Review: An Old-Fashioned Girl

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.

I downloaded this free digital book from the Kindle Store.

  • Alcott, Louisa May. An Old-Fashioned Girl. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1869. Amazon Digital Services, Inc. Web. 16 May 2012.

13 thoughts on “Review: An Old-Fashioned Girl

  1. This was my favorite Alcott after I outgrew Little Women – and has remained a favorite adult read. I thought it was interesting that you see it as only very mildly proto-feminist – considering the state of feminism even in my mother’s day, I have always thought this must have been radical for its time.

    Also, I like how you picked up on the queer subtext. That is something that I have often thought about with Jo, who rejects the passionate young man in favor of a companionable old dude who (presumably) will not make many sexual demands on her. (Although Jo’s two sons are by far the most delightful characters in Little Men, so clearly she and the Professor had something happening!) I suppose there must be speculation out there about Alcott’s own sexual orientation – I should look into that!

    I do think, though, that this is Alcott’s best love story – touching and believable.

    • Oh, for its time, certainly! I’m using protofeminist here to mean “before first-wave feminism”, although you’re quite right: it’s concurrent, as their conversation makes obvious!

      Your comment about Bhaer in a queer context makes me actually like him. Gosh, maybe I should write that independently next semester before I leave academia. (Like that would stop me from writing it, but it will stop me from access to certain texts, since we’re particularly well-stocked on queer theory around these parts.)

  2. I never got very far with the Little Women series, and reading about them was surprising, in a not-sure-I-want-to-carry-on way. This sounds more promising, though, and the issues you cite interesting. I like the way that it discusses things without going far – it may not be appealing so much now, and suggest that it’s ok to talk but not to act, but the discussion would surely be good.

  3. Have you ever read Alcott’s “Behind the Mask”? It’s one of my favorite books ever–it’s got a governess with a mysterious past and all kinds of secrets and manipulations. I’m so in love with Alcott’s more sensational books–even the ones that basically give the whole story away in the title, a la “A Long, Fatal Love Chase.”

  4. Wait wait. You’ve not read the other Louisa May Alcott books? Because An Old-Fashioned Girl is not the best of them. You should read oh my God you should read Eight Cousins which is wondrous or even better, Jack and Jill. Jack and Jill is amazing.

    • Oh, also a point in favor of Eight Cousins: It has a sequel, Rose in Bloom, which is less good than Eight Cousins, but which has some really lovely and emotionally true stuff about relationships. Louisa May Alcott (I’m noticing as an adult) was pretty insightful.

    • Yikes! I read Jack and Jill at the end of 2011 and I was frankly astonished by the moralising, not to mention the appalling way Jack’s mother usurps Mrs Pecq’s maternal functions with authorial approval. But I agree about Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom, which are excellent.

  5. I have read *Little Men* and *Jo’s Boys* and many of her thrillers written under other names (the Jo March blood-and-thunder-type stories, which seemed to be what Alcott truly loved to write). Jo and husband run a school for boys in *Little Men,* and all the children grow up and marry or decide to be spinster doctors or pursue acting careers in *Jo’s Boys.* It was upsetting to not see Jo and Laurie together, but when I reread Little Women, I can see the beauty of the alternative love stories now. I really loved *Jo’s Boys*; Mrs. Bhaer is a well-known authoress who dislikes autograph seekers, and she and Teddy still have a lovely friendship. I recommend giving the sequels a try.

    Incidentally, *Little Women* originally ends sometime after Meg’s engagement; remember how the second part of the book picks up after a three-year gap. The second volume was originally *The Good Wives* or *Good Wives* (I forget). They are now almost always published in one volume as *Little Women.*

    I plan to someday write an alternative sequel (Louisa, forgive me), picking up from the ending of part one. (Shh.)

    • Oh yes, that gap of three years allowed all the Jo/Laurie shippers to write Alcott and say “what a fantastic book! I can’t wait for Jo and Laurie to get married!”, and Alcott to respond by… doing what she did. I’m a little more over it now, but I still chafe at the thought of Bhaer. Although his place in analyzing Alcott’s work through a queer lens is quite interesting…

    • What I especially love about Jo’s Boys, is not only the woman spinster doctor who is more than happy to remain single thank you very much with a career she loves; but also the “sewing circle” that the March women set up–with talks on dress reform (bloomers and doing away with corsets), education for women, suffrage and so on. I feel like Alcott really let her feminism shine in that one.

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