Chapter XLIV. My Lord and Lady

Take Two

By Elise Hooper

In “My Lord and Lady,” we get a glimpse of newlywed life for Amy and Laurie as they plot how to use their wealth to help Jo and her penniless suitor, Dr. Bhaer. It’s easy to be charmed by the couple’s newfound maturity, optimism, and interest in philanthropy, and I think we’re supposed to marvel at how far these two have come, but this chapter always strikes me as a bit heartbreaking when Amy laments, “Ambitious girls have a hard time, Laurie, and often have to see youth, health, and precious opportunities go by…”

I picture Louisa writing those lines for Amy while hunched over the little desk that Bronson built her in her upstairs bedroom in Orchard House, and I can’t help but wonder if she wanted to throw open the window beside her and yell, “Is anyone listening? Being a woman and a professional writer is hard!” After all, few knew how ambitious girls suffered more than Louisa. After nearly three decades of trying to paddle her own canoe, Louisa was still pegging away at her writing despite the fact that she was no longer a girl and her health had taken a turn for the worse. And Louisa wasn’t the only ambitious girl in this family. May, the real-life sister who inspired the character of Amy, also spent years struggling to find success as a professional painter at a time when women were widely discouraged from pursuing art as a serious vocation.

Of course, one hundred and fifty years later, we know something that our beloved author didn’t: the precious opportunity that Louisa had been awaiting was taking shape in the manuscript being written by her own cramped, ink-stained fingers.

Little Women ended up being the book that secured Louisa’s future and positioned her to reach out a hand to help others girls who were less fortunate, including her sister, May.  Louisa used some of her hard-earned income to travel to Europe with May and further her sister’s art instruction. So, while Amy and Laurie vow to use their resources to help Jo, I love that real life brought a far more satisfying plot twist in Louisa’s life than a benevolent relative offering her financial aid. Our ambitious girl-turned-woman produced her own opportunity through her own tenacity and creative talents.

Elise Hooper received her BA from Middlebury College and her MIT from Seattle University. She has taught literature and American history in high schools throughout the Seattle area and has written two novels, The Other Alcott (2017) and Learning to See (2019). Her forthcoming novel Fast Girls (2020) focuses on the lives of women athletes competing in Hitler’s 1936 Olympics in Berlin. She currently lives in Seattle with her family, but grew up outside of Concord, MA and credits Louisa May Alcott with inspiring her to write fiction.

 

Chapter XXXIX. Lazy Laurence

By Beverly Lyon Clark

“Valrosa! The romance of romances in our girlhood’s literature,” exclaims Anna Steese Richardson in the Woman’s Home Companion in June 1912 (qtd. in Clark 219n91). She is responding to what would become the first Broadway production of Little Women, noting that upon hearing the word Valrosa, “every woman and girl in the audience sits up in startled interest.” When Alcott was in Nice on the French Riviera in 1866, she’d visited Valrosa (or Valrose) and called it “a lovely villa buried in roses” (Journals 150). In the romantic, rose-bowered Chapter 39, we’re told that “roses blossomed everywhere,” in “every shady nook,” near “every cool grotto” and “every fountain.” Here in this “honey-moon Paradise,” as Amy calls it, Laurie lounges and Amy sketches, and she scolds him for his indolence.

Why is this chapter memorable for many readers, perhaps especially for early-twentieth-century women? (It wasn’t for me.) Maybe Valrosa resonates particularly for those who celebrate romance and sentiment in the book? Certainly Amy and Laurie engage in banter that, while bracing, verges on the romantic; she also tucks small roses in his buttonhole, and he sticks daisies in the ribbons of her hat. And she tells Laurie that her “talent isn’t genius,” so the chapter likewise marks an end to a strand of independent female ambition. But Amy still lauds hard work, even if the kind of work that she here pursues—sketching—can also be simply a decorative pastime for proper young ladies. Amy herself talks of channeling her art by becoming “an ornament to society.”

One sign of the chapter’s resonance is that at least seventeen illustrators have depicted Amy and/or Laurie at Valrosa, from Hammatt Billings in 1869 to Shreya Gupta in 2018. Artists’ preferences for illustrating Valrosa over the later Vevey suggests a predilection for the visually romantic over (spoiler alert!) the more mundane eventual proposal. Certainly the Valrosa illustrations generally give prominence to romance, yet they often hint at Amy’s independence as well. Whether Amy is portrayed as scold or artist—usually the latter—she has a measure of power over Laurie. Occasionally he dominates in the images, maybe towering over a seated Amy or seemingly putting her on display, as if she too is a spray of roses. Yet often she’s seated and he’s lounging on the ground, and thus she has visual dominance by being higher on the page—especially in the images that imitate Billings’ or else Jessie Willcox Smith’s (1915) renditions. In one intriguing Valrosa illustration, Reisie Lonette (1950) may dress Amy in frills and furbelows but she omits the ambience of romantic roses, except for a token in the bonnet, and fully subordinates Laurie by making him visible only in Amy’s sketch. Amy subjects Laurie to her gaze and her pencil. The chapter is not just romantic.

But let me give the last word to Holly Blackford. In The Myth of Persephone in Girls’ Fantasy Literature (2011), she notes that a modification of a passage from Alcott’s A Long Fatal Love Chase appears in this chapter to underscore not a woman’s sexual awakening as in the sensation story but a mutual awakening of romantic possibilities. The echoes of the erotic point to the dangers of art and the ways in which Amy has fashioned herself as an object of the artistic gaze. Blackford emphasizes Amy’s self-fashioning; Europe provides “a sensationalist backdrop for the exotic creation of Amy Laurence” (105).

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. Ed. Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy, assoc. ed. Madeleine B. Stern. Little Brown, 1989.

Blackford, Holly. The Myth of Persephone in Girls’ Fantasy Literature. Routledge, 2011.

Clark, Beverly Lyon. The Afterlife of Little Women. Johns Hopkins UP, 2014.

Beverly Lyon Clark teaches English and Women’s & Gender Studies at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. She is the author of The Afterlife of “Little Women,” the editor of Louisa May Alcott: The Contemporary Reviews, and the coeditor of “Little Women” and the Feminist Imagination.

Billings.png
Hammatt Billings, 1869.
Smith
Jessie Willcox Smith, 1915.
Lonette.Amy.Lazy.J
Reisie Lonette, 1950
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Albert de Mee Jousset, 1950.
English
Mark English, 1967.

 

Chapter XXX. Consequences

By Leslie Perrin Wilson

I appreciate Louisa May Alcott’s emphasis on family as a major focus of Little Women, but the struggle of each March girl to navigate between personal desires and ethical and social standards beyond themselves is at least as important to the story of their development toward maturity. The chapter “Consequences” explores what it takes to advance in the world.

Amy deals with hurt and anger over being demoted from the art table at the Chesters’ fund-raising fair to the less desirable flower table. Mrs. Chester, her daughter May, and May’s friends are swayed by jealousy (Amy attracts a lot of male attention and is talented, to boot), damaged pride (Jo has made fun of May while paying calls with Amy prior to the fair), and an underlying sense of class superiority.

Amy behaves well, conciliating the Chesters and making a success of her table with the help of Laurie and his friends. She learns that pushing back her inner feelings and impulses and conforming in some measure to expectations—which she genuinely acknowledges as necessary guides—will be rewarded by a trip to Europe with Aunt Carrol. She is aware of the connection between her actions and their outcome, and matter-of-factly embraces the consequences as her due, despite Jo’s disappointment at having been passed over for the trip.   From Amy’s perspective, virtue may be its own reward, but there’s nothing wrong with the personal benefits that may follow from it.

Working some years ago on an exhibition showcasing May Alcott as an artist, I explored Louisa May Alcott’s ambivalence about her youngest sister’s natural ability to get what she wanted from life. May’s inborn talent for fulfilling her aspirations by making others like her and securing their assistance by accommodating to accepted paradigms of womanly behavior ran counter to Louisa’s independence and drive for success entirely on her own terms. Louisa worked like a demon and often felt as if she were swimming upstream, while things seemed to come easier for May. That May was able to get what she wanted without the struggle and self-doubt that plagued her older sister did not escape Louisa’s notice, and seemed unfair. “Consequences” highlights Louisa May Alcott’s consciousness, learned first-hand, of the complicated relationship between self-fulfillment and the ability to push ourselves back and make compromises.

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy each balance the relative importance of external models of behavior and the voice within in their own way, as did Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May Alcott. However differently Louisa may have seen herself from her sister May in negotiating this balance, the two sisters were actually more similar than not. Both held self-expression as the primary objective.

Leslie Perrin Wilson is Curator of the William Munroe Special Collections at the Concord Free Public Library and a writer on local literary and historical topics.  Louisa May Alcott and her family have formed a major emphasis in collection development and interpretation at the library since the start of Leslie’s tenure in 1996, and a focus of significant scholarly attention, as well.  Leslie plans to retire at the end of July 2019.

portrait.may
1877 portrait of May Alcott by Rose Peckham.

                                                    

Chapter XXVIII. Domestic Experiences

By Elise Barker

In “Domestic Experiences,” Alcott assures us, “Meg began her married life with the determination to be a model housekeeper,” attempting numerous household experiments in her idyllic “Dove-cote.” The domestic experience that stays with me, even after years have passed between readings, is when Meg’s jelly wouldn’t jell–which is why I always refused to try to make my own preserves. I’ve learned to bake my own bread, sew my own clothing, and garden my own produce, but preserves? No. If Meg couldn’t do it, how could I?

For the 150th anniversary of Little Women, I decided to try. First I attempted to acquire currants (the fruit from Meg’s garden), but none could be had in Idaho in the middle of October. So, I bought eight pounds of persimmons, all the while imagining “nice little jars [that] would look so well on the top shelf.” The persimmons sat on my countertop until after I submitted my students’ final grades, did the laundry, wrapped some Christmas gifts, and slept a solid ten hours.

When I finally pulled the first persimmon out of the bowl, the top popped off, revealing a wriggling maggot. The persimmons had dissolved into sludge.

Determined not to fail, the next day I decided to make simple apple butter, having done it before. The apple butter itself was easy. But I stared down the barrel of the canning task, trembling.

As I prepared to submerge my jars into boiling water, my husband, Chris, stopped me. “Are you sure you are supposed to screw those lids on?” he asked. “I thought the hot air needed to escape, to make a vacuum.”

Chris is an engineer, so I doubted myself, despite having examined the instructions carefully. “Ok, I’ll loosen the lids,” I said, ready to finish this project so long held in expectation.

When I checked the jars, apple butter had seeped from the lids. Close to tears, I pictured “Mrs. Brooke, with her apron over her head, sobbing dismally.”

Chris came and looked over my shoulder. “Hmm… I guess I was wrong. I’m sorry.”

At first, all I noticed was his flippancy. Then I remembered that although the jelly that never jelled caused Meg and John’s first major marital dispute, it also helped them learn to forgive one another by overcoming their childish pride. Thinking of this, I noticed Chris’s quick apology. I was able to shake my mounting anger.

“It’s ok. I can try again tomorrow.”

“Why do you want to do this so badly?” he asked.

“To understand Meg a little better. To understand Alcott better. We’ll see tomorrow. For now, I need to get out of the kitchen.”

“Domestic Experiences” is one of three chapters that show Amy, Jo, and Meg’s progress within their respective callings to art, literature, and domesticity. Growing up in a feminist household, I couldn’t understand why Meg’s domestic ambitions would be elevated to the same level as Amy’s art and Jo’s literature, never mind that my own mother was a model stay-at-home mom by calling. Now a wife and mother myself, struggling to create a cozy and enriching home for my family while also trying to build a career outside the home, I see this chapter as an artistic choice on Alcott’s part, not just lip-service to the expectations of Victorian womanhood.

The next day, as I checked the tight seals on my nice little jars, I smiled. The challenges of 1868 often seem remote from the realities of today, but my experiment proved the continued relevance of Little Women. The chapter on Meg’s calling to domesticity asserts that marriage is indeed an art form every bit as difficult as Jo and Amy’s. It requires practice, failure, humility, and creativity.

Elise Barker is an Adjunct Instructor of English at Idaho State University. She is currently planning the third year of an intensive hands-on Hogwarts Summer Camp of Witchcraft and Wizardry for kids ages eleven to seventeen. This January, her children are featured on the cover of IDAHO Magazine for an article she wrote titled, “Just Breathe: Zen and the Art of Hiking with Kids.” She hosts a blog, Taking My Own Freshman Composition Class, about her experiences writing all assignments alongside her composition students: 

https://takingmyownfreshmancompositionclass.wordpress.com/

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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.

penelusuran

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

 

Chapter XXVI. Artistic Attempts

By Marian Lipschutz

Take One

Chapter 26 of Little Women directs our attention to art of the highest order: “It takes people a long time to learn the difference between talent and genius…” Alcott then lowers her tone, making Amy, youngest of the March sisters, the learner in question. Most of Amy’s varied artistic attempts are shown to be ludicrous trials, her plan to entertain friends from her painting class an unmitigated disaster, in which Amy is let down by her family and friends, Hannah, the weather, and a scarcity of local lobsters.

Why does Alcott belittle Amy in such hyperbolic terms? My immediate answer is sibling rivalry. Although Marmee seemed to succeed in persuading Jo to abandon her anger at Amy for throwing her precious book into the fire earlier in the novel, what we have here is Jo’s gleeful revenge, almost as though Jo, not Alcott, were writing the chapter. Although Jo rushes to break up the plaster which has hardened too quickly around Amy’s foot in a sculpture experiment, she is laughing so hard she cuts the poor foot in the process, leaving a lasting scar. Moreover, Jo’s preoccupation with the tragic ending of a work in progress of her own, and her instinctive disapproval of Amy’s luncheon altogether, make it impossible for her to help wholeheartedly; indeed, Jo’s clumsiness becomes an impediment. Jo and Amy may at bottom be loving sisters, but they are also rival artists.

A deeper answer suggests that the attempt of any American woman to be an artist is ridiculous. Jo often demeans her writing, calling it scribbling or rubbish, her overworked novel “a ruin.” Jo and Amy have “fits,” attacks of creativity to be endured, to be got over by the artists themselves and others within range. Amy’s models are European men. Her determined vision, itself a work of art in its scrupulous attention to detail, of a sophisticated afternoon of eating, exchanging ideas, and plein air painting becomes a family amusement for the ages: the time Amy spilled salad dressing on her best dress and got caught with a vulgar lobster by a young man of breeding. Alcott’s anger and fear that women can’t write or paint rumble below the surface.

While Amy goes underground, laughs with her sisters, and calls herself a fool, Chapter 26 looks forward to the novel’s end where she sketches in the midst of a family reunion, declaring her steadfast ambition to be an artist, whose best effort is a recent sculpture of her sickly baby daughter. Amy has every perk: a wealthy musician husband, who admires and supports her work, youth, patience, leisure, a willingness to make use of her own and her child’s body. She is the most modern of the four sisters, traveling further than the others, a networker who cultivates fellow artists, cadges painting supplies from wealthier girls without giving up her decorous identity. Amy is the shaper of her own world. Her drive to express herself comes from within, unrelated to helping her family or a paycheck. And yet I have never been able to forgive her for the calculated cruelty behind the burning of Jo’s book, for taking Jo’s dream of Europe as her due, nor Marmee for imagining her daughters as wives and mothers rather than developing artists, learners of humility and self- sacrifice on their way to the Celestial City.

The March sisters and their mother are so real they seem to us autonomous. We judge their behavior, unable perhaps to resolve conflicts among them, but passionately allowing one or another a permanent place in our hearts. It is Alcott’s genius that burns.

Marian Shaw Lipschutz, the author of the novel Land of Hunchbacks, served for decades as a teacher in and around Los Angeles. For more of her perspectives on Little Women and other topics, visit https://www.marianlipschutz.com/.

FM.Amy in Plaster

Illustration by Frank Merrill (1880).