An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott

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.

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