Sunday, December 27, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott

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.

This was a disappointment. The premise is: a young girl, thirteen years old, is orphaned and must go to live with her great aunts while awaiting the arrival of her guardian-uncle, Dr. Alec. She is quiet, frail, and timid, scared of horses, boats, and noisy boys. This is a problem, since she has seven boy cousins now living nearby, who are noisy and who love boats and horses. Her aunts want to shelter and coddle her. She is sinking fast until her cousins come to cheer her and she sees they are not as terrifying as she feared. (They are extraordinarily chivalrous boys.)

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.

1 comment:

  1. I read Little Women, which was ok, Little Men, which I liked and Jo's Boys which I really enjoyed. I may have tried the others but even 40 years ago, those sweet girls who lived their lives for men got on my nerves.