Lija of The Writer’s Pet brought my attention to a very interesting blog post yesterday in response to my own recent post on my experience of reading Good Wives. Jezebel, a fascinating blog that I hadn’t explored much before, had written a post about the attitude of her Professor and the reaction of her classmates to the novel when they were studying Little Women as part of their literature class. The post is mainly about the modern day interpretation of the moral lessons dished out by Louisa May Alcott in Little Women, but what struck me, and Lija, was the point she made about Marmee’s statement that she has a temper like Jo’s that she has learned to control.
“Jo, dear, we all have our temptations, some far greater than yours, and it often takes us all our lives to conquer them. You think your temper is the worst in the world, but mine used to be just like it.”
“Yours, mother? Why, you are never angry!” and, for the moment, Jo forgot remorse in surprise.
“I’ve been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo; but I have learned not to show it; and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.”
That’s exactly the kind of passage you skip over as a girl to race ahead to Amy’s putting a clothespin on her nose to make it more Grecian, but stop dead on as a woman, having earlier completely failed to grasp that Marmee is more than a gracious creature in a gray bonnet sweeping in and out of the house on her way to do good works. Because: Why is she angry, exactly? Why, could it have anything to do with the following two asides about Mr. March?
“Don’t you wish we had the money Papa lost when we were little, though?”
“I think it was so splendid for Papa to go as a chaplain when he was too old to be drafted, and not strong enough to be a soldier!”
Having your husband lose all your money, then head off to join an army that does not particularly want him, leaving you alone to do all you can to keep your four daughters from becoming the even poorer Hummels down the street, might conceivably inspire some rage—as well as a slightly outsized insistence on pointing out the sunny side of every type of deprivation.
When I read old favourites, or books that I dismiss as cosy, period reads, I tend to discard my trained literary eye and just enjoy them for what they are on the surface. However, this post has reminded me of how rewarding, and interesting, paying close attention to texts, and reading between the lines, can be. Having specialised in feminist readings of literature at university, I am usually quick to pick up on potential undertones of female discontent, but of late, I have noticed my critical eye wandering as I focus on reading books purely for pleasure.
In my university days, when I had time to hover over a book with a pencil and get outraged by the subordination of women in nineteenth century literature, I would have been all over that comment by Mrs March about her latent anger. As Jezebel rightly says, Marmee has good reason to be angry – her husband has as good as abandoned her and their daughters to go off and do what he finds of personal fulfilment, and he has also lost all of their money, leaving her to pick up the pieces and live a life of relative poverty that she was never brought up to have to cope with. Taking that seemingly throwaway and insignificant comment about Marmee’s anger and using it as a lense through which to understand her as a character completely changes the seemingly innocent and moralistic tone of the novel. Marmee is angry because she has been failed by her husband, and by her upbringing. She hasn’t been taught how to work hard, and how to cope without money. She has no one but her girls to lean on for emotional support and has no money for the luxuries she is accustomed to. Her attitude, and emphasis on hard work and self denial, are her coping method, and also, her attempt to save her girls from the situation she has found herself in. Marmee is far from a being a saccharine goody two shoes; she is a powerful, strong, wise survivor. Forced by her husband’s ineptitude to take on a man’s role as head of her household, she chooses to make the best of her circumstances and equip her daughters with the character traits and education they will need to be able to survive, both materially and emotionally, independently of men.
As it happens, all three March girls who survive into adulthood get married to men who can provide for them, but unlike their mother before them, they have been trained to live useful, hard working lives, sensitive to the needs of others, frugal in their tastes, and, most importantly, be emotionally self reliant. As much as they love their husbands, all three girls could have lived alone and supported themselves; their natural abilities have been nurtured, they have been educated, they have worked for their bread, and they have strong spirits that are not easily broken. Dismissing Mrs March as simply a model, a type, a paragon of virtue, drawn to teach young girls how to be a good woman, is immensely reductive. Her character was actually a warning, I think, to those women who thought they could breeze through life on the arms of their husband. As Alcott saw with her own parents, men cannot always be relied upon to provide for their wives and children, and it is dangerous to bring up girls to believe that they can be, leaving them helpless if their husbands fail to live up to expectations.
While we’re on the subject of ineffectual husbands, what about Fanny’s husband Arthur, in The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate? Forever stuck in his books and uninterested in Fanny’s life, they may be happily married, but am I the only one somewhat distressed by his lack of awareness of Fanny’s existence? She is just there to make sure his house runs smoothly and his children are brought up; he couldn’t be less interested in her emotional life. Perhaps the reason why Fanny is so interested in the love lives of those around her is because she has no real love life of her own; no grand passion, no cosy midnight chats, no spontaneous trips to Paris. Secretly, I think she is desperate to be swept off her feet. But she has opted for a life of dull, comfortable safety, in order to avoid the fate of her mother. What is Mitford saying here? It is better to be forever in the throes of some grand passion that may or may not last, than commit to a less than satisfactory marriage? Considering her own life story, perhaps so. Easy to miss amidst the light hearted humour of the novel. Don’t forget that Linda, about to fulfil her dream of being married to the love of her life, dies giving birth to his child. Love doesn’t last, implies Mitford, as she kills off her glamorous heroine, so it’s best to die before you find that out.
It makes reading a more interesting experience, when you start picking apart what you’re reading and looking at what potentially illuminating, incendiary phrases lie undiscovered on the pages. It’s easy to miss many a signpost to a deeper meaning, to a deeper discontent, to a deeper message. Sometimes we are racing through an exciting plot, sometimes we have an expectation of a book to be about a certain thing and we don’t look beyond that. Reading that post on Jezebel’s blog has made me realise what I’m missing by forgetting to read between the lines. What if Little Women isn’t about learning to be a better person, but about how women can’t rely on men? What if The Pursuit of Love isn’t really just a lighthearted dig at the upper classes, but a manifesto against marriage? A richer reading experience then opens up before me. Questions are raised. Expectations are challenged. Stereotypes are undermined. It could all just be conjecture, of course. I could be reading meaning into words that were innocently intended. Maybe Marmee isn’t angry about her husband leaving her. Maybe she’s just angry at the amount of darning she has to do. Could be. But the former is more interesting, isn’t it? And it can revolutionise your reading of Little Women. Instead of being a sweet, didactic children’s book, it becomes a novel about female empowerment. Pretty radical, really.