Book Review: Eight Cousins

Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott was published in 1875.

Rose Campbell is 13 and newly-orphaned. Her mother had died when Rose was young, but her father just recently passed. She’s sent to live with several aunts (their house is known as the “Aunt Hill”) until her appointed guardian, her father’s single brother, comes home from sea.

Rose had never met her father’s family. The aunts embody the truism of too many cooks spoiling the stew, with their different and sometimes opposite views on how she should be raised. One, something of a hypochondriac herself, has Rose almost convinced she has “no constitution.”

When Dr. Alec finally arrives, he puts his foot down with the aunts that Rose is to be raised his way for a year without their interference. Then they can evaluate how she’s doing and whether they need to make a change. The aunts can’t help but share their opinions occasionally, but they abide by Alec’s wish.

Alec starts slow with Rose, changing her diet and activities to healthier ones, not by decree but by persuasion. Rose regards her newfound uncle kindly because he is so like her father and seems to care greatly for her, so she acquiesces for the most part. She struggles to give up her little vanities, like wearing her belt so tight she can’t take a full breath so her waist looks smaller.

Much of the book involves Rose’s interactions with her seven boy cousins. She didn’t think she would like boys: she had never been around any. But she soon grows to love them. They all inadvertently teach each other lessons.

Alcott gets in a lot of opinions about what’s good and bad for young people. Some of the fashion sense Alec prescribes, we would consider common sense today (like doing away with corsets and having clothes loose enough to move comfortably in). Some of the vices her characters try to steer each other away from might sound funny to modern ears (like slang. Or maybe it’s that slang in that day is acceptable now.)

Wikipedia says Rose’s instruction and training for the wealth she will one day come into was “revolutionary” for the times, because women didn’t have much control over their own “money, property, or destinies” then.

Alcott uses the adjectives “good, old-fashioned” often, and this is a good, old-fashioned tale. Through “frolics” and “scrapes,” gentle admonition and learning by experience, the young people grow and develop good character.

A  couple of quotes I especially liked:

When Uncle Alec tells Rose he wants her to take up something special, housekeeping, she says, “Is that an accomplishment?” He replies: “Yes; it is one of the most beautiful as well as useful of all the arts a woman can learn. Not so romantic, perhaps, as singing, painting, writing, or teaching, even; but one that makes many happy and comfortable, and home the sweetest place in the world. Yes, you may open your big eyes; but it is a fact that I had rather see you a good housekeeper than the greatest belle in the city. It need not interfere with any talent you may possess, but it is a necessary part of your training, and I hope that you will set about it at once, now that you are well and strong.”

When one of the cousins takes Rose on her first pony ride, he chooses a gentle one named Barkis. Then the book says Barkis was “willin’,” an allusion to David Copperfield in which a man named Barkis lets Peggotty, David’s nurse,  know that he’s interested in marrying her by sending the message, “Barkis is willin.'” Hearing that phrase made me smile.

I listened to the audiobook at Libravox, a site for free audiobooks. The last time I used them, there was some disruption in the loading of individual chapters. That process went smoothly this time, but they’ve added some annoying ads every few chapters. The narrators at Libravox just read the books: they don’t put inflection in them like those at Audible. But sometimes a book is short enough that I don’t want to use a full Audible credit on it, and I am thankful for the option of Libravox. They also have some books that Audible doesn’t have.

Rose in Bloom is the sequel to this book, and that’s next on my reading list for Tarissa’s Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge this month. I had read both books years ago and enjoyed revisiting them.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: The Mother-Daughter Book Club

In The Mother-Daughter Book Club by Heather Vogel Frederick, sixth-graders Emma and Jess are best friends in Concord Massachusetts.

Emma loves reading and writing. Her parents are big Jane Austen fans who named their kids after her characters. Her father is a writer, her mother, a librarian.

Jess lives on a farm with her father and brothers. Jess’s mom is an actress currently working in NYC.

Emma and Jess are definitely not among the popular girls, who tease Emma about wearing hand-me-downs and call Jess “Goat Girl.”

One of the “mean girls,” Megan, was Emma’s friend years ago. But now their paths have diverged. Megan loves style and design, but her mother has dreams of math and science camp and MIT and Harvard for her.

Cassidy is a new student who loves sports, especially hockey. She’s tomboyish and doesn’t care at all about her appearance. Her mother was a super–model.

The moms cook up an idea that they’ll form a mother-daughter book club, and their first book will be Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

None of the daughters wants to participate. Some of them clash with each other, some clash with their moms. But perhaps they can learn a thing or two from Louisa.

I don’t read many books for this age range, but a friend recommended this to me. I loved the tie-in with Louisa and Litttle Women. The girls even visit Orchard House in Concord, where Louisa lived and wrote Little Women. I also enjoyed how the girls learned and grew over the course of the book. Even the moms learned that they can’t make their daughters fit into their own “castles in the air” dreams.

The chapters all begin with a quote from Little Women and vary between the different girls’ points of view. At the end is a discussion guide, recipes, charts for planning goals, and information about starting a book club.

The only thing I didn’t like was the treatment of Mrs. Chadwick, the head “mean girl’s” mom and villain of the piece. Mrs. Chadwick seems fair game for names and derogatory comments about her anatomy from the parents as well as the girls. In one scene near the end, the girls and their moms turn the tables on Mrs. Chadwick and her daughter with some mean girls’ (and women’s) tricks of their own. I suppose, in a literary sense, this was their comeuppance. But I wish the moms had been better examples in this.

But other than that, this was an enjoyable book in many ways. It’s the first in a series of seven, each one built around a classic book. I like the idea and the characters, so I may try some of the other stories.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

The Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge

Louisa May Alcott Reading ChallengeTarissa at In the Bookcase hosts the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge in June. You can read all the particulars here. She’s also offering a nice little prize here.

Louisa is one of my favorite authors, so I am happy to be joining in again. I plan to read:

  • The Mother-Daughter Book Club by Heather Vogel Frederick, a modern story about four girls who read through Little Women with their moms.
  • Eight Cousins by Louisa
  • Rose in Bloom, the sequel to Eight Cousins, if there’s time.

I’ve read Little Women multiple times, Little Men and Jo’s Boy’s just a few, but some of Louisa’s other books only once. So I wanted to reread a couple of those this time.

If you’ve wanted to read, or reread, something by or about Louisa, now is the perfect time!

Book Review: The Inheritance

In 1996, two professors going through Louisa May Alcott’s letters and journals discovered a previously unknown and unpublished manuscript. The Inheritance was Louisa’s first novel, written when she was 17. Neither the professors nor anyone else could find any other information about the novel. There was no record of it having been submitted for publication and rejected. Maybe Louisa just wrote it for fun or for her family. After the novel’s discovery, it was published in 1997.

The heroine of the story is Edith Adelon. She was discovered as a poor orphan in Italy by Lord Hamilton, who took pity on her and brought her home. There she became a companion to Hamilton’s daughter, Amy.

As the story  opens, Edith is a young woman and Amy is a teenager. Edith teaches Amy “music, painting, and Italian, and better lessons still in patience, purity, and truth,” but she’s not exactly a governess. However, she is regarded by Lady Hamilton as “poor and lowborn,” and as such, she is not allowed to mingle with “noble” guests as an equal (p. 17). Lord Hamilton died years before. Amy’s older brother, Arthur, her mother, Lady Hamilton, and her mother’s niece, Lady Ida complete the household. A friend, Lord Percy, comes for an extended visit and the young siblings learn his background: he and his brother had loved the same woman, and once Percy found out, he stepped back for his brother’s happiness. “Careless of the wealth and honor that might be his, he prized far more the purity and worth of noble human hearts, little noting whether they beat in high or low.” He visited the “poor and suffering” and still kept a hope that he “might win a beautiful and noble wife to cheer life’s pilgrimage and bless him with her love” (p. 13).

Ida hopes to attract Percy’s attention for herself, but when she sees him favoring Edith, Ida’s latent jealousy comes to the surface. Between Ida’s verbal jousts, another visitor’s ignoble intentions, and a betrayal of her kindness, Edith has her hands full.

Yet there is a secret to Edith’s background that none of them knows. But will it be revealed or suppressed and forgotten?

The story is only 150 pages and has elements of both a Gothic novel and what were called sentimental novels. It’s a very sweet story, but a little overdone in places. Edith is too good to be true. Descriptions such as this one abound: “With an angel’s calm and almost holy beauty, Edith bore within as holy and pure a heart–gentle, true, and tender” (pp. 12-13). Likewise, Percy’s “calm, pale face and serious eyes are far more beautiful than mere comeliness and grace of form, for the pure, true heart withing shines clearly out and gives a quiet beauty to his face, such as few possess” (p. 5).

But even though Louisa’s writing is understandably not as mature as her later works, and the characters are a little two-dimensional, I thought it was very sweet and a good effort on Louisa’s part for her age then.

Several years ago I saw a film version of The Inheritance which I enjoyed immensely. It must have come out not long after the book was published. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but it kept to the main points of the book. A few exceptions: it has Lord Hamilton as still living for most of the film; shows Lady Hamilton as warm and friendly whereas she is described as cold and haughty in the book; and it has Edith loving and racing horses, which was not at all in the book. I’m looking forward to seeing the film again some time now that I’ve read the story.

Thankfully Tarissa, who hosts the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge, told me about the Internet Archive, which loans copies of books that have been photocopied page by page. It’s not quite the same as an e-book, but once I figured out how to make the page fit my iPad mini, I read it quite easily. I’m glad to know this service exists! The edition I read included a lengthy introduction by the two professors who discovered this manuscript, Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy.

I’m counting this book as my Classic Novella (250 or fewer pages) for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved and Booknificent)

The Little Women Treasury

The Little Women Treasury by Carolyn Strom Collins and Christina Wyss Eriksson is aptly named: it’s a treasure trove for Little Women fans.

The authors give an abbreviated history of author Louisa May Alcott’s life and share pictures of her and her family. Another chapter gives a brief description of each of the four March sisters, an illustrated family tree, and a brief overview of their lives as traced through the books about them: Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys.

Other chapters include details about Orchard House, the Alcott family home (they only lived there for nineteen years, but that’s where Louisa wrote Little Women); details of the March family life; a time line of world history dovetailed with incidents in the Little Women books and sequels; recipes, some from the book and some common to the era (I was glad to learn what blancmange was); activities from the books that readers can try (how to make a “work basket,” “mark” handkerchiefs like Beth, make a mailbox, etc.); fashions of the era; and gardening and floral crafts from the era, with a mention of each of the March girls’ garden plots.

The illustrations and embellishments are lovely and in keeping with the era. I thoroughly enjoyed this treasury.

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Tarissa at In the Bookcase hosts the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge every June to encourage reading or listening to books by or about Louisa or about her family. I’m thankful she let me know about this book!

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved and Booknificent)

Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge

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Tarissa at In the Bookcase hosts a Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge every June. The idea is to encourage reading or listening to books by or about Louisa or about her family during June.

I’m planning to read The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper, a fictionalized account of Louisa’s youngest sister, May, on whom Amy was based in the Little Women books.

I just ordered The Little Women Treasury used from Amazon. I am not sure yet if I’ll read it through or just peruse parts of it: I’ll decide when I see it.

I would love to listen to The Inheritance by Louisa – I enjoyed the film version a few years ago. But so far I have not found it available on either audio or Kindle, and I am not sure the library has it (found the title online but the page showed a different book.) If I can’t find this one, I might reread Eight Cousins or Rose in Bloom, as it’s been years since I read either.

Hop on over to Tarissa‘s if you’d like to join in the challenge!

 

Louisa May Alcott Challenge Wrap-up

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The Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge hosted by Tarissa at In the Bookcase hosts this month has ended. I read two books for the challenge:

I watched the recent Masterpiece Theatre remake of Little Women and enjoyed it quite a bit – I think it aired last month. But I enjoyed watching several of the behind-the-scenes videos of the show. I didn’t know the Alcott home, Orchard House, was still preserved today with many of its originals furnishings, Louisa’s desk, and even May’s (Amy’s counterpart) sketchings on the walls. I learned, also, that one of May’s art students sculpted the sitting Lincoln Memorial.

I also listened to several of the podcasts Tarissa linked to for us.

It was fun to spend so much time reading and thinking about Alcott this month. I already have at least one book planned for next year’s challenge.

Thank you for hosting, Tarissa! It was fun!

Book Review: Invincible Louisa

AlcottI had not heard of Invincible Louisa, a Newberry medal-winning biography of Louisa May Alcott by Cornelia Meigs, until I saw Tarissa’s review of it last year. I found a Kindle version and saved it for this year’s Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge.Even though the book was written for children in 1933, I found it immensely readable.

Louisa was born the second of four daughters to Bronson and Abigail (called Abba here, Abby in other sources) Alcott. In some ways Bronson was ahead of his time. He was an abolitionist when such a stance was not popular, helped runaway slaves, and even enrolled a black girl in one of his schools, refusing to dismiss her despite protests which led to parents pulling their children out of the school, which led to the school’s closing. He had some forward-thinking practices in his schools, but also some controversial methods. On the other hand, he was more of an impractical thinker/dreamer/philosopher (“He once said that the sort of life which would satisfy him completely was to walk through the world all of his days, stopping to have conversations with people by the way”). He tried to start a Transcendental community with friends, but it failed. He very nearly joined a Shaker community which would have required him to leave his family. “In the first twenty-eight years of Louisa’s life, this household was to achieve the record of twenty-nine moves.” Though he worked hard, he could never manage to support his family very well. One family story tells of a friend giving the family a load of firewood. A poor man with a sick baby and no fuel came to Bronson, who gave the man all he needed and helped him take it home. Abba reminded him of his own baby and the need for fuel in the harsh, cold weather. Then another neighbor, unaware that someone else had helped the Alcotts with fire wood, brought them a load.

Abigail was industrious and practical. She was also more spirited. “Abba was a person of varying moods: excitable, quickly moved, always devoted to them all, but often too harrowingly uneasy concerning the family welfare to be entirely calm.”

The couple had four daughters in all, plus a son who did not live. Anna and Elizabeth were more like their father in temperament; Louisa and May took after their mother. But all the children learned industriousness, frugality, and generosity. “They were all of them generous to the utmost degree, so that it was by Abba Alcott’s consent, as well as by Bronson’s and the three girls’, that they habitually gave away everything that could, or could not, be spared.” “It was one of the Alcott beliefs that no matter how poor a person is he or she always had something which could be given away.”

Because the family’s financial situation was always so precarious, Louisa felt burdened to help as much as she could. She sewed, taught, worked as a governess, and did whatever came to hand. She wrote stories and sold them here and there. Family friends were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, so Louisa grew up under their influence and example. “To Louisa [Emerson] gave the freedom of his library and all that went with such a privilege.” “All their lives the members of this haphazard family were singularly lucky in friends, in people who appreciated and loved them and would do anything in the world for them.”

During the Civil War, Louisa went to Washington to help in a hospital. She sent home letters telling about the hospital itself and stories of the patients she encountered. Some of her letters were published, and people liked them so much that she wrote more and eventually put them into a book called Hospital Sketches, her first real literary success. “Louisa had told of the life with extraordinary effect; for she was not straining after romance now, but had given the truth simply, graphically, and with great spirit.” She caught typhoid fever, had to be taken home, faced a long and grueling recovery, and was never quite fully healthy again.

A publisher asked her for a book for girls. Louisa refused at first, saying she liked boys better and wouldn’t know what to write for girls. The publisher kept asking, however, so Louisa wrote some stories based on her own family. Louisa was Jo, Anna was Meg, Elizabeth was Beth, and May was Amy. The publisher was not terribly impressed, but he gave them to some young girls to read–and they loved them.

Several scenes paralleled the Alcott family. Elizabeth really did die of scarlet fever. Louisa did feel that Elizabeth’s death and Anna’s wedding were the beginning of breaking up the sisterhood. But there was no boy next door on whom Laurie was modeled: Louisa based him on a younger man she met while traveling abroad as a paid companion to an invalid girl. Some sources say there was a romance; this book says Louisa thought he would be better for May and hoped they would meet. Louisa herself never married, saying she would “rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.”

The success of Little Woman and Louisa’s subsequent books helped the family finally get on a solid financial footing. Although “Louisa never could quite put aside her taste for startling events and her love for writing tales which bordered on the fantastic,” “she had begun to see her work in its proper light; she understood also that [the more realistic] stories were needed for young readers instead of the sentimental and tragic tales with which their minds were usually fed.”

I had known a little bit about Louisa’s life, but I enjoyed learning more through this book.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Colletta’s Book Club, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: A Long Fatal Love Chase

Long Fatal Love ChaseLouisa May Alcott based her Little Women characters to a great degree on her own family. Just as Jo wrote both for a creative outlet and to support her family, so did Louisa. Louisa’s editor asked for a new novel to be published in installments in a magazine, and Louisa came up with A Long Fatal Love Chase. The novel was rejected, however, as being “too sensational.” Two years later Louisa published Little Women, and according to Wikipedia, stayed with children’s stories after that. A Long Fatal Love Chase was set aside and eventually discovered at a rare book dealer’s, bought, edited, and published by Kent Bicknell in 1995.

The story involves teenager Rosamond Vivian, who lives alone with an aloof grandfather. Tired of her boring, confined life and lack of love, she declares, Faust-like, “I often feel as if I’d gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom.” Right on cue, in walks her father’s old friend Phillip Tempest, who bears a striking resemblance to a portrait of Mephistopheles (why Rosamond’s grandfather has a portrait of Mephistopheles is not explained.)

Eventually Rosamond and Phillip fall in love and marry. She knows he has a past and is not a saint, but he has been nothing but kind to her. She feels love will conquer all. After while, however, she becomes aware of some of Phillip’s shady dealings. Unsettled, she becomes more wary. When she discovers that her marriage is a sham and Phillip already has a wife and son, she flees.

Thus the chase in the title ensues. Louisa wrote this not long after she had toured Europe as a paid companion to an invalid, and her experiences  there inform her novel. Rosamond puts on various disguises, travels to different places, receives help from a variety of people, but somehow Phillip and his spy, Batiste, find her every time until the tragic end alluded to in the title.

I was a little afraid of just how “sensational” this book might be, but it contains nothing explicit or lurid. Phillip is evil, but other classic villains are as bad or worse. Someone quoted on the Wikipedia page suggested perhaps in those times, a woman finding herself in a false marriage would hide away in shame even though the situation was no fault of her own, and the fact that Rosamond did not do that might have shocked some people.

Readers can tell this was originally written for magazine serialization, because every chapter ends with a cliffhanger. Alcott was quite good at writing that way and crafting enough sudden twists and turns to give one whiplash. A few lines border on silly (“She…looked at the vigorous figure before her with genuine womanly admiration for a manly man”[p. 13]. “Tempest…[enjoyed] her innocent companionship with the relish of a man eager for novelty and skillful in the art of playing on that delicate instrument, a woman’s heart” [p. 36].) But, overall, though this kind of novel isn’t my usual cup of tea, it was interesting to see this side of Alcott. The book was certainly exciting and suspenseful. And, though, it wasn’t written to have a moral, it has one nevertheless. Tempest’s love is destructive because it is obsessive and selfish, whereas that of someone Rosamond meets later is completely selfless, giving though he cannot receive her love in return. Though Rosamond is more independent than Little Women’s females, she is of the same character and fiber.

I was glad to win this book in a drawing for last year’s Mount TBR Challenge hosted by Bev at My Reader’s Block and save it for Tarissa’s Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge this month.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge

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Tarissa at In the Bookcase hosts the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge this month. You can find details and prize information here.

I’d like to read at least two books for the challenge.

  • A biography,  Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Meigs
  •  A Long Fatal Love Chase by Louisa. This was one of her “sensational novels” that she, like Jo in Little Women, wrote for quick money. It was recently rediscovered and printed. It will be interesting to see that side of Alcott.

I may also try to listen to Little Women again. I have read it several times and listened an audiobook of it at least once. I recently watched the new PBS remake, and I know they arranged some parts out of order, but for others I am not sure if I am remembering the book or the 1994 film. At any rate, I am hankering to go through the book again. I am making good time on my Back to the Classics challenge, so I think I have time for a detour. 🙂 But we’ll see.