited by Elaine Showalter. Rutgers UP, 1988, pp. 207-226.

Chris Fahy is a Senior Lecturer at Boston University’s College of General Studies where he teaches a two-semester sequence on literature and art from the ancient Greeks to the present time.

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Image by Ashley Yazdani, who, according to blogger Rachel Smith, “is one of the few people who has ever painted Amy with any sensitivity…” Read more at http://rachelsmithillustration.blogspot.com/2013/03/little-women-reviews-beginning.html

 

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Chapter XVIIII. Amy’s Will

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” [198]), 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).

FM.Esther

Illustration by Frank Merrill (1880)

Chapter VII. Amy’s Valley of Humiliation

By Alicia Mischa Renfroe

I became an Alcott “scholar” at age six when I found an old copy of Louisa Alcott: Girl of Old Boston by Jean Brown Wagoner in a box of books that my grandfather had rescued from a one-room school slated for demolition. I read it so many times that my concerned mother (unaware that I had found my career) eventually hid it and substituted Little Women. Part of the Childhoods of Famous Americans series, this biography reveals how little Louisa learns to be a “good girl.” Drawing on a memorable anecdote from Alcott’s life, Wagoner describes three-year-old Louisa’s birthday party where she must forgo her own piece of cake for another child, and such moments appear throughout Little Women as well as Alcott’s other work.

One of four consecutive chapters drawing on Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, “Amy’s Valley of Humiliation” focuses on the youngest March—the artistic, sometimes selfish, and often irrepressible Amy. Like Bunyan’s Christian, Amy learns a lesson about the consequences of her actions, though an impulsive decision in the next chapter will bring out the dragon “Apollyon” in Jo. Amy is “suffering” for a lime, so Meg contributes her hard-earned rag money so that Amy can repay her “debts of honor” and enjoy a few of the pickled treats herself–Amy likes her limes.

Alcott uses this humorous vignette to introduce several concerns about education that run throughout the novel. Unlike the breakfast freely given to the Hummels, the limes are part of a schoolyard economy of exchange, generating an obligation to repay in kind and teaching the lesson that some “gifts” are not gifts at all. When Amy’s teacher discovers her “contraband,” he uses corporal punishment in direct contrast to Bronson Alcott’s progressive ideas about education. Emphasizing pedagogy grounded in mutual respect and hands-on learning, Bronson occasionally used the ruler “as a last resort” and once punished some unruly students by asking them to strike his hand, illustrating “his belief that it was far more terrible to inflict pain than to receive it” (Matteson, Eden’s Outcasts 58-59). Following this approach, Marmee supports Amy’s self-development and agrees to “a vacation from school,” at least in part due to the negative influence of the teacher and the other girls. As the chapter concludes, Amy realizes that the issue isn’t the limes but the economy they represent: “it’s nice to have accomplishments…but not to show off.”

I regularly teach Alcott and continue to be amazed by how her fiction speaks to students today: “Are you a Meg, Jo, Beth, or Amy?” sparked many a class discussion well before the creation of internet quizzes devoted to the question. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m an “Amy.” I did identify with Jo—I loved to write and play with the boys—but I was always a little disconcerted by how much Jo (and Alcott herself) must give up. From the opening chapter, Amy questions this expectation and the justice of their situation: “I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have lots of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all” (Chapter 1). Though focused on “pretty things,” she makes an important point about economic inequality and tempers the emphasis on self-sacrifice that runs throughout the novel.

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Louisa Alcott: Girl of Old Boston by Jean Brown Wagoner
Lime | Amy March
“I lime Amy March” Pro-Amy propaganda

Alicia Mischa Renfroe is Professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University.