An Old-Fashioned Girl (1869) was the January pick for the Early New England Literature book club on Goodreads. I’ve been curious about Alcott’s other fiction for a while now, so thought I would join in for this. I started the book a bit early and finished in short order (1 week, which is fast for me).

It’s the classic “town mouse and country mouse” story, with Polly Milton as the “old-fashioned” heroine and Fanny Shaw as her more sophisticated and worldly friend. Polly goes to visit Fanny when they are both small girls, so a good portion of the story follows their everyday adventures and Polly’s crush on Fanny’s brother Tom. The book then takes a leap in time to when they are all grown up, and the old childish games are now replaced by romantic drama and intrigue. Polly must find her place in a harsh world as a poor girl with rich friends, while her own envy and desires become her pitfalls.

While I only gave this 3 stars, it was an enjoyable read in its own way. Alcott manages to pull you along in almost (though not quite) the pacing of Little Women (1868-69). I was surprised the two stories were written so closely together. I feel the better content made its way into LW.

The strengths of An Old-Fashioned Girl are to some extent incidental, stemming from it being a product of its time. What I got most from it was that little has changed from the 1860s. For example, Fanny Shaw and her little sister are allowed/encouraged to be romantic at a young age (even six years old) and dress to impress boys. There are implications that the urban, upper classes have looser morals, or at least more license, than the rural, lower classes. (This is a stereotype but I think there’s a grain of truth there.) The allusions to American slang vs. more “cultured” language was fleeting but interesting. Polly represents the lower working class and the women’s rights movement, similarly to Jo March. Unlike Jo, however, Polly is also very feminine, more religious, and a bit of a homebody. I found this combination of traits pretty interesting.

What I found irritating about the book was that Polly is also a “Mary Sue.” The way I personally define “Mary Sue” is a female character with negligible negative traits, an abundance of good traits, and almost universally liked by everyone. The trouble with Polly is that her negative traits are never so very negative that they make a big impact on her or others. There were one or two incidents where they gave her a little trouble, but it blew over very quickly and easily. I felt the characters of LW were far better developed in this regard. (Polly is essentially a more poorly written version of Meg, in my opinion.)

Final thought—and this goes for most classic literature—is that anyone looking for modern themes is going to be disappointed, in spite of the first-wave feminism. The gender roles and characterizations here are very strongly traditional, even exaggerated. I lean more traditional but even I found some of it a bit heavy-handed. It is what is; certainly of historical and cultural value.

All in all—this could be worth reading if you’re interested in Alcott’s other writing. If you aren’t familiar with her work, definitely start with Little Women.

21 thoughts on “An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott

  1. Ms. Alcott is a gap in my reading experience, but that will be partially remedied tonight; Mrs. M has informed me uncategorically that we WILL be watching Little Women tonight, the Saoirse Ronan/Emman Watson version…

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      1. it was good, i think… it was hard for us to understand, they talked so fast. after we figured out how to turn on the subtitle gadget it was a lot better… what can i say, we’re both old… i thought it was a bit unrealistic at times, but since i wasn’t living in that era, who knows? the period was reproduced excellently, tho… if you’ve read the book, i’d say be sure and see the movie, as it was well done, maybe… how’s that for a positive endorsement! lol…

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          1. Hmm… I’m not sure if I’m going to see it, haha. I’ve watched clips of it, and I didn’t care for Saoirse Ronan’s Jo. But maybe it would be a good one to watch on a plane (if I ever fly again ;D).

            I grew up with the Winona Ryder version and enjoyed it a lot. My favorite version, though, is the 2017 PBS/Masterpiece Classic adaptation. The cast is excellent (Emily Watson plays Marmee) and the script is close to the book.

            I will probably give Eight Cousins a try, maybe as more “light” reading between heavier stuff. ๐Ÿ™‚ I really like moral characters, too – I think what I struggled with in the character of Polly was a lack of development. The March sisters have a bit more character arc and “jump off the page” so to speak.


  2. okay, Marian… there’s not a lot of what one might call quality tv there, but it’s useful for mental distraction, especially the grade C disaster movies which look like they were made in someone’s back yard haha… some of the Chinese movies are okay, and we’ve watched several of the Korean historical series with quite a bit of enjoyment: the one about the Historians was pretty good… sorry to turn your blog into a chatroom!

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  3. I’ve never read the book, but I’ve seen the 1949 movie of An Old-Fashioned Girl. It was a good movie, but I felt that it lacked that ‘spark’ that was in Alcott’s Little Women. I think it has potential, but she needed to develop the storyline and possibly more transformation with the characters as the story progresses. An Old-Fashioned Girl is yet another book for me to add to my ‘books to read this year’ list….

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    1. “more transformation” – that sums up how I felt, too! Now that I think about it, LW starts when the girls are younger. Maybe what I missed was seeing Polly’s childhood/development at home (alluded to in flashback but not “on screen”).

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  4. This is one of my comfort reads, its quick, light but not too fluffy and overall quite merry and happy. Little Women aggravates me in several ways where this book doesn’t. So while it doesn’t have the polish of Little Women, I think overall I enjoy more peaceably. And I just love Tommy.

    I guess I only think of Mary Sue’s in terms of action type roles, where they have all the powers and can control them immediately and no weaknesses. I tend to think of the morally perfect characters as goody-two-shoes. Polly is rather that, however, I don’t find her as annoying as some, except when she’s giving sermons, but then there are rather a lot of sermons in Alcott’s books, period. I don’t think that Polly is a less-developed Meg. Meg doesn’t have much independent spirit at all. I think maybe she is a less developed and more goody-goody Rose, from Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom if she is a version of another character.

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    1. “Little Women aggravates me in several ways where this book doesnโ€™t.” – I’m curious to hear more! There’s a few things I don’t like about LW either, although it’s been quite a few years since I read it. Maybe I’d have a different take on Meg if I read it again now…

      I loved Tommy, too ๐Ÿ˜€


      1. Well, not putting Jo and Laurie together, Jo going backwards in maturity, Amy herself in everyway she is just super irritating to me. Then Laurie turns into a boring, prosy prig after he gets with Amy. And the professor parts, ugh, ugh. And yet I love many aspects of the book.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ah yeah.. I really don’t like Amy either! ๐Ÿ˜›

          I’m sorta torn about Jo / Laurie and Bhaer. I think I would’ve liked to see Jo stay single and Laurie marry someone who wasn’t a March sister.


  5. I really liked most of Alcott’s books when I was a tween, but the only ones that I’ve continued to love as an adult are Little Women and Little Men, though I’d like to try rereading some of her other things just to see if I like any of them still.

    BTW, I have nominated you here for a Sunshine Blogger Award. Play if you want to! Happy Monday!

    Liked by 1 person

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