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: