Chapter XXXVII. New Impressions

By Lauren Rizzuto

Though it may seem to gesture toward Amy and Laurie’s eventual marriage, the title of the chapter “New Impressions” is misleading. Au contraire, it is the old impressions, indelibly made upon each other in childhood (he, the teasing older brother, and she, the ebullient younger sister yearning to be included) that now serve as prelude to their romance. A quick sketch of events illustrates the curious sense of déjà vu that pervades the chapter.

It’s Christmas again, this time in Nice, and once more the Laurence boy will make things merry for a March girl. In a variation of Jo’s memorable opening grumble, Amy exclaims, “‘This will be a regularly merry Christmas to me, with presents in the morning, you and letters in the afternoon, and a party at night.’” Their holiday rendezvous begins with a carriage ride, though admittedly it is now Amy who drives Laurie. News of Beth’s decline may temporarily wilt their spirits, just as Mr. March’s battlefront ruminations once gently rebuked his daughters’ misbehavior, but the two soldier on to attend a Yuletide ball together with some other American expats (and a potpourri of European types). Amy, perhaps having learned from Meg’s mistakes, prepares herself to look, if fashionable, still “sensible.” She may “prink,” but only insofar that she continues to impress the boy-next-door. Laurie, for his part, looks “unusually débonnaire,” but true to form he at first shyly refrains from dancing (at least he does not hide behind a curtain) until, so overcome by his female companion’s charms, he dances with gusto. Yes, by the end of the evening, everything old is “new” again.

And yet Alcott is no one-trick poney! True, from these examples Amy appears not merely to “change places” with Jo in Laurie’s heart but assume the role of nearly all of the “little women,” the quintessential, built-to-order “good wife.” But this interpretation denies Amy the very irrepressible qualities that Laurie (and the reader) finds so attractive: unlike other eligible mesdemoiselles, “her old petulance now and then showed itself, her strong will still held its own, and her native frankness was unspoiled by foreign polish.”

The pejorative “foreign polish” occurs more than once in this chapter, as does the phrase “a good effect.” It’s as if Alcott wants to remind readers that, although their Amy will always be susceptible to “little affectations of speech and manner,” her time abroad has taught her the difference between art and artifice. Ironically, Amy acquires this knowledge without self-awareness; possibly, Alcott wishes to assure the (dismayed) reader that Amy and Laurie’s romance is happening naturally as they are “unconsciously giving and receiving” these old new impressions. For instance, when Laurie greets Amy before the dance with flowers, just as he did with Marmee their first Christmas as neighbors, she cringes when—nostalgia be damned!—her date cloaks his gift in cliché:

“Thank you; it isn’t what it should be, but you have improved it,” he added, as she snapped the silver bracelet on her wrist.

“Please don’t!”

“I thought you liked that sort of thing!”

Sacre bleu! Poor Laurie has misjudged the French Amie for one who appears to (but really doesn’t) value “that sort of thing.” This March sister values authenticity. “My rouge won’t come off,” she says pointedly when, after a particularly vigorous dance, Laurie notices her red cheeks. She’s not interested in performing, how do you say, je ne sais quoi, but in exposing sprezzatura for what it is: a learned art. ‘“I study as well as play,’” she informs him, ‘“and as for this’—with a little gesture toward her dress—‘why, tulle is cheap; posies to be had for nothing, and I am used to making the most of my poor little things.’” Junoesque beauty requires diligent effort.

C’est la vie.

Lauren Rizzuto is a Senior Lecturer in the graduate programs in Children’s Literature at Simmons University and a PhD candidate in English at Tufts University. She visited France for the first time in January but, like Kevin McCallister from Home Alone, remains “what the French call ‘les incompétents.'” 

Lux
      Peter Lawford (Laurie) and Elizabeth Taylor (Amy) from the 1949 MGM feature film version of Little Women as they appeared in a Lux soap ad in the Woman’s Home Companion.
      
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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)