Submission and cross-dressing: Tennyson’s The Princess

tennyson-5We’re in the 19th century for the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up, in the Victorian era, when the British Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, published an epic poem called The Princess, on the subject of what to do about bizarre ideas about women’s education, independence, and silly things like that.

The submission of Victorian women was expected due to their supposed intellectual inferiority. A woman who tried to educate herself was violating Nature, because women were to be angels in the house, and to stay there, expecting nothing more from life than to serve their husbands (because they would all of course get married), and to raise their children as perfect souls. The artist and critic John Ruskin was particularly annoying on this subject, since he believed in some terrifying double standards. The Victorian woman must be incapable of error, incorruptible, infallible (though I’d like to know where she was to get this wisdom if she wasn’t allowed to leave the house), and would rule men in her own domestic domain. If the woman of the home allowed danger or harm to enter the house, it was her fault, because then the house would not be a home. He made no space for the possibility that a man might bring the danger home (his list included disease, crime, drink, and false religion). A man might also refuse to be ruled by his wife. Imagine that.

tennyson-1Thankfully for common sense, these ideals, though widespread, were also widely disagreed with. Many Victorian novels (including those we teach now, for their alignment with modern thinking) will show you that middle-class women in particular were disturbed by these restrictions, because the plots seem to try to winkle them out of such restricted lives and show them a different way of living, even if they all rush nervously back to the drawing-room and predictable safety.

So where does that leave us with Tennyson? He published The Princess in 1847. It consists of a Prologue, and seven Books: this marks it as an epic in form alone. It’s one of Tennyson’s earlier works, but is very well-known because of some of the individual poems within it, called the ‘intercalary poems’. It’s very easy to read, because it’s written in blank verse, a classical conversational form in unrhyming iambic pentameters.

note the chaps in disguise
note the chaps in disguise

Here’s the story: Princess Ida retreats from male society and creates a university for women where nothing male may enter. This feminine intellectual paradise is infiltrated by the Prince to whom she is betrothed, plus a couple of his friends, all disguised in frocks. He tries to persuade her to relent and marry him after all, and then his aggressive father declares war on her father, and the university is turned into a war hospital. The poem ends with Ida being persuaded by the Prince that they can co-exist harmoniously in marriage.

This poem is a ‘problem poem’, but it’s designed to be a comedy (in the Shakespearian sense), in that the women are made to see the error of their ways through the gentle persuasion of love. The Princess has to surrender, although she ends the poem in a ‘triumphant union’ with the Prince. She is sad that she can’t continue her resistance to patriarchal society (conservative, brutal, instinctive, unthinking) or continue her mission of a separate educational establishment for women (an intellectual, futuristic and abstract goal).

The Princess really is a very odd poem, because it’s self-consciously archaic, and deliberately farcical in many respects. It begins with a hissy-fit by the Prince’s father, a mighty king, who is furious when Ida’s father sends a message that the Princess has decided not to marry his son. He stomps and rages, and tears things up, and vows to send an army to crush the Princess’s pride. The Prince, who seems a resourceful sort of chap, suggests that he goes to discuss things with the Princess, but his father, still in a right old temper, forbids him, Naturally, the Prince, and his two best friends Florian and Cyril – I don’t know why I can’t find the Prince’s name: perhaps he’s an Everyman character – disobey this petulant ruling, and slip out of the palace at night to travel to Princess Ida’s realm. But remember that this is a women-only realm: no men may enter. So the three gallant gentlemen dress up as women, and here’s where the farce begins. Cross-dressing is a staple ingredient in British comedy: we really do find it funny when men wear frocks. They register at the Princess’s university as gentlewomen students, and attend classes in philosophy led by, ta da!, Florian’s own sister, Psyche, with whom Cyril immediately falls in love.

photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron to illustrate The Princess
photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron to illustrate The Princess

Princess Ida is treated with respect in the poem, though there is a bit of undergraduate sniggering when she first meets the three adventurers. We know that they’re men fooling the girls, and so we can enjoy the humour of the situation where Ida gravely lectures them on how unnecessary men are, and how much better a society is when it is ruled by women. Ida is a symbol of heroic will rather than a spoiled girl who won’t do what the men want. She embodies heroic comedy, rather than the domestic comedy which is what all the marriage-making is about. Marriage is a comic symbol, the ultimate in joining and making.

But is it a good poem? Is it enjoyable? It does use many different tones, which shows that, in trying to do too many things, Tennyson was never going to succeed. It’s also a right old mix of genres, using the heroic, the comic, the domestic, the epic, the lyrical, the idyllic, almost all at the same time. Good professional showmanship of technique, but is it good art? Some attempts at genre effect fail completely: the poem is framed by a Prologue and a Conclusion set in a standard mid-Victorian country-house party, and the seven Books of the poem are supposed to have been narrated by seven different speakers (to whom we were introduced in the Prologue), yet their voices are indistinguishable. They were supposed to have different personalities and points of view, yet the background society from which they come is so conventional, that in comparison with this fantasy landscape of Princes and Princesses, they are all the same.

tennyson-2Something I rather like about this poem is that it is particularly British. It uses Arthurian and chivalric ideas and terminology as a basis for the university experiment, and for the actions of the three young male invaders, who are knights errant on a quest in the service of love. It is totally fantastical, utterly unrealistic, a delirious exercise in sheer romantic silliness. The great Victorian satirists Gilbert and Sullivan saw its potential immediately, because this was the inspiration for their magnificent comic operetta Princess Ida. The Princess is fun to read; do try it.

Antony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda

Hope 1Antony Hope’s invention* of the cardboard kingdom in The Prisoner of Zenda is the subject of this week’s Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up. Hope was a respectable Victorian London lawyer, but he had a secret passion for the romantic and dramatic, and wrote many novels. His most famous is The Prisoner of Zenda, from 1894, in which Rudolf Rassendyll, a flaming-haired English gentleman, travels to Ruritania for a holiday, and discovers that he is the spitting image of that nation’s king. This is not a great surprise, because Rudolf Rassendyll is also descended from the Ruritanian royal family, after a dangerous liaison between Rudolf V and his married grandmother, earlier in the century. But Rudolf arrives at the moment of a crisis. The king, also a Rudolf, is about to be crowned, but he has also just been kidnapped, by his wicked half-brother Black Michael, and if he does not ascend the throne at the appointed time, Michael will take it, and his fiancée, their cousin, the impossibly beautiful Princess Flavia, from him. Step in, replacement cousin Rudolf, and take the throne, take the princess, and take out Black Michael. Just temporarily, you understand, until the real Rudolf is found and rescued. But what if the replacement Rudolf and Princess Flavia fall in love? What if during the duels and sword-fights to rescue the king, the king accidentally gets spiked? What if the will of the Ruritanian people, who are very keen on their king marrying the princess, rushes the impersonator to the throne? Could an English gentleman ascend the throne of Ruritania?

Hope 2This delicate political point is the reason for the long, long popularity of this novel. It is a terrific swashbuckler, full of action, and tense moments of physical drama. It is delightful to read so much dashing about on horseback and swimming across moats. The moments of passion between the English Rudolf and Flavia are believable because they’re so cinematic: we can reframe the Victorian melodrama into a nice period costume film. But they’re also believable because, at heart, every reader would like to think that they are as a good as a king, or princess, and could ascend a throne. And this is why Antony Hope invented what is now called the cardboard kingdom. It’s related to Arcadia, an invented country, a not-real place, to which the characters can go to have rollicking adventures in freedom, or retire from the world to sort out their problems. This is a very old literary trope. Shakespeare used it all the time, for instance in As You Like It. Hope developed the idea by making Arcadia a kingdom. It has to have a royal presence, and a throne to be fought over, and a dynasty to save. The whole point of the cardboard kingdom is that a gentleman outsider will arrive and sort out their problems. In the hands of Victorian English excursions to the cardboard kingdom, this was a way of affirming the superiority of the English, the world leaders at sorting out other nations’ problems. Hope’s Ruritania was the first of many similar fictional kingdoms, which is why the name of his cardboard kingdom has become the generic term for the concept.

Hope 3The kingdom also has to be located somewhere in middle Europe. In relation to Britain, it should not be as far east as Kazakhstan, but also not as close as Germany. The cardboard kingdom needs to be vaguely familiar: in the atlas, but not on a page we’ve looked at very often. That way, a gentleman traveller can be sure that the trains will run there (for there are always trains in Europe), and that he will be able to leave when he wants to, without consequences, to return to his own world. Sometimes the inhabitants of the cardboard kingdom come to Europe, and then go back into cardboard land. This happened with Elinor Glyn’s notorious and scandalous novel Three Weeks, in which a young English diplomat found himself having an affair with a glamorous foreign lady in her rented villa off Lake Geneva, only to find that she was the queen of a cardboard kingdom, and, later, that he had become a father. That’s the most interesting inversion of the idea that I’ve come across: most cardboard kingdom novels by Dornford Yates, or John Buchan, for example, just copy what Hope did, in different ways.

Hope 4What Hope did to make his novel so long-lasting, and so popular, was to distill the essence of romance and adventure into a very short novel. It won’t take you more than an evening to read. It begins at a late Victorian breakfast table. Rudolf’s sister-in-law is a slightly prissy Victorian lady, embarrassed at the very existence of an illegitimacy scandal in her husband’s family. But when Rudolf arrives in Ruritania, somehow he’s gone back a few more decades, to a way of life that feels more Napoleonic rather than Victorian. By the time that he and his accomplices are plotting their rescue of the king, and dealing with chamber maids and henchmen, their language has become positively Shakespearian. Time seems to slip in Ruritania, but a gentleman’s honour is timeless. The English Rudolf is the soul of honour, and this drives his conduct throughout the story. He will not betray or abandon the king by refusing to help him, or by allowing him to die in his prison, but, since the king has shown no interest in Princess Flavia, it’s perfectly fine for Rudolf to fall in love with her, and to woo her, to the great delight of the population. She, in turn, is pleased by his attentions, and finds that the new Rudolf is a much more attractive person than he had been before, until it’s too late and she is just as much in love with the new Rudolf as he with her. It’s an interesting point of behaviour, how not to betray your king by falling in love with his impersonator, but Flavia’s honour is strong: she will not renounce the king, and she will do her duty (probably through gritted teeth). However, every year, she sends the English Rudolf a red rose in a box, with the message ‘Rudolf – Flavia – always’. So romantic. Also very, very transparent, because it’s the interception of this box that brings about the sequel to The Prisoner of Zenda, the even more dashing and magnificent Rupert of Hentzau.

Peter Sellers in the Stewart Granger swashbuckling role?
Peter Sellers in the Stewart Granger swashbuckling role?

Rupert is the maverick in the otherwise perfectly ordered world of the Ruritanian deception. All the other Ruritanians seem not to notice the difference between Rudolf the king and the English Rudolf, which makes the set-up seem a little like a pantomime. But Rupert can see the marks of the English Rudolf’s shaved moustache and crown imperial beard, and the unaccountable difference in the king’s attitude towards Flavia after the coronation, and her blushes and generally infatuated demeanour which were simply not in evidence before. These, taken singly, might not add up to much. But Rupert also knows that the king is in prison, because he is one of the king’s noble guards, and potential murderers. So when he sees the English Rudolf play-acting as the king in Strelsau, he just laughs up his sleeve, and awaits developments with enjoyment. Rupert is fun. He is absolutely modern, utterly irreverent, has a wicked sense of timing, and is a terrific duellist. He and the English Rudolf battle with swords and revolvers, and both secretly swim across the same moat at midnight on the same night. They’re clearly the same kind of adventurous chap. But Rupert is amoral, not a bad chap exactly, but not at all the upright soul of honour that English Rudolf represents. It’s fine for a Ruritanian to have a flexible understanding of honour, but for an Englishman, this cannot be so. Rupert is Rudolf’s foil, his wicked alter ego, and he completes the enjoyment of this fine swashbuckling novel.

* Hope didn’t invent the cardboard kingdom: Neil Harvey points out that Robert Louis Stevenson’s Prince Otto predates Zenda, and so does Meredith’s The Adventures of Harry Richmond. For more on the subject, see Raymond P Wallace, ‘Cardboard kingdoms’, San José Studies 13:2 (1987), 23-34.

Mark Twain’s A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Twain 1Launching into a new miniseries of podcast scripts from Why I Really Like This Book, the next few weeks will see a long and enjoyable wallow in stories about King Arthur. This will include early British history, fantasies about Merlin, and the utterly compelling theory that when the Romans pulled out of Britain, somehow the Saxon warlord culture that emerged also brought forth the stories about Arthur that were medievalised into the knights of the Round Table. I don’t begin with Sir Thomas Malory, because, entrancing as the Morte Darthur is, it’s rather hard to read, since it isn’t a novel at all, but a collection of repetitious events stuck together. I’m going to start with the American writer Mark Twain’s satire on knight errantry, A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, first published in 1889, and now more commonly known as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. (Warning: here be spoilers.)

Twain 2Mark Twain was irreverent. This work of Arthurness may have come as a shock to the pious late Victorians who were used to swooning over Tennyson’s Arthurian poems from The Idylls of the King, only a few years earlier. Tennyson wrote as though he were a Pre-Raphaelite without a sense of humour. The whole point of the Yankee is that the story juxtaposes the ignorant 6th century against the knowitall, up to the minute, technologically superior 19th century, and the 19th century wins, right until the last chapter. Twain makes no explanation as to how his 19th-century man, one Hank Morgan, travels back in time and place from Hartford,, Connecticut, to 6th-century England; he just wakes up one morning and there he is. He is also dealt with as any 6th-century stranger would be: he is challenged by a knight, refuses to fight, and is taken prisoner as that knight’s personal property, and condemned to die at the stake. Luckily (and this is the most ridiculous coincidence in the novel) Hank just happens to know that in a day’s time there will be an eclipse of the sun, so on the strength of that, he sends out word that he is a wizard, and will cause mighty terrible things to happen unless he is released. He is not, the eclipse happens, the populace are very much impressed and terrified, and Hank Morgan becomes King Arthur’s prime minister.

Twain 3He can see a lot of scope for his brain and superior knowledge, and the nice thing is, none of it is for his own aggrandisement. The Boss, for that is now his name, is not at all interested in getting rich, or commanding power where he doesn’t need it. He is a reformer, and is determined to reform 6th-century society with judicious applications  of 19th-century technology. The first things to make their absence known are the basic necessities of life; no soap, no matches, no mirrors. There were no books, paper, pens or ink, and no glass for windows. There was no sugar, coffee, tea or tobacco: and now I think we get the picture. Twain’s hero is not at all interested in enjoying life in the 6th century; he just wants to return to his own time as fast as he can, or, if that isn’t possible, to make where he is like his own time. It helps that the entire nation thinks that he is a magician, and that Merlin (who in this novel is a doddering and malign old man with no power whatsoever) is not going to get in his way. At least, he won’t get in the Boss’s way once the Boss has blown up Merlin’s tower with homemade dynamite. Now that the Boss really is the boss, King Arthur’s sole advisor, the Boss can get on with a more noble long-term plan, of relieving the oppression of the poor, and removing the tyranny of the knightly class. The rest of the novel is part adventure, part philosophical nature ramble, on how an ignorant and illiterate populace can be persuaded to help turn themselves into a republic. Spot the American influence.

Twain 4Not that Twain has anything against King Arthur. Arthur remains a noble and honourable figure throughout (I think it would be hard to change his character in any circumstances), but he is a bit dim. Twain does an excellent job of thinking through how 6th-century man might think, speak, and reason, and he sticks to it. There is very little anachronism here, in the way of 6th-century people thinking like 19th-century people, that can’t be explained by sustained exposure to the Boss’s own speech and thought processes. His chief assistant, Clarence, learns fast how to keep up with the Boss and his schemes and planning, but he still speaks in the way he was brought up: he’s just a fast learner with the flexibility of youth. King Arthur, on the other hand, is a great and noble savage, with excellent instincts for truth and justice, but that’s about it. The Boss takes Arthur on a tour of his kingdom in disguise, so that the king may see the common people close up, but Arthur’s inability to act common nearly gets them caught several times, and in the end they are sold as slaves. The Boss, in his turn, has to act like a 6th-century knight, especially when a fair maiden arrives at court with a tale of woe and captured ladies. He is provided with a horse and weapons and armour (complicated to put on and manage), and off he goes on a quest, with the lady sitting behind him chattering unstoppably.  Problems begin when the sun gets stronger and the shade gets weaker, and he gets hotter, and has an itch on the back, and a fly inside his helmet. These unbearable conditions force him to dismount, and get Sandy (the lady’s name is Alisande, so naturally he calls her Sandy) to take his helmet off and pour water inside his armour until he is comfortable again. Only now, he can’t get back on the horse, so he walks and Sandy rides. By such means are the impracticalities of knight errantry skewered lengthily and lovingly by Twain.

Bing Crosby as The Boss?Not very believable.
Bing Crosby as The Boss? Not very believable.

They run into Morgan Le Fay, a terrifying witch, married to King Uriens, who is a doddering old man with no courage (very much like the Red Queen and Red King from Alice in Wonderland, which had been published a few years earlier). In Morgan’s castle the tone of this novel begins to turn sharp, since real human misery and cruelty are here, in her dungeons. The Boss sets people free, and does what he can to alleviate suffering, but he can’t wipe away years of torture and confinement. This is what I admire about this novel. It is not fantasy wish-fulfilment, in which all ills are easily wiped away by a stroke. Actions have consequences, which can’t be got rid of. People get killed and die of other means: the casual brutality of the 6th century is accepted by the Boss, possibly because in the 1880s there was a lot of casual 19th-century brutality as well. The Boss blows people up, kills people, arranges for things to happen that will inadvertently kill people: it’s all rather shocking but also very real. This is what people are like. He deals with the knightly class once and for all by first defeating his most hated enemy in a joust with a lasso, and then with a revolver. Many knights die, and no-one thinks anything of this, because (we are reminded) jousting was not about the spectacle and the romance, it was about maiming and disabling your opponent with heavy, fast and sharp weapons and then cutting his head off. If death has to happen the Boss’s method is cleaner and faster and more humane. In a passage near the end, when the Boss is describing the advance of newspaper journalism in Arthur’s kingdom, he mentions as an aside that the first novelist to have his book published made a bad joke once too often, and so the Boss suppressed the book and hung the author. That sort of thing comes as a shock when we also read about the Boss’s enlightened practices and useful inventions for the betterment of mankind. He really is not like us at all. He’s like we might have been over 120 years ago.

Will Rogers and Maureen O'Sullivan? Much better.
Will Rogers and Maureen O’Sullivan? Much better.

What does this novel have to say about Arthur, and the Round Table? Arthur is untouchable: a bit gullible, but a hero and a great man. Guenevere is a bored and foolish queen in love with Sir Launcelot, which Arthur knows about, but is more sad that the queen doesn’t seem to love him. Sir Launcelot is the greatest of the knights, and a sportsman as well, we can’t say anything bad about him. This eternal love triangle brings the kingdom to ruin in the end, as it must, because you can’t change the end of this story, even if the middle has been seriously messed around with. And after the death of Arthur, in comes the Church, about whom the Boss has been railing all along, since he is afraid of the Church, and rightly so. He had plans for getting rid of the Catholics and encouraging an early growth of Protestantism, but something else demanded his attention, and so the Reformation had to wait for another thousand years. Most sad of all (spoiler alert), now that the Boss has married Sandy and they have a baby girl, he inadvertently gets killed by a malign knight and is flung forward to his own time, where the reader first met him. Luckily he dies not very long afterwards, because to be missing your wife and child who have been abandoned 1300 years ago is torture we don’t want to hear much about.

But don’t be sad: there is so much humour in this novel. Satire means laughter, and the witty asides and terrific snappy dialogue in the inner thoughts of the Boss make this a novel to treasure.

Working is good for you: Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl

Girl 7Louisa May Alcott’s most famous novel, Little Women, and its three sequels make her still a highly popular author, but until fairly recently these were her only novels that most people could name. Many of her Gothic thrillers and sensational potboilers have been resurrected by scholars, the most well-known of which is a rather depressing adult novel of moral rectitude called Work (1873). The novel that I reread most often – certainly more often than I go back to Little Women – is An Old-Fashioned Girl from 1870. Apparently it was made into a film in 1949, starring nobody that I’ve ever heard of.

It’s a morality tale, it’s the town mouse and the country mouse, it’s a romantic love story with a happy ending and with some satisfactory twists to keep it fresh, and it’s a novel of women’s emancipation in the Gilded Age of America in the late 19th century. It is also a novel that wants its readers – who were originally Victorian teenage girls – to learn about work and the American Victorian way. When I first read it (one of my mother’s Sunday School prizes) I was transfixed by its century-old American slang. For years I was worried what ‘coasting’ meant, because this is not a word for sledging that ever came near my vocabulary. As well as enlarging my vocabulary, the story kept opening out for me as I got older. From being just the story of a family, it became a story of Boston, then of business and making a living, and then of men’s worlds and women’s worlds. Now I read it as a novel of life in a small college town, packed with the names of things I can’t recognise, and with the routines and rhythms of life seen from the domestic perspective.

Girl 3We don’t see very much of the world of men in this novel. Tom Shaw and Will Milton go to college, and Mr Shaw and Mr Sidney go to their offices. Frank Moore and other nameless young men about town don’t seem to do much of anything, and when Tom isn’t in class, which is most of the time because he’s an easily distracted student, he’s at the club, at balls and parties and at the opera. Sometimes he’s on a horse; he’s usually with a friend or a girl. But all this is on the fringes of the story: the central characters of An Old-Fashioned Girl are his sister Fanny Shaw, and her country friend Polly Milton, who is the old-fashioned girl of the title. The story is of their friendship, their friends and their lives, but above all the novel is about how women work.

The story is full of how work is desirable for a balanced life, and how too much work is bad for a normal life. Working leads to desirable independence, but also does not mix with moving in high society, which does think work at all desirable for ladies. Working and being independent are excellent goals, but achieving them will mean sacrifices. Those who can’t or won’t or don’t work lead useless and fruitless lives (this message seems a bit harsh). To work hard repays the trust of others. Above all other characters in the novel, Polly is a paragon in working for others.

Girl 1The novel is in two parts: it begins when the girls are aged around 14, and Polly comes from her country home to pay Fanny a month-long visit in Boston. She is unused to city life and fashionable ways, and so we the readers explore the routines of life for rich Bostonians along with Polly. Like Polly we find much to puzzle us, and there is much that is downright inexplicable to 21st-century readers. The episodes in the story are often just bald little morality tales, but they present an unfolding narrative – how Fanny follows her fashionable friends but isn’t as bad as some of them; how Tom is neglected by his father and laughed at by the rest of the family, and so is turning into a lazy dilettante; and how their little sister Maud is constantly demanding and cross because no-one pays her any attention or even plays with her, except Katy the maid.

Where are the rich parents in this obviously dysfunctional family? Mrs Shaw is not, as we might have expected from other Victorian morality tales, always out dancing and neglecting her maternal duties. She’s a hypochondriac, so illness and weakness is her profession, and she stays in bed, or on sofas, demanding attention. She’s a burden, and unlike that other great American sickbed sufferer, Katy Carr in Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did, she does not make her sickroom the centre of the home for her family. She just sucks attention from others and is needy and weak where Alcott thinks she should be selfless, caring and giving. Mr Shaw works too hard to enjoy and nurture his family, so he is a shadowy authority figure whom Polly has to fuss over when she sees that he’s tired, since his own children are too scared of his autocratic temper. Polly works to bring everyone together throughout the first section of the novel, with upsets and hurt feelings along the way. She isn’t perfect, but she’s very lovable, and her anxiety to learn how to behave properly frames the second half of the novel.

Girl 4This begins six years later, when Fanny, Tom and Polly are all young adults, and romances are the focus of their lives. Well, not Polly’s life – she is firmly fixed on earning a living as a music teacher, since her family are not rich like the Shaws. Her brother Will can go to college if Polly can earn her own living, so he attends class alongside Tom, or would do if Tom were not so often absent from class. Will refuses to play as hard as Tom, but Polly mothers him. There isn’t much sophisticated fun for these two country mice, but they are perfectly satisfied with cheap concerts and country walks, until Polly starts to break out to have fun and flirtation. Her good intentions and hard work are frustrated when she sees Fanny, and Tom, constantly out on the razzle. Trouble begins when Polly’s innocence, wisdom and beauty attract Fanny’s young man away from Fanny, and away from Tom’s own girlfriends. Fanny is a lovely and kind girl, but society manners dictate that she must be sharp and snappy, and she can be both when Polly starts attracting the attention of the man Fanny loves. Through Polly’s frivolity Alcott seems determined to show her girl readers that a woman earning her own living is making a virtuous sacrifice, but never has fun compared with the lives of the social butterflies. To appreciate the real beauty and value of women working we need to look at a different corner of Boston society.

Girl 6The antidote to these episodes of lavish dresses and misunderstandings comes when Polly takes Fanny to meet her own friends. She lodges in the house of Miss Mills, who opens her house to the needy and unwanted, and sews for the poor. Polly and Fanny visit a studio shared by Bess the engraver and Becky the sculptor, where they are shown that women’s work is about the representation of truth and beauty. They meet Kate King the authoress – a rather nice self-portrait of Alcott herself – who is worn out by work, and buffeted by the stresses of fame that the unexpected success of one of her novels has brought her.

The novel comes to its climax when Mr Shaw’s business fails, the family moves into a smaller house without servants, and Maud and Fanny have to do all the work of keeping house themselves. Tom goes out West to earn his living with Polly’s older brother, and Polly guides the family through the mysteries of how poor gentlefolk must live. My absolute favourite part of the novel is when Polly shows Fanny how to renovate and make over her worn-out clothes to keep her nicely dressed for the first year of comparative poverty. It’s very rare in Victorian fiction to get such fascinating practical details of how dresses were made and remade, and how their construction allowed the reuse of fabric by turning and retrimming. In due course the pretty dresses and virtuous hard work do their work, marriages take place, and all ends happily.

whoops, different girl
whoops, a different old-fashioned girl

An Old-Fashioned Girl is a very satisfying novel, with thoroughly enjoyable characters and plot. The moralising is not as intrusive as you might expect, because it is so obviously from the author’s heart and not from a box of standard Victorian precepts shaken out over the story as perfunctory seasoning to taste. Alcott really believed in her message, that working was good and necessary for a healthy and happy life. Nothing to quarrel with there, I think.

This was part of a mini-series in my podcast Why I Really Like This Book, on novels by American women writers about work. Next time, I’m dragged in the wake of a classic American social climber, in Edith Wharton’s magnificent and chilling novel The Custom of the Country, from 1913. Undine Spragg only exists to enjoy herself, which means that she lives off the work of her father, and any man she marries.