by Louisa May Alcott
Published 1874, 1876 (although my editions are 1917 and 1932, so practically brand-new!)
Well, I thought I had pictures of these books, but apparently not, so.
These are two of my most favoritest books in the world. I love Louisa May Alcott over all, and Little Women is definitely a classic that everyone should read, and a book that I dearly love, but for some reason Eight Cousins and its sequel Rose in Bloom are my two favorites (although An Old-Fashioned Girl, which I also recently read and may be reviewed soon, definitely ranks up there as well). These books are about a girl, Rose, who, at the beginning of Eight Cousins has been orphaned and gone to live with her aunts and uncle. They live close by several other aunts (in a neighborhood referred to as “Aunt Hill” :-D) and Rose’s seven cousins – who are all boys. When our story opens, Rose, around the age of 13 (I can’t remember exactly), is rather sickly and mopey. All of this changes when Uncle Alec, her new guardian, arrives. With his rather unorthodox educational and parenting methods, Uncle Alec soon helps Rose become happier, healthier, and wiser. With seven energetic cousins in the mix, there are plenty of adventures, mishaps, and life-lessons. When we reach Rose in Bloom, time has skipped a few years while Rose and Uncle Alec (and Rose’s best friend, Phebe) have been abroad. Home again, romance is in the air as the cousins navigate those dangerous coming-of-age years. Throughout the books, Alcott makes everyone real and relatable, giving us lessons that are so pleasant to learn that we don’t really mind, as she has perfected the art of preaching without preaching. While simple enough for younger readers, these books still contain a great deal of depth – books that strike me differently with every reading (and there have been many).
The first time I read these books, Mom told me that, though she didn’t realize it at the time, Uncle Alec was her inspiration for home schooling. Even before she and Dad pulled us out of school, Mom had a rather unorthodox concept of education, frequently having me skip a day if she felt we had something better/more educational to do. Throughout the stories, Uncle Alec encourages Rose to learn through experience and exploration, while spending plenty of time outdoors, eating well, and learning to serve those around her. Even though Rose is a rich young woman, Uncle Alec helps her to realize that the value of people is not in their money, helping her to learn the importance of being kind to all.
I’m afraid I’m making these books sound dreadfully dull and preachy, but they really aren’t. The stories are lighthearted and happy, yet manage to explore some serious topics. Rose in Bloom is a wonderfully romantic tale, with the contrast between Rose’s two beaus a study on the topic of what makes true love.
Alcott does a wonderful job of stressing the importance of true beauty – kindness and health – reminding her readers that following the fleeting fashions of the world is not a profitable way to live. I love the fact that these books were published in the 1870’s, yet still have so much relevance for modern readers. “A happy soul in a healthy body makes the best sort of beauty for man or woman,” Uncle Alec tells Rose. At another juncture, while discussing a school Rose used to attend, he states, “I dare say [the school] would be [excellent] if the benighted [headmistress] did not think it necessary to cram her pupils like Thanksgiving turkeys instead of feeding them in a natural and wholesome way.” Uncle Alec is a wonderful teacher, and I can see how Mom, even at a young age, was inspired by him.
In Rose in Bloom, Rose’s education continues, though even more informally. Returning Stateside after several years abroad, Rose is ready to take charge of her fortune and make her way in life. Alcott was a strong believer in woman’s rights, and an even stronger believer in the importance of retaining femininity and the beauty of true womanliness while taking advantage of those rights. Rose’s coming-of-age illustrates that concept many times as Rose grows into a strong and independent woman, while retaining the grace, gentleness, and vulnerability that are a woman’s true birthright. Rose yearns to find true love, but is content to wait for it in the right time, and to stay busy and productive while waiting.
In her eyes love was a very sacred thing, hardly to be thought of till it came, reverently received, and cherished faithfully to the end.
I believe Alcott would have been horrified to see where the so-called feminist movement has brought women today – far more used and abused than they ever were in 1876, and entirely by their own hand. Perhaps due in part to our lack of ability to see these other truths she unearths?
“It is the small temptations which undermine integrity, unless we watch and pray, and never think them too trivial to be resisted.”
“Never mind sides, uphold the right wherever you find it.”
Or these words from one of the cousins, as he expresses to a few of the others how he yearns to find a wonderful wife. The whole conversation is really fantastic, but a few highlights -
“Well I know this much,” added Mac … “it is very unreasonable in us to ask women to be saints, and then expect them to feel honored when we offer them our damaged hearts, or, at best, ones not half as good as theirs. If they weren’t blinded by love, they’d see what a mean advantage we take of them, and not make such sad bargains.”
A few paragraphs later, one of the other cousins asks Mac how he intends to remedy this situation. Mac’s answer is not that women should become more coarse, or lower their personal standards, but that men should learn to mature and do better.
“How will you begin?”
“Do my best all round: keep good company, read good books, love good things, and cultivate my soul and body as faithfully and wisely as I can.”
I think this is the crux of Alcott’s writing. So much of the trash I read today says something like “This group expects this group to do x, and that’s not fair when they only have to do y.” But instead of saying that maybe everyone should step up to the standards of x, they try to drag everyone down to the standards of y. I’m not saying it very well, but hopefully you can understand what I’m driving at. Alcott’s writing, on the other hand, encourages everyone to step up to the plate and become a better, stronger person, rather than dragging everyone down to the lowest level. She encourages her readers, through her stories, to be strong – not physically, but morally, to stand up for the right and to do whatever it takes to become purer, kinder, and better.
“It is not cowardly to flee temptation; and nobody whose opinion is worth having will ridicule any brave attempt to conquer one’s self.”
Alcott recognized the fact that, as humans, our tendency is towards laziness and selfishness. She still encourages her readers today to become more than the lowest common denominator – to learn to stand tall, work hard, and help others. This is what makes her writing timeless, books worth reading almost 140 years after they were written.