Sunday, December 1, 2013

Eight cousins and how they grew

Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom, Louisa May Alcott

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.


  1. I was never wild for Alcott growing up but, even so, I reread these books until the spines were so cracked you couldn't read the titles. An Old Fashioned Girl will always be my favourite Alcott but, like you, these characters are imprinted on my literary DNA. I still think Aunt Jessie is about as perfect a mother (or aunt) as you could hope to have.

  2. Thank you for reminding me about these novels! I meant to read them last year after I finished Little Women, but the library copies were so ratty and unappealing that I couldn't check them out. Now I will add them to my Christmas list. I'm looking forward to meeting these characters.

  3. Clare, I wasn't as obsessed with Alcott as with the Little House books, but I read them nearly as often. I do love Aunt Jessie too! I'd love to know what became of her three younger boys.

    Anbolyn, these would make wonderful Christmas gifts, especially if you will have time to read then. I'd suggest adding An Old-Fashioned Girl as well, if there's room on your list - it's wonderful too.

  4. Yes! Everything you have said, I completely relate to. I also had a set of Louisa May Alcotts, and they still occupy pride of place on my bedroom bookshelf, some 4 decades after I first fell in love with these marvelous stories. The set included Eight Cousins, though not Rose in Bloom, which I discovered in my adult years, but those books are ingrained deeply in my "literary DNA", as you so aptly put it.

    Little Women, Little Men, Jo's Boys (were any of you also a bit in love with Dan?), Eight Cousins, Under the Lilacs, Jack and Jill...these were marvelous stories and I consumed them with great gusto, reading and re-reading through my childhood and teen years, and on into adulthood, though I must say my critical eye noticed a few interesting things as I matured! ;-)

  5. I've recently read An Old Fashioned Girl for the first time -- what a treat, and I loved that a mark of Fan's dubious morals was that she was reading Lady Audley's Secret. At least it wasn't a yellow novel. I have Jack and Jill lined up next, so have high hopes for more amusement (and, I hope, less cousin marriage, though I can't imagine an Alcott without *any*!). Reading An Old-fashioned Girl also led me to re-read Pollyanna, which in turn makes me want to re-read What Katy Did. This could be an endless re-cycle of gorgeous childhood treasures!

  6. It's only within the last couple of years that I've discovered these novels. I love every last word in them, but I do find it interesting just how much more didactic they are than the March books in respect of the type of education that Alcott advocated. You can really see the influence of her father coming through in them I think.

  7. These books were favorites of mine in childhood, and I still reread them all the time. Alcott does so many amazing things in the Rose books. I love her realistic view of altruism as a necessary thing, but not always a rewarding one. And of course I will always love Mac and his Thoreau-like poetry.

  8. Such wonderful comments - thank you!

    Barb, it sounds like we might have the same set of books! (if so, then you also have the bowdlerized Little Women.) For some reason, I never read Under the Lilacs. I must have tried it, but I have no memory of it. I just read it for the first time a couple of years ago. I almost went on to read Jack and Jill, but I decided to pace myself!

    vicki, if I had to choose just one of Alcott's books, it would probably be An Old-Fashioned Girl. I love the two halves of the story, and Polly's independent life. I know I'm not the only one who first read Lady Audley because of Alcott - thus defeating her purpose :)

    Alex, it's like Jo's Boys in that respect, I think - where they have the college set up according to Mr. Alcott/March's principles, and the younger generation are learning such important life lessons - though never in the classroom, really.

    elizabeth, Rose and Uncle Alec have such a frank discussion about it, where he is so blunt in saying don't expect people to be properly grateful, receiving charity can be a burden - so she decides to focus on the children, rather than adults, because they're much more appreciative and grateful. But she does have a good heart, and a generous spirit - that her wealth is a gift to be shared, not hoarded.

  9. Bowdlerized, really? What was missing from your childhood copies of the Eight Cousins books that's in the alternate copies you have now? I'm racking my brains trying to think of anything remotely inappropriate in those books!

    When I reread Rose in Bloom, I'm struck by the portrayal of Rose's relationship with Charlie. I always remember that relationship as being fairly straightforward -- Charlie was the bad boy and Rose was the good girl and that's why they couldn't be together. But actually Alcott complicates it quite a bit beyond that.

  10. Jenny, it's probably too strong a term for the edits in Eight Cousins - more just lines cut here & there. But it definitely applies to the Little Women edition - all the temperance talk cut out, like at Meg's wedding, and every reference to African Americans (like the mixed-race child admitted to Plumfield at the end).

  11. I didn't even know these books existed, I think in the UK we only had the Little Women, Jo's Boys, Good Wives ones. Thanks, I'll have a look on PG.

  12. I read Little Women several times as a kid but not any others (or if I did I don't remember them). When I got my iPad I downloaded a bunch of Louisa May Alcott books but I haven't read any of them yet because I didn't know anything about them other than the author's name. Now that I know what you think of them, I am much more interested in reading them!

  13. Katrina, if you don't find them on PG, I know they're both available on Google Books - I used their e-versions for quick checks of quotes. Girlebooks also has them in very nice clean e-versions.

    Kristin, Little Women is in a class by itself, to my mind, but these books are good fun. Besides the Rose books, I highly recommend An Old-Fashioned Girl, and Jack & Jill.

  14. OK, I just looked for my old copy of Little Women and I can't find it. Huh. Most annoying. The others are all there in a tidy little row. But I do seem to remember a "merry little quadroon" at Plumfield. I will be seeking it out, as well as a copy of the definitely unabridged version, to see if I can spot any differences. Time for a re-read, obviously. Ditto Eight Cousins.

    I glanced through Jack and Jill this evening, to re-read the Christmas scene, and as usual I stopped to look at the lovely Ruth Ives illustrations throughout. All of the books in my childhood set are illustrated by her except Little Women; her pictures are engraved in my mind; they are quite perfect.

    Oh, and lots of preachy temperance talk in Jack & Jill, and no mention of abridgement, so possibly it is an unbowdlerized version. It definitely reads in a "dated" way.

    Nelson Doubleday, circa 1958, in brown & tan cloth. I seem to remember my mother discarding the dustjackets - she always removed them from all of her books and I do believe threw them away - what a shocking thing to do! ;-) Because now I'm all excited when I find something with a nice original dj.

  15. Oh, Barb, yes, the Ruth Ives illustrations - that's how I "see" the characters, except for Rose in Bloom, because I read the Orchard House edition (the one I have now), with the paintings by Hattie Longstreet Price (with all due respect to Ms. Price, I prefer the Ives).

    Yes, the brown & tan Nelson Doubleday set! though mine aren't cloth, I think a hard plastic. I don't remember them having dust jackets - certainly no remnant now.

    If your Little Women had the quadroon child, then you probably had the original version. Mine definitely had a "crippled" child, and lots of other stuff was cut (sections of the "Pickwick Portfolio, some of the letters sent to Marmee when she was in Washington, part of Amy's travel accounts)- it made for a shorter book!

  16. Just when I thought I was getting a handle on my TBR shelf, you go and review a couple of books I absolutely have to read. I'm not sure why I was so adamantly opposed to reading LMA books when I was young, but Eight Cousins sounds like something I would have loved.

    Thanks for a great review--I particularly liked your observations about the Chinese character. LMA was truly a remarkable person!

  17. Jane, I can't be too sorry for adding to your TBR shelf, when it's Alcott! I think you're the first person I've met who didn't want to read them, though I've met some who just never came across them.

    I suppose LMA could have been protesting the anti-Chinese feeling - I haven't read enough about her to know how she felt about it.

  18. I do wish I'd known these books when I was eight, but I didn't discover them until quite recently, by which time I'd worn out my copy of Little Women. I've read the first, and I've been saving the second, and I think its time is coming.

  19. Jane, I'm still discovering Alcott books myself, after all these years of reading her. I've only read one of her adult Gothics - I don't expect they'll cast the same spell as these do. I hope you enjoy meeting the eight cousins again!


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!