The box-set of Louisa May Alcott books that my mother gave me for my eighth birthday included Eight Cousins, so I feel like I grew up with Rose Campbell and her aunts, uncles, and especially those cousins. I still have my worn-out copy with its broken spine, though years later I discovered it had been bowdlerized, like the set's edition of Little Women, so now I also own an unedited edition. It was some time before I learned there was a sequel, Rose in Bloom, which I then checked out of the library on a regular basis. It was even longer before I finally had my own copy. (Oh, those pre-internet days, when I couldn't just click on a website and buy books from across the centuries and around the world.) I usually read both these books together now, since as I have mentioned before, I love sequels and series.
Eight Cousins introduces us to thirteen-year-old Rose Campbell, recently orphaned after the death of her father. She has been brought to live with her great-aunts while she awaits the arrival of her new guardian, her uncle Alec. Living close on the "Aunt-Hill" are the families of four other Campbell brothers, who between them have produced seven sons, who rather overwhelm Rose at first. Aunt Myra, a croaking old hypochondriac, produced the only other girl in the family, who died at a young age, possibly from her mother's constant doses of medicine. Rose also finds a friend, later an adopted sister, in Phebe, a foundling who works as a maid for the great-aunts Plenty and Peace (who perfectly fit their names).
Rose in Bloom opens some five years after the first book. Rose, Uncle Alec and Phebe are returning from three years in Europe. Rose is about to turn twenty-one, when she will inherit a fortune from her late father. As she settles back into the tight-knit web of family, she must decide what course her life will take, and what use she will make of her riches. Phebe, trained as a singer in Europe, is determined to make her own way, especially after she falls in love with a young man whose family doesn't welcome a daughter-in-law out of the poor-house. Meanwhile, the other cousins are also finding their own way into adulthood, careers, love and marriage.
I have read these books so often that they have really imprinted themselves on my literary DNA, so I am not the most objective reader. I absolutely dote on Uncle Alec, one of the best foster-fathers in literary history. Actually, I think he is something of a stand-in for Alcott herself, who raised one sister's daughter Lulu and adopted another's two sons. As she wrote in Eight Cousins,
in this queer world of ours, fatherly and motherly hearts often beat warm and wise, in the breasts of bachelor uncles and maiden aunts; and it is my private opinion that these worthy creatures are a beautiful provision of nature for the cherishing of other people's children. They certainly get great comfort out of it, and receive much innocent affection that otherwise would be lost.She goes on to say, "Dr. Alec was one of these, and his big heart had room for every one of the eight cousins, especially orphaned Rose and afflicted Mac." Mac is afflicted with eye problems threatening blindness, but also with a stern disciplinarian of a mother, Aunt Jane. Uncle Alec's unconventional parenting is contrasted not just with Aunt Jane's, but also with Aunt Clara, who spoils her only son, the handsome but lazy Charlie. Aunt Jessie, on the other hand, matches Uncle Alec in her warm heart and motherly wisdom, and the two often join forces not just with Rose but with the boys as well, and with Phebe. They both want to raise strong, healthy, pure, and happy children. They advocate rational dress especially for Rose. In a very funny chapter, Aunt Clara tries to convert Rose over to the current fashions, while Dr. Alec stops just short of advocating Bloomerism. His worst horror is reserved for the corsets Clara has smuggled in. He wants Rose to romp and play, he forbids her to drink coffee or take Aunt Myra's tonics. And his training continues even after she grows up. In Rose in Bloom, he frets that she spends too much time in Society, and he all but censors her reading, warning her away from those dangerous yellow-backed French novels. If he wasn't such a love, he might stray over into Aunt Jane territory. These books are definitely on the moralizing end of the Alcott scale, with lessons in every chapter, usually coming from "Uncle Doctor."
They are unusual though in that Rose is Alcott's only wealthy heroine, at least in the young adult books. The Campbells are one of the leading families in Boston society, descended from Scottish gentry (much play is made at one point of "our blessed ancestress Lady Margret" when one of the cousins wants to marry unsuitably). Their riches come from generations of sea trading, which still employs three of the uncles (and in the end Archie, the eldest of the cousins). Among Alcott's other heroines, Amy in Little Women marries money, but only after bravely facing poverty as a child. Fanny in An Old-Fashioned Girl is rich, though she is not the heroine, and in the second half of the book her father loses the family fortune, and she has to learn from Polly how to be happy in poverty (as she wasn't in wealth). Here Rose has to learn to manage her money, from the first book where Dr. Alec teaches her to balance accounts, to the second where she inherits her fortune. She decides to make philanthropy her life's work, bravely facing not just society's ridicule but even the teasing of her own family. One of her projects, two houses of rent-controlled apartments "for poor but respectable women" might have benefited Alcott's other heroines - both Jo and Polly live in boarding or rooming houses. At the same time, Rose learns that her wealth, combined with her beauty, draws fortune-hunters and acquaintances hanging out for rich presents. She also has to face three aunts, hoping to win her for a daughter-in-law. Today we tend to be squeamish about first cousins marrying, but it doesn't seem to worry Alcott or her characters here.
In contrast to Rose and her fortune, we have Phebe the foundling. Her story is typical for an Alcott heroine. She is hard-working, determined to get an education, grateful for favors, always cheerful, and gifted with music. When her education and training as a singer are complete, she insists on making her own way, and trying to pay Uncle Alec and Rose back in some way for all they have given her. She is too proud to accept her lover against his family's wishes, but of course in the end she proves her worth and is welcomed with open arms.
I also have to mention an even more unconventional match. The Campbells' ships trade with China, and in the first book Rose visits the warehouses full of teas, porcelain, and other exotic merchandise. There she meets Fun See, a young Chinese merchant who has come to the United States to learn English with the trade. Alcott presents him in stereotypical terms, "from his junk-like shoes to the button on his pagoda hat . . . altogether a highly satisfactory Chinaman." Rose keeps expecting him to present her with "a roasted rat, [or] a stewed puppy..." However, in the second book, See falls in love with Rose's friend Annabel Bliss, and she with him. Rose, still obsessed with the Chinese diet, points out that when they move to China, Annabel will have "to order rats, puppies, and bird'-nest soup for dinner." Everyone accepts the match, which as a younger reader I simply took in stride. Now, however, knowing about the virulent anti-Chinese sentiment in America at the time Alcott was writing, I am struck by her audacity in having a young American woman, from a good Boston family, marry a member of a despised minority, a man of another race. I do wonder how Alcott's readers, or their parents, reacted to this in 1876. Perhaps the comical way she presents Fun See - and Annabel, who like her intended is short and plump - made the match palatable. I don't think she could have gotten away with a young merchant from Africa.
There is so much more to say about these books - Cousin Mac's love for Emerson, Cousin Charlie's sad fate, Rose's lessons in housekeeping, the visits to "Cosey Corner" in Maine - but this post is long enough already. They are just such fun, and I expect I will be reading them still when I am as old as Aunt Plenty.