Sunday, November 4, 2012

My New Appreciation for an Old-Fashioned Girl

Now that my month of scary stories is over, I'm back to reading classic books for girls, starting with Louisa May Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870).

(This is the 1902 edition.)

I like An Old-Fashioned Girl much more now than I did when I was little. Back then, I was mainly interested in the first half of the book, about a country girl who comes to stay with three city children, but I didn't really like any of the children. Polly, the old-fashioned girl of the title, doesn't read novels unless they are "improving reading," she suffers in silence when forced to lunch on macaroons and ice cream (poor girl!), and she's shocked at a musical when the actors use slang and wear skimpy outfits. I didn't think it would be fun to hang out with her.

(A thrilling novel, some fancy pastries, an operetta: basically my perfect day.)

I'm not even sure that Louisa May Alcott would want to hang out with young Polly in these scenes. I mean, Alcott preferred writing thrillers, even though her public kept demanding moral tales. She might have disapproved of macaroons, but she was definitely in favor of slang. An Old-Fashioned Girl is full of hilarious slangy expressions: frizzles, thingumbob, prink, wad, curly pow, fiddlestick, stunner, jiffy, whirligig. I love the slang used by city girl Fanny, who keeps calling her brother a "provoking toad." When Fanny uses the word "band-boxy," it's so slangy that Alcott has to step in to explain herself:

"I deeply regret being obliged to shock the eyes and ears of such of my readers as have a prejudice in favor of pure English by expressions like the above, but, having rashly undertaken to write a little story about Young America, for Young America, I feel bound to depict my honored patrons as faithfully as my limited powers permit. Otherwise, I must expect the crushing criticism, 'Well, I dare say it's all very prim and proper, but it isn't a bit like us ..."

(Polly, from the 1870 edition.)

Now when I read An Old-Fashioned Girl, I can see that Polly isn't always so prim and proper. Sometimes she seems a little more like Alcott -- or at least like Jo from Little Women.  There is a great scene where Polly sneaks off to go sledding, and when she's asked what Fanny would say about her uncouth behavior, she says, "Don't know and don't care. Coasting is no harm; I like it, and I'm going to do it, now I've got a chance; so clear the lul-la!" Which is so awesome. Clear the lul-la!

(Granville Perkins, "Winter Sports--Coasting in the Country," 1877. According to the article where I found this image, in 1850, only boys were allowed to sled ("coast") on the big public hills. In 1869, it's still pretty shocking behavior for Polly.)

So in the first half of the book, Polly is a little preachy, but she also has these moments when she's pretty cool. And then, in the second half of the book, everyone grows up, and Polly gets even cooler. She comes back to the city to live an independent life as a music teacher. Yes, she's still self-sacrificing, and she still dresses "like a Quakeress." But she does have a cool place of her own that reminds me of my first apartment. It's so small that she has to have a sofa that converts into a bed. (Who knew that the Victorians had convertible sofa-beds?) Polly doesn't have a lot of money, but she seems very happy in her little room with her kitten and her canary. She's also happy with her bizarre diet, which she thinks is simple and healthy: toast, bread-and-milk, baked apples, cake, honey, and cream. Seriously, how is that better than macaroons and ice cream?

(Now I want a baked apple.)

Also, Polly has really amazing friends: "Polly came to know a little sisterhood of busy, happy, independent girls, who each had a purpose to execute, a talent to develop, an ambition to achieve ... Young teachers, doing much work for little pay; young artists, trying to pencil, paint, or carve their way to Rome; young writers, burning to distinguish themselves; young singers, dreaming of triumphs ..."

(Gertrude Offord, "Interior of the Old School of Art, Norwich," 1897.)

Polly's sculptor friend Becky is someone I would like to hang out with. I love Becky's statue of the woman of the future. This woman is "strong-minded, strong-hearted, strong-souled, and strong-bodied." At her feet she has a needle, pen, palette, broom, and ballot-box, showing her ability to sew, write, paint, clean, and -- most importantly -- vote. Polly's friends are suffragettes! Those are some progressive friends for an old-fashioned girl to have.

(Votes for Women poster by Hilda Dallas, 1909.)

Louisa May Alcott would definitely want to hang out with this crowd. And in fact she is hanging out with this crowd, in fictional form. Polly's friend Kate King, "the authoress," has to be a self-portrait of Alcott. She is "odd-looking" and boyish, she has a rollicking sense of humor, and she has "written a successful novel by accident." She's even going to write a book like An Old-Fashioned Girl; she says, "I must put you in a story, Polly. I want a heroine, and you will do." 

(Grace Cossington Smith, "Quaker Girl," 1915. I know it's the wrong time period, but it totally reminds me of Polly in her apartment.)

Kate King gets everyone to join in an impromptu picnic in the art studio, saying hilariously, "Now then, fall to, ladies, and help yourselves. Never mind if the china don't hold out; take the sardines by their little tails, and wipe your hands on my brown paper napkins." Some of the girls have to use flat shells for plates and eat with paint knives, but there is "a freedom about it ... an artistic flavor to everything, and such a spirit of good-will and gayety ..." 

Reading the picnic scene is the closest I will ever get to being at a party with Louisa May Alcott. There are many things to love about An Old-Fashioned Girl, but that is the thing I love the most.

1 comment:

  1. I am flattered that you used my image of the cover of "An Old-Fashioned Girl". I am always pleased when images of AMY SACKER's work circulate on the Interent.

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