I had never read any of Louisa May Alcott’s books except for Little Women, which I read long ago and loved. At least, I remember loving it, but I’m afraid to re-read it because I might not like it as much the next go round. Instead, I thought I should try one of her other novels, because she actually wrote quite a few. I chose Eight Cousins.
When her uncle appears and takes charge, her life changes. He prescribes healthy food, plenty of fresh air and exercise, and comfortable clothing instead of corsets and tight belts. Shortly, the girl, Rose, grows into a happy, healthy child. All well and good. A sweet if saccharine tale.
But this dated novel quickly takes this moral lesson and pushes it farther. When Rose wants to learn more, to find an occupation (despite being an heiress–just in case she becomes poor and needs to fend for herself) her uncle points her in the direction of housekeeping. There is no higher calling for a young lady and nothing that would please him more. When one of her cousins becomes ill, she nurses him back to health. When another, older cousin, falls in with a bad crowd and falls out with his more stable cousins, it is Rose who brings him back in line. For love of her, to stay in her good graces, these boys will do anything. And Rose discovers that this is what women are for: to take care of boys.
She also pours out her charitable goodness on an orphaned maid in her aunt’s house. The maid is so good-natured and full of gratitude, that she is an inspiration to all- at least, I suppose she is supposed to be the model for the subservient underclass.
The book is a period piece that may have served as an instructive morality tale for children in the late 1880s or early 1900s--and I don’t take issue with the insistence that girls as well as boys need exercise and good food--but it’s difficult to embrace the more stifling messages these days. If these were the lessons girls and boys were supposed to take to heart in those days, I pity them.