A Garland for Girls, Louisa May Alcott
While I suffer occasional crises of conscience about the size of my TBR stacks, I still regret the books that got away - the ones that in a temporary fit of reform I talked myself out of buying, only to realize my mistake later. I am still haunted by the copy of Edward R. Murrow's This is London that I left on the library sale shelves. Sometimes these books turn up again, when I least expect them, like a bit of bookish lagniappe. This book of short stories by Louisa May Alcott was one I had put back on the shelf and regretted ever since. Though I had downloaded an e-version, I was very pleased to find the actual book again recently. I don't know if it was looking for fictional Fourth of July celebrations, or maybe a stressful week, but I suddenly found myself in the mood for Alcott.
This book was published in 1887, the year before she died. It includes seven stories, as the title suggests, all about girls, and each with some flower theme. Though I have been reading Alcott's books for almost 40 years now, I have never read any of her short stories before. I have found that not all novelists can write short fiction. So I was pleasantly surprised at these stories, which seem like concentrated essence of Alcott. They have that unmistakable authorial voice, natural and colloquial, sometimes sentimental, sometimes didactic. The stories have familiar elements of Alcott, young women like the March sisters or Polly Milton struggling against adversity, rich girls like Rose Campbell trying share their blessings. There are sudden illnesses, reversals of fortune, marriage proposals, budding writers, country girls and city sophisticates, loving mothers and sisters. The stories have all the pleasures and virtues of Alcott's writing, as well as some of its faults. The moralizing definitely gets rather heavy-handed in some of the stories, particularly the drippy "Little Button-Rose," about a winsome poppet named Rosamond who goes to stay with elderly great aunts and a flighty cousin while her parents are traveling. Naturally she becomes a ray of sunshine in the home, making peace with a crotchety old neighbor before falling ill with scarlet fever (due to the selfishness of the flighty cousin).
Two of the stories were particularly interesting to me. In "Pansies," three girls are spending a summer holiday with Mrs. Warburton, "a delightful old lady" who "loved young people, and each summer invited parties of them to enjoy the delights of her beautiful country home, where she lived alone." On a rainy morning, the girls gather in the library, reveling like Jo March in its riches, discussing what they are reading and debating what makes a good book. Mrs. Warburton is drawn into the discussion, and I think she speaks for Alcott here. One of the girls, Carrie, is chided for preferring Ouida to George Eliot or Charlotte Yonge. Their hostess gives her highest praise to a book I'd never heard of, Thaddeus of Warsaw by Jane Porter, which I learn from Google was published in 1803 and is considered one of the earliest examples of historical fiction. Sir Walter Scott also comes in for praise, as does Maria Edgeworth. Henry James is dismissed as even duller than Samuel Richardson, "with his everlasting stories, full of people who talk a great deal and amount to nothing." Considering the kind of books that Alcott wrote, it's a little disconcerting to hear her characters dismiss novels about "people as they are, for that we know, and are all sufficiently commonplace ourselves, to be the better for a nobler and wider view of life and men than any we are apt to get. . . " Apparently historical fiction will provide that nobler and wider view. I fear Mrs. Warburton would not approve of my reading, since she warns against "promiscuous novel-reading," advising the girls not to "be greedy, and read too much." She also cautions against "book-loving lassies [who] have a mania for trying to read everything, and dip into works far beyond their power."
I very much enjoyed "Poppies and Wheat," the story of a European tour like Amy's in Little Women. Ethel Amory, a spoiled seventeen-year-old, is traveling with family friends, Professor and Mrs. Homer. She is accompanied not by the French maid that she wanted, but by a chaperone, Jenny Bassett, a few years older than herself, a governess who welcomes the break from teaching and the opportunity to travel. In this take on the Ant and the Grasshopper, as the party travels through Ireland and Britain before moving on to the Continent, Ethel frivols away with light-hearted friends, shopping and playing. Jenny, on the other hand, reads and studies, under the guidance of the Homers. In the end, she is rewarded with an invitation to join them in Italy for the winter, while Ethel, realizing how she has wasted her time, sails sadly for home, her trunks full of cheap tarnished trinkets.
After so many years of reading and re-reading Louisa May Alcott, it was a pleasure to come across a new-to-me book of hers. I will be keeping an eye out for more of her short stories. With all due respect for Mrs. Warburton, I think I'll also look for Ouida's novels. I see several are available through Project Gutenberg.