Friday, June 11, 2010

Good Wives (or Little Women, Volume 2) by Louisa May Alcott (1869)

After the success of Little Women in 1868, Louisa May Alcott penned a companion volume in 1869 that is sometimes bound separately as Good Wives and sometimes (like in the case of my grandmother's copy of the book that I'm reading), bound together as a second part of the story.

I had read this part of the book once before, but not nearly as many times as I read the first part of the book. Maybe it is because I'm grown up now, but I liked the "young womanhood" part of the collection even more than the childhood part.

In Good Wives the oldest March sister, Meg, marries her fiance John Brooke and starts a family. Jo, the second daughter (and the one modeled after Alcott), refuses the hand of their cute and wealthy and nice next door neighbor Laurie who has loved her since childhood. She breaks his heart and he heads to Europe while she goes to New York City to work as a governess and work on her writing. The third daughter, Beth, stays close to home and is still a little sickly from her battle with scarlet fever, but is just as kind and thoughtful as ever. Little Amy, the artistic one, hits the jackpot as a companion to her wealthy aunt on a trip to Europe where she stretches her artistic wings.

Although each of the "Little Women" are moving further and further from their childhood home, they are still just as close with their mother and one another. Each is sometimes tempted and starts down the wrong path, but their solid character and good upbringing always bring them back to the good life. This book deals with more grown up difficulties, tragedies, and blessings, but the core of the characters is just the same as when Alcott laid their foundations in the first volume of the book. And I challenge anyone on earth to write a better betrothal scene than Alcott. She has two in this book that got me a little weepy they were so perfect.

There is still some moralizing in this book (it was written in the late 1800s after all), but nothing that a patient reader can't handle. And if you give it a little time, you are rewarded by passages like the following (which I'm going to quote at length, because I can). This is particularly revealing since Alcott herself never married:

"An old maid, that's what I'm to be. A literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse, a family of stories for children, and twenty years hence a morsel of fame, perhaps; when, like poor Johnson, I'm old, and can't enjoy it, solitary, and can't share it, independent, and don't need it. Well, I needn't be a sour saint nor a selfish sinner; and, I dare say, old maids are very comfortable when they get used to it; but—" and there Jo sighed, as if the prospect was not inviting.

It seldom is, at first, and thirty seems the end of all things to five-and-twenty. But it's not as bad as it looks, and one can get on quite happily if one has something in one's self to fall back upon. At twenty-five, girls begin to talk about being old maids, but secretly resolve that they never will be. At thirty they say nothing about it, but quietly accept the fact, and if sensible, console themselves by remembering that they have twenty more useful, happy years, in which they may be learning to grow old gracefully. Don't laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragic romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded faces beautiful in God's sight. Even the sad, sour sisters should be kindly dealt with, because they have missed the sweetest part of life, if for no other reason. And looking at them with compassion, not contempt, girls in their bloom should remember that they too may miss the blossom time. That rosy cheeks don't last forever, that silver threads will come in the bonnie brown hair, and that, by-and-by, kindness and respect will be as sweet as love and admiration now.

Gentlemen, which means boys, be courteous to the old maids, no matter how poor and plain and prim, for the only chivalry worth having is that which is the readiest to pay deference to the old, protect the feeble, and serve womankind, regardless of rank, age, or color. Just recollect the good aunts who have not only lectured and fussed, but nursed and petted, too often without thanks, the scrapes they have helped you out of, the tips they have given you from their small store, the stitches the patient old fingers have set for you, the steps the willing old feet have taken, and gratefully pay the dear old ladies the little attentions that women love to receive as long as they live. The bright-eyed girls are quick to see such traits, and will like you all the better for them, and if death, almost the only power that can part mother and son, should rob you of yours, you will be sure to find a tender welcome and maternal cherishing from some Aunt Priscilla, who has kept the warmest corner of her lonely old heart for 'the best nevvy in the world'.


Joolie said...

I never knew it was two books! I haven't read it in a long time; is it really true that reasonable, mature Jo is more fun to read about than impetuous asshole Jo?

St. Murse said...

That quoted section was wonderful to read. Thanks!

Spacebeer said...

Don't worry Joo, Jo is still a bit of an impetuous asshole even as an adult, she is just a little more self-aware about the whole thing.

milk and cake said...

that was a great section you quoted, it's made me want to go check the book out. which is why i love your blog!