An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott
Despite my love of Jo (and perhaps because I’m so bitter that she never ended up with Laurie), I’ve never read the two Little Women sequels. I don’t know if I could bear it. But I sometimes forget that Louisa May Alcott wrote other things than The Little Women trilogy. This recommendation comes from, of all things, Fandom!Secrets (think Post!Secret, but for us nerds, which concentrates the heartwarming, the heartbreaking, the creepy, and the frankly hilarious), where someone mentioned that they preferred An Old-Fashioned Girl to Little Women. Fair enough, I thought, and took a break from my Arthur Conan Doyle binge.
An Old-Fashioned Girl finds fourteen-year-old Mary “Polly” Milton, a quiet girl from the country, visiting her friend Fanny Shaw in the city. While Polly is the titular old-fashioned girl, Fanny is fashionable, flirtatious, and a little bit selfish, but Polly’s visit shows the virtues of her lifestyle and endears her to the Shaws, especially Fanny’s brother, Tom, and Fanny’s little sister, Maud. Six years later, Polly sets herself up in the city as a music teacher, but still visits her beloved Shaws, trying her best to be good according to her internal standards, as Polly, Fanny, Tom, and Maud face the trials of young adulthood.
It took me a few months—almost an entire semester—to finish off An Old-Fashioned Girl. I’ve just been so busy that I’ve been spending the time I usually spend reading digital books (i.e., blow-drying my hair every morning) reading things for class. Luckily, like many of Alcott’s novels, An Old-Fashioned Girl was originally serialized in Merry’s Museum magazine, so it shares the episodic nature of Little Women, making it an easy read to put down and pick up. Originally, it only ran for the first six chapters, where Polly and Fanny are fourteen, but Alcott’s fandom demanded more of the adventures of Polly and Fanny. One imagines, after breaking their tiny little hearts with Jo and Bhaer in Little Women, she felt like she may have owed the fandom something, and she added thirteen chapters concerning their adult adventures.
Essentially, the episodic plot of An Old-Fashioned Girl follows the same arc—Polly and Fanny face adventures or misadventures, Polly’s quiet, hard-working, determined lifestyle is praised, Fanny’s fashionable, society lifestyle is denigrated, wash, rinse, repeat until Fanny learns the error of her ways and both girls end up happily married. Normally, I’m not a big fan of episodic works, but Alcott’s narrative voice and her characters are so engaging that I kept returning to the novel as a touchpoint throughout the few months. I do find all the swipes at women who enjoy luxury and the theater problematic (Alcott points out that a production uses slang and “Negro songs”, so it’s clearly corrupting!), but for the most part, Alcott’s distaste focuses on the spiritually shallow and the selfish. Fanny, a boisterous, ruffled girl, is still allowed to be herself after Polly’s example sinks in (rather than getting her wings clipped a la Jo March; I’ll never get over that)—sharp, pointed, and fierce in her devotion to her friend.
In fact, there’s something very proto-feminist about An Old-Fashioned Girl. I mean, it does contain what I think must be one of the earliest uses of “I’m not a feminist, but…” (well, “I’m not a rampant woman’s rights reformer” is the exact line), but it still espouses female economic independence: “purpose and principle are the best teachers we can have, and the want of them makes half the women of America what they are, restless, aimless, frivolous, and sick” (Alcott). When Polly settles into the city as an adult, she takes a room from a Miss Mills, and makes friends with women outside of Fanny’s circle, whom we rarely see. But there’s one chapter where Polly, trying to cheer up Fanny, brings her to the studio of two artist friends, who are so close that, upon one’s impending marriage, the other will move in with the newlyweds. (Someday, I’m going to write a paper about queer subtext in Alcott’s writings.) There, they meet Kate King, a famed authoress (who is clearly a version of Jo), and the whole group talks about the modern woman and how she should not be inherently yoked to men or children. It’s a handful of very different women, each respected for their path in life—in fact, when we’re told one character ends up a spinster, it’s in an incredibly cheerful way. True, An Old-Fashioned Girl ends in marriages where it’s assumed that the woman will stop working, but the artists, Kate, and the spinster still loom large in the novel, at least to my modern eyes.
Bottom line: Louisa May Alcott makes episodic and virtuous narratives engaging, and An Old-Fashioned Girl is surprisingly proto-feminist—it might be mild, but it’s still there. If you like Little Women, this is worth a shot.
- Alcott, Louisa May. An Old-Fashioned Girl. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1869. Amazon Digital Services, Inc. Web. 16 May 2012.