Reading Between The Lines

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?”
and
“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.

30 comments

  1. Oh Rachel, you’re a bit tough on poor Alfred – there’s several hints that everything’s fine between the sheets, peace of the marriage bed of course, not the hurly burly of the chaise-longue!
    And he does get to be ambassador to Paris, which is hardly ineffectual!

    1. Sorry Mary! I can’t bear a man who pays no attention to his wife outside of the bedroom! Though I haven’t read Don’t Tell Alfred yet…clearly he gets better with age!

  2. “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.”

    That’s true: I’ve had the same experience re-reading the L.M. Montgomery novels as an adult. The comments made about marriage, especially those made by the women who chose NOT to marry, definitely bring another level of interest to the texts and they suggest a more revolutionary spirit at work than you might have guessed.

    1. Definitely; having come to L M Montgomery as an adult, I can see a lot of pain and fear in her writing that a child wouldn’t. It’s interesting how there are different levels of understanding in books that can be appreciated by children and adults; it’s the same with films. Kids don’t get the adult jokes in children’s films but they’re not meant to until they’re older; perhaps Montgomery had the same idea with her stories. It gives them longevity; they can be enjoyed and appreciated at every stage in life, but in different ways as we get older. Reading some of my old favourites to my nephews has made me wonder why I didn’t see certain things before – such as the terrible sexism and racism in Enid Blyton novels!

  3. I originally read Little Women in fourth grade, and even now (in eighth grade), on rereading it, I’ve found that there was much more to the story and *meaning* than I first thought. I love dissecting books!

    1. It’s true – as we get older and our life experience develops, we see so much more in books that we originally read as children. Some of the books I read as a child are unrecognisable to me now; I read them on a completely different level then and I can’t go back to that innocent and unquestioning state of mind. Dissecting books is fun, but I did get fed up of it after three years at university, I have to admit!

  4. I’m so glad that post inspired you to take another look at the text – isn’t it cool when a story you already love gets even better? Unfortunately, the “Fine Lines” feature on Jezebel is pretty rare these days (I think because Skurnick turned her columns into a book, or maybe she was just sort of done with it).

    I definitely remember reading the book and thinking of Marmee as nothing more than a big ol’ killjoy. I wonder if I’d find any hidden depths in What Katy Did? It had a similar saccharine flavour.

    L.M. Montgomery is probably the perfect candidate for a closer reading, too.

    1. Thank you for bringing it to my attention! It really did make me think! It’s a shame she doesn’t do those posts too often any more as I’d love to read more of them. I’ll have to search through the archives.

      That’s a really interesting thought – What Katy Did would probably have some great stuff in it. So many Victorian children’s classics to revisit! L M Montgomery is definitely a woman whose writing has a lot more to it than meets the eye. I wish I’d read her as a child because now I can only see her through an adult’s eyes unfortunately.

  5. I think it’s fascinating in Louisa May Alcott’s books (LM Montgomery’s too, since Buried in Print brings her up!) the tension between independence and traditional gender roles. I remember she said that people put a lot of pressure on her to marry Jo off, even though she maybe didn’t want to do that. I always notice in Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon books that the main thrust of the series is Emily’s writing ambition, but the book ends when she gets engaged. Emily’s writing is the most important thing to her all through the three books, but it’s like Montgomery can’t not wrap her up by getting her married.

    1. Yes – Jo was so close to being this amazing independent woman and then she went all sappy on us. But I suppose we can’t expect too much – writing about a career woman at that time would have caused outrage and not have fitted the message Alcott was being paid to send out, no doubt! I’m interested in this Emily of New Moon series…there is so much of Montgomery I am yet to read – Alcott too. I am itching to delve into their work!

  6. I enjoyed this post immensely. Geraldine Brooks has recently taken Marmee’s anger (sense of betrayal?) in the marriage and run with it, in the novel March–an account of Mr. March’s time as chaplain. It’s on my list, and I’m looking forward to it. I heard about it on the blog Things Mean A Lot.

    1. Thanks Trapunto, I’m glad you enjoyed it! This March book does indeed sound very interesting – I have heard good things across the blogopshere and I am keen to read the flip version of the story, as it were – the unwritten tale behind the letters the March women receive. I will be sure to look out for it.

  7. I love, love, love this post, as well as the comments that have followed.

    Part of what makes Little Women, both parts, as well as L.M Montgomery’s books, classic is that they the ability to move the reader on his or her own level and in their own place in time. Each time I have poked my nose, a rather Amy-like imperfect one I should add, into Little Women, I come out of it still feeling fine, still crying over Beth, but with an enhanced point of view. I wish I had been in Jezebel’s class.

    The American Masters PBS presentation here in the States and Reisen’s book have added a new dimension to the story and to Alcott, who became a literary sensation of her day much like J.K. Rowling of today. LMA was hounded to write a sequel and to marry off Jo and did so to meet the publics’ outcry – and to make money. Her earnings for Little Women, which she really did not want to write or care for, paid off her father’s debts, helped her sisters, especially May (Amy in the book) in her art education, and assured financial stability in a family that had at one point reached extreme poverty.

    Thank you for including Marmee’s words about controlling her anger. It was a pivotal point in the book as Jo realized she wasn’t alone in her feelings and, I believe, that the beloved Marmee wasn’t perfect. We all come to a point in our growing up that we are somehow aware of this in our parents. We either dwell on it into adulthood, or, bear it as a lesson to guide us through, don’t you think?

    I find it interesting that Alcott banishes Mr. March to the war, his little women and wife left to fend for themselves. Her own father was often away, leaving mother and girls to fend for themselves much of the time.

    Now I’ve gone and done it again, waxing on and on about little women and Louisa May . . .

    1. Thank you – I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I love what you say about moving the reader on at their own level at their own place in time – it’s so true. Novels like Little Women are the kind that just keep on giving – you can always find something new to enjoy or take from the pages when you pick them back up again.

      I have just started reading the Harriet Reisen biography and I’m loving it. I’d love to watch the PBS presentation you talk about but I doubt it will be available in the UK unfortunately.

      Marmee ISN’T perfect, as wonderful as she is, and that’s what I adore about the book – as much as she picks her daughters up on their faults, she comes at them from experience – she knows what happens when you don’t keep your temper or when you are selfish and don’t give to others because she has done those things and suffered the consequences. Her character has been formed from her own experience and she has grown as a result, to the point where she can advise her daughters. I love Marmee!

      You can never wax on too much on this topic I think!

  8. Little Women has never appealed to me before, but after reading this I’m actually really intrigued. I’ve loved this post and am off to follow some of your links. This is just the sort of thing I want to come home to:)

    1. Thanks Hayley! What a lovely thing to say and I’m glad this has piqued an interest! I hope you will be tempted to give Little Women a go because there is much more there than meets the eye, and especially reading it as an adult, you’ll soon be able to look beyond the stereotype of it as a goody two shoes didactic sort of book.

  9. Interesting post Rachel. As you know, I just read Little Women late last year and I remember that quote. I didn’t delve too much into it but I did notice a lot of Marmie’s qualities and maybe it’s because I’m already a wife and mom. That’s why Little Women is such a rich experience and should be read by women in all stages of their lives. I guess Alcott was even smarter than we thought.

    1. Thanks Astrid. I am looking forward to revisiting this when I’m a wife and then again when I’m a mother – this is one of those books that only gets richer as you go through life, as you say. I think I could get even more from it when I can look at Marmee from the point of view as a fellow wife, or fellow mother. Alcott was a very clever woman, with a lot of insight and wisdom. I now want to devour everything she wrote, but it might take me a while!

  10. Re “going sappy on us”…Alcott did indeed marry Jo off, but if you keep reading to the end of Jo -‘Little Men’ or ‘Jo’s Boys’, I get confused with US and UK titles – , she does end with Jo as a famous author, mobbed by fans, one of whom, hilariously, gallops around her lawn after a souvenir grasshopper.

    1. I didn’t know that, Virginia! I’m yet to read the two sequels so I was basing my comments on just the first two. It’s good to hear that Jo doesn’t get completely written off – she perhaps is a rare example of a working mother in Victorian fiction? I like the daring in that – showing that being a wife and mother is not adequate fulfilment for all women.

  11. I read a lot like you do…loads of the time it’s the pleasure of the story that carries me along but every once in awhile my antennae hones in. To have a friend reading along with you is a wonderful thing as debating issues on your own is not nearly as much fun! Years ago, I read somewhere an inference that Charlotte Lucas accepted the dorky Mr Collins surely because she was a lesbian. I’m not at all convinced that Miss Austen had any notion of the sort but it does make for terrific conversation!

    1. Yes that’s so true Darlene – another pair of eyes can highlight things you easily skipped over, and there’s nothing like a good literary fuelled debate between friends! Oh yes I’ve heard that too about Charlotte Lucas – I should think it’s more likely she married the ghastly Mr Collins because it meant she got a home of her own!

  12. I cannot relate to whatever the topic here is. I haven’t read the book (shameful, I know) and my head is dizzy but Rachel, you always have some interesting subjects on your blog that leads to people swarming on the comment box (21 comments and I expect more).

    Good day!

    1. Oh Lex you are missing out! You must read it! You are very kind to me – most of my comments are just me replying to people, so I’m not that great! But thank you for the compliment!

  13. I recently found a copy of MArch at a bookcrossing point [see bookcrossing.com] – so I read it. I now intend to re-read Little Women so this post is very interesting. Marmee’s temper, the lost fortune, etc are all imagined and explained by the author but from March’s perspective. An interesting read.

  14. If you haven’t read ‘March’ by Geraldine Brooks yet you shoudl put it on your list, because Brooks has constructed her revisionist take on ‘Little Women’ around the very ideas you’ve addressed here.

    There is this affecting scene where ‘Papa’ is like, ‘oh well I have to go off to war without consulting you, but I am totally sure you understand and accept my right to do so as head of the house’. Seen through Marmee’s eyes later the scene takes a rather different cast, as yet another episode where her progressive husband fails to apply his radical thinking to their own household. It works really well and I think Brooks takes her arguments just far enought to make them persuasive, but resist demonising her male lead so that lovers of the original book can still get on with the text.

    1. I am definitely going to read this March book now, thanks for the recommendation Jodie! I think it’s important not to be TOO modern with your ideas in revisionist texts but this sounds like she got the balance just right.

  15. With regards to Fanny and Alfred, Fanny never presents any of her story as foreground stuff, and leaves out as much about her children as she does about her husband, in the most part because the story she is telling is not hers. She needs those elements to make her a credible character and believable witness to other people’s stories, but if we got too dragged into her life, we wouldn’t care so much about the lives she is observing.
    I was exceedingly fond of Alfred by the end of the books!

    1. This is very true – I was racking my brains to think of suitable examples from books I’d read recently and Alfred and Fanny was what jumped out at me, but I know it’s not the BEST example I could have used! I haven’t read Don’t Tell Alfred yet or The Blessing (I think that’s a Fanny and Alfred book too?) so I can’t comment on how his character is developed later on but I’m glad to hear that more of him is explored! I am willing to have my mind changed! Thanks so much for reading!

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