In this week’s Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up, I re-read that bit in Louisa M Alcott’s Good Wives (1869) where Jo March goes to work in New York. (I should warn any Alcott scholars looking in that I haven’t read any Alcott criticism for years.) Alcott was a great believer in work – on evangelical grounds, also from common sense, and because she herself had to work to survive. Her four girls from Little Women never seem to stop working, but the housework and the self-educational didactic work episodes are not as convincing as the simple need to earn a living. Jo is my particular Little Woman, the one I like best and identify most with (and I know I’m one of millions, but we can share her), so the more I read about her, the more interested I was in the stories.
Rereading Good Wives as an adult – because I don’t think I’d read it for at least twenty years – was extraordinarily interesting, as well as soothing, entertaining, delightful, and mildly irritating. I was amazed at how early this novel was published: 1869 is nearly 150 years ago, five generations ago, but Good Wives is totally fresh in its dialogue and how the characters develop. The blurb on the front of my Puffin edition (marketed to girls in the 1970s) calls it a ‘period piece’: well, it may be set in a different period, but it’s a modern story about growing up and embracing responsibility, as well as getting married. Nothing ‘period’ about that, and there is barely any history in the novel to ground it in the American nineteenth century. Little Women had the Civil War lurking in the background all the way through. Good Wives only has the merest hint that the war had happened, because (spoiler) John Brooke gets wounded and comes home to marry Meg. But the causes of the war are barely mentioned.
At the very end of Good Wives, when Jo’s new venture, a school at Plumfield, is being described, we’re told that a ‘merry little quadroon’ was one of the abandoned boys that she and Professor Bhaer took under her care, even though folk said (and I’m sure these were the background chorus of ‘society’ that the eternally perfect March family lived among, like the Pharisees), that taking him in would ruin the school. Well, that’s quite a divisive statement. A quadroon is an outdated term for a person with one black grandparent, or some ancestry approximating to that, so the novel is noting that mixed-race children existed in the comfortable and victorious North of the 1860s, and were being abandoned. It was Jo’s duty, as well as her pleasure, to take in a stray child like this and look after him. This boy has disappeared by the time the Plumfield sequels Little Men and Jo’s Boys was published, so perhaps Alcott didn’t want to develop him as a character, but only use him as a social indicator of a different kind of destitution that society needed to take responsibility for, rather than have people like Jo and Professor Bhaer do it through private charity.
Jo’s sense of responsibility is matched by Professor Bhaer’s general perfection and goodness. I was never very sure about a girl like Jo marrying a man of nearly 40 when she was 26, and I still don’t find them at all romantic. Laurie and Amy are much more glamorous and exciting for the romance that Alcott could write really well when she wanted to. Professor Bhaer is a father figure of Jo’s very own. She doesn’t need to share him with her sisters, like she has to with their own father, and she can take him away to live in Plumfield, the house where she was forced to spend dreary hours as a girl being a companion to crotchety Aunt March. So in Good Wives, Jo gets to remake her family life to suit her own requirements, in which money is not a very important consideration, as long as they have enough for their needs. She gets a husband and children of her own; she’s able to write as much as she likes without criticism because she has to, to increase their income; and she is an equal partner in the enterprise of the school. Such terrific feminist and creative messages really appealed to me as a girl, and probably continue to appeal to girls like I was. It’s a great wish-fulfilment ending: the result may not be to everyone’s taste, but it certainly suits Jo, especially that Aunt March has been tidied out of the way and her house is now Jo’s.
However, Jo has to meet Professor Bhaer before any of this can happen. Since (I think) one of the points of Good Wives is to find out what Jo will do next, the episode where she goes to New York alone to work is fascinating. Her parents let her go: that is quite interesting enough as a start, because it shows the huge difference there is between novels about girls’ lives written in a British context, and those in an American setting. In Mrs Gaskell’s North and South, which was published only 15 years earlier than Good Wives, the poor heroine Margaret Hale is trapped at home being an angel of the house, and is totally tied to the selfish vagaries of her inadequate parents. There is no way that she can go out to work: her class and her society will not allow it, even though she shows signs of making an excellent district nurse and social worker. Class and society’s expectations are certainly a consideration in Good Wives, but Jo’s parents see nothing wrong with her working for her living. Mrs Hale of North and South would have apoplexy at the thought, as would the terrifying Mrs Thornton, Margaret’s future mother-in-law.
Mr and Mrs March also see nothing wrong with Jo moving out alone to work in the big city. Mrs March’s first and only worry is class-based: she is unsure that Jo would be suited to ‘going out to service’ as she puts it, working as a governess or nursery maid. Living and working in a big boarding-house is not a bother to them, or to Jo, because the owner, Mrs Kirke, is a family friend. It would be unusual in a British Victorian novel to have the daughter of a minister of religion at the same social level as a boarding-house keeper. In fact, I think it would be impossible to find a British Victorian novel where a boarding-house was described as a desirable place to live for a middle-class girl of some education. I don’t think this is just the social snobbery of the period: there is something about the sanctity of the home in British Victorian fiction that makes living with your family the default mode for the middle classes, and these long, didactic, moralising and serious novels were written for the Victorian middle classes. For the British, the boarding-house was several social steps down. It’s not like that for the Americans, which is a rather different society. This is why I like Good Wives so much. It’s a completely different world.
The real point of letting Jo go to New York alone, apart from letting her meet her future husband, is so that she can try out being a professional writer with only her own judgement and initiative to help her. Annoyingly, Alcott souses this episode with morals, so although Jo does really well in writing fiction that the cheap periodicals market will buy, and sells her stories successfully, entertaining a new readership – the teenage boys and young thoughtless men that she has so much affection for – Professor Bhaer is brought in to point out the great harm that the magazines that she publishes in, do to young readers, and how he would destroy all magazines like them rather than let young people read them. This is a pretty strong and impressive message – it stops Jo in her tracks, makes her burn all her stories that she’d sold to these terrible magazines (I never understood why she burned them, unless it was to hide from the so-admired Prof. Bhaer that she had soiled her purity with such writing?), but she does not give away her precious earnings. That would be a moralistic step too far: if Jo had still been living at home, under Marmee’s eye, she’d have given the money to the poor or something equally depressing. But as she’s an independent writer, she chooses to keep the cash as the payment for her time, even if the results are now in the fireplace. This is a relief. If you’re going to work for the money rather than for the sake of the novel you long to write, you may as well keep the money if you get it. There’s no point being a martyr once you’ve done the work.
And what, may I ask, is so wrong with the blood and thunder magazines that Jo was writing for? Why did Alcott, who wrote herself for similarly sensational genres, come over all holier than thou about the moral turpitude of sensation writing? Because the evangelical message that permeates all of the Little Women novels will not be quenched. Christian evangelism as a norm is another thing that I found very surprising on this re-reading: the unquestioned conviction that there is life after death; that Beth, when she dies, will be well again. These are strongly dogmatic Christian beliefs that Alcott obviously felt deeply, and are presented as the foundation of the common-sense morality that enables the March family to live with dignity in relative poverty, according to their class values. By dabbling in sensation fiction Jo is stepping away from these values, and Professor Bhaer is brought into the plot to bring her back to the fold, and marry her as well. He’s not as perfect as John Brooke, but he is still a Victorian male paterfamilias.
And after Alcott, there was Coolidge: next week I’ll be reading Susan Coolidge’s heavenly trilogy What Katy Did, What Katy Did at School, and What Katy Did Next. I read these incessantly as a girl, and I recently located the sequels, about Katy’s sister Clover and her adventures in life. After reading Louisa May Alcott’s relentless evangelical messages – I haven’t even mentioned the temperance propaganda in Good Wives – I want to read more of the same, but without the religion, and with a lot more teenage drama.