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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Literature and Work Mix on Many Levels

“What book now, Miss Devon?” 

“‘Jane Eyre,’ sir.”

 Mr. Fletcher sat down just where her hat-brim was no screen, pulled off his gloves, and leisurely composed himself for a comfortable lounge. 
 “What is your opinion of Rochester?” he asked, presently. 
 “Not a very high one.” 
 “Then you think Jane was a fool to love and try to make a saint of him, I suppose?” 
 “I like Jane, but can never forgive her marrying that man, as I haven’t much faith in the saints such sinners make.” 
 -      Louisa May Alcott, Work: A Story of Experience

As a bookseller, of course, literature is my work, but like Louisa May Alcott I’ve also done a wide variety of other things to keep body and soul together, from teaching and tutoring to gardening and picking apples, so this novel of hers, largely autobiographical, fascinates me. The introduction by Sarah Elbert provides excellent background on the Transcendentalist Movement, the Alcott family (read about them here), their friends among writers of the period, and the challenges facing nineteenth-century women trying to reconcile, in their own lives, then-contemporary principles of individualism and self-fulfillment with the still-current belief that woman’s place was in the home, marriage and family her only rightful sphere. And how could I not sit up and take note at the passage quoted above, after my recent launch of the new novel Mr. Rochester, by our own local Sarah Shoemaker? What would Louisa May Alcott make of Shoemaker’s portrait of Edward Rochester and the odds that he would become a good man with Jane Eyre as his wife?

Only a little over a hundred pages into Work so far, I’m astonished that this work is not better known. True, Henry James did not care for it, but then he was also dismissive of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Most women’s writing, “parlor literature,” he considered beneath his notice. Alcott herself felt obliged to apologize for the quality of the novel. Written while the author was caring for her mother and two nephews, she observed of her finished product, “Not what it should be—too many interruptions. Should like to do one book in peace, and see if it wouldn’t be good.”

But being left to write “in peace” was not the destiny of Louisa May Alcott. Her idealistic father never managed to support his family financially. That task fell to friends and, when she became of age, to daughter Louisa, as did the job of nursing any family members who fell ill. She underwrote her younger sister May’s art education in Europe (think Amy in Little Women), and when that sister married and died shortly after the birth of her own daughter, Louisa took on the responsibility for her niece's upbringing.

When Mr. Fletcher, in Work, using Charlotte Brontë’s characters to plead his own case, asks Christie if she doesn’t think a man “with only follies to regret” might not be made happy and good with the right woman for a helpmeet, this is her response:
“If he has wasted his life he must take the consequences, and be content with pity and indifference, instead of respect and love. Many good women do ‘lend a hand,’ as you say, and it is quite Christian and amiable, I’ve no doubt; but I cannot think it a fair bargain.”

Alcott gave Christie a simpler background than her own. An orphan, left to the care of her mother’s brother and his wife, Christie strikes out on her own with their blessing to make her way in the world of work. Housemaid, actress, paid companion, governess, seamstress—all Christie's various work experiences were ways of earning money that Louisa Alcott had experienced prior to achieving enough success as a writer that, although a “slave” to her pen, she was able to provide for her family with her stories alone.

(Harriet Beecher Stowe had a husband and children to support; Louisa May Alcott had parents, siblings, nieces and nephews. Both women wrote to earn for their families. Neither was a pampered dilettante.)

Alcott’s protagonist in Work, Christie, has both an easier and a lonelier time of it than did her creator, but both Louisa and Christie found meaning in lives of activism, and I will learn more about Alcott’s vision as I read further in this fascinating novel, undeterred by the opinion of Mr. Henry James. Yes, Alcott’s stories veer into melodrama, and yes, she can also be didactic at times, but I pity any American woman who never managed to enjoy Little Women, and I appreciate Alcott too for not being afraid of work and for not letting the opinions of others discourage her from the work she most loved--writing--because, make no mistake, writing well enough to please publishers and a national audience is very serious work.

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