Review: An Old-Fashioned Girl, final thoughts

So much wisdom encapsulated in an entertaining little story!

I haven’t had time for blogging this past week. It’s very difficult to blog when you have kids at home all day. However, several weeks ago I did a 2nd, more in depth review of An Old-Fashioned Girl. It’s practically an essay! Only god knows why I do this, why I write so much… Why in the world would I write an essay that no one is going to read?! Why?!
But it’s a good thing I did, I guess, because I don’t have anything else to post nor time to come up with anything else.
So, here you go- my 2nd review of An Old-Fashioned Girl, written several weeks ago.

As I was saying…

So much wisdom encapsulated in an entertaining little story!

I did a review of An Old-Fashioned Girl on June 30th, but in that one I focused more on a character comparison and analysis of Polly and Fanny, especially Polly.
In this review I will still have a few more things to say about Polly, but I will focus more on the novel itself and its themes.

I thought this story was going to be nothing more than Poor Girl and Rich Girl find that they can learn from each other. But it’s so much more than that. I was really surprised by how long this story was! It isn’t the longest book, in terms of pages, that I’ve ever read, but I think it seemed longer because it moves kind of slowly. It isn’t boring though, at least not to a reader like me who really enjoys 19th century novels.
The characters are entertaining and very distinct from one another, and a lot happens in the novel, but most of the events are minor and unfold slowly. There was, however, one plot twist at the end that I did not see coming. (Excellent!)
Another thing to note about this novel is that it is told in two parts. Part two begins 6 years after the end of part one, but in a way they seem like two totally separate books.

If you’ve read Little Women it’s hard not to make comparisons between it and An Old-Fashioned Girl. The length, scope, and pace of each story is very similar. The setting and characters and their interactions are also similar. Both books deal with regular day-to-day life events, as well as common milestones. Both stories are very tame, mild, and wholesome, and have several very clear opinions, themes, and moral lessons which are presented throughout the story . . .

The rich unfairly judge and snub the poor, love is more powerful than poverty, poverty can be a great teacher, self-improvement leads to a good life, hard work and purpose are essential for a good life, what you do is more important than what you wear, little girls shouldn’t grow up too quickly, one should strive to be as selfless as possible, doing for others is one of the keys to happiness, women should help lift each other up, the bond between women is very important and empowering . . . etc., etc., (I’ve also noticed that death and grief seem to be recurring themes in LMA’s stories.)
The brilliant part, and why LMA’s work is widely considered to be so enduring, is that these things are still very relevant today- as anyone who reviews either book will point out.

After reading An Old-Fashioned Girl I think that the theme and belief most important to Louisa was “work and purpose.” Time and time again this is directly stated throughout the novel, either by the narrator or the novel’s extra-perfect “little Polly.” I know this won’t go over well with some readers, but sometimes Polly was so perfect that it was down right annoying. She was like Mary freakin’ Poppins! “Practically Perfect In Every Way.”

However, Polly was likable, and even occasionally relatable- she has hopes and dreams, she cries and doubts. As I stated in my first review, Polly was an interesting character, but  not an entirely realistic one. She represents the ideals that LMA holds so dear, she is the story’s protagonist and catalyst.
Much more realistic are the members of the Shaw family, especially Mr. Shaw, Tom, and Fanny, who are so very flawed that they all eventually find themselves very unhappy, but they each achieve great personal growth and happiness by novel’s end. Personal growth and self-improvement are also major themes in Little Women.  Based on what I’ve read by LMA fans these themes are in almost all of her work.

Now, back to “work and purpose.” In the story, Polly, who is poor, is often much happier than her best friend, Fanny.  Despite the money, conveniences, and luxuries she has, Fanny is often dissatisfied with her life. Polly encourages her to try and find something to do. She tries to persuade Fanny that if she had a purpose she would be happier. As the story moves on, Fanny comes to believe this more and more, and to her relief and satisfaction it eventually happens.

” . . . feeling that at last necessity had given her what she had long needed, something to do.”

“I shall groan and moan by and by, I dare say, but . . . I’m half glad it’s happened, for it takes me out of myself, and gives me something to do.”

Through An Old-Fashioned girl, Louisa May Alcott adamantly declares that people without something substantial and meaningful to do will not be happy. Idleness leads to “listlessness,” meanness, and possibly a depressed-like state. Work and purpose make for a good life, they keep a person happy and healthy.

“. . . Polly came to know a little sisterhood of busy, happy, independent, girls, who each had a purpose to execute, a talent to develop, an ambition to achieve, and brought to the work patience and perseverance, hope and courage. . . . All these helped Polly . . . for purpose and principle are the best teachers we can have, and the want of them makes half the women in America what they are, restless, aimless, frivolous, and sick.”

I agree wholeheartedly! I know from personal experience how true this is.
But you need love too, especially in childhood. True, LMA included the theme of love in this story- Polly’s family is very loving- but LMA did not directly state or emphasize the importance of love and affection to the degree that she did work and purpose.

I say that if love and affection are in place then, yes, bring on the work and purpose! These are absolutely necessary for human beings to be happy and healthy. This is true age-old wisdom going back thousands of years.

I have to say it again, so much wisdom encapsulated in an entertaining little story!

The following are some of my favorite quotes from An Old-Fashioned Girl:

” . . . she received, from an unexpected source, some of the real help which teaches young people how to bear these small crosses, by showing them the heavier ones they have escaped . . .”

 

” . . . that indescribable something which women are quick to see and feel in men who have been blessed with wise and good mothers.”

 

” . . . hearts are so “contrary” that they won’t be obedient to reason, will, or even gratitude.”

 

” . . . soon she had other sorrows beside her own to comfort, and such work does a body more good than floods of regretful tears, or hours of sentimental lamentations.”

 

“I can’t sell myself for an establishment.”

 

” . . . so she put her love away in a corner of her heart, and tried to forget it, hoping it would either die, or have a right to live.”

 

“Blessings, like curses, come home to roost.”

 

” He exaggerated his faults and follies into sins of the deepest dye.”

“He was either pathetically humble or tragically cross.”

 

“Why are bad boys like cake?”
“Because a good beating makes them better.”

 

“Everybody fell to eating cake, as if indigestion was one of the lost arts.”

 

“The gentlest girls when roused are more impressive than any shrew; for even turtle doves gallantly peck to defend their nests.”

 

“Occasionally a matrimonial epidemic appears…”

 

” . . . love and labor, two beautiful old fashions that began long ago, with the first pair in Eden.”

 

“I’ve had so many plans in my head lately, that sometimes it seems as if it would split . . .”

. . . which is exactly how I’ve been feeling about this blog.

 

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Review and character analysis: An Old-Fashioned Girl

I’ll be honest. The first several paragraphs of this post are me sharing my random thoughts and research about Louisa May Alcott, and the random things that happened leading up to me joining the LMA reading challenge. While I find my random thoughts to be most interesting, you might not.
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So if you’d rather skip to the actual review of An Old-Fashioned Girl, just scroll down until you come to the novel’s cover.

I had no idea I’d be reading a Louisa May Alcott novel this summer. There wasn’t one on my list. In fact, up until a few months ago I didn’t know about 99% of what LMA wrote.
So how did I come to read An Old-Fashioned Girl?  Well, about 2 weeks ago, Tarissa over at In The Bookcase invited me to take part in a Louisa May Alcott reading challenge. The challenge was to read 3 books either by or about LMA within the month of June. I couldn’t complete the full challenge because I came in and got started so late, but I wanted to read at least one LMA novel that I had never read before.
Since the only novel by LMA that I’ve ever read was Little Women I had tons to choose from. Louisa May Alcott wrote a lot of novels and short stories. She is definitely one of the most underrated, under appreciated classic authors. Her work, and the amount of it, should be just as well known and as much celebrated as Dickens and Austen. True, there is ample respect, admiration, and reverence for Little Women, but LMA did so much more!

So, as I was saying, there was a lot to choose from. Tarissa, as well as some others at In The Bookcase, chose An Old-Fashioned Girl as one of their reading challenge selections. I remembered coming across that title a few months ago when I did a little research on LMA after a chance encounter with one of her short stories, Ripple The Water-Spirit.
Also suggested on In The Bookcase: The Skipping Stones, a short story by LMA found in the book Faerie Gold, Jo’s Boys by LMA, March by Geraldine Brooks, Pedlar’s Progress: The Life of Bronson Alcott by Odell Shepard, Little Women Next Door by Sheila Solomon Klass, and Illuminated by The Message by Susan Bailey.
Susan Bailey also took part in the LMA reading challenge and is creator and host of the website LouisaMayAlcottIsMyPassion. And here’s an interesting little coincidence- I actually came across that website a few months back when I was doing my first round of research on LMA after finding Ripple The Water-Spirit. My review of that story is how Tarissa came to find me and invite me to take part in the LMA reading challenge. Talk about coming full circle! Wow! What are the odds that this would happen?! …..Amazing.

Well, back to the actual review I’m supposed to be doing…..
So, as I said, there were several good LMA options suggested on In The Bookcase. Through my own research I also came across Rose In Bloom and A Long Fatal Love Chase– one of LMA’s gothic novels. Apparently she wrote several somewhat dark and edgy gothic novels. Who Knew!? Again, something I was not aware of and very pleasantly surprised to discover. I am now very curious to read some of those and compare them to the more tame stories that LMA is better known for. However, I decided that I wasn’t in the mood for a gothic novel, so I narrowed it down to Rose In Bloom and An Old-Fashioned Girl. My final choice was Old-Fashioned Girl.

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No surprise, I really enjoyed reading An Old-Fashioned Girl–  memorable characters, themes to make you think, and that beautiful language! I absolutely love the “old-fashioned” language of 19th century literature. They just don’t write them like that anymore.

At first I thought for sure I was going to go with Rose In Bloom by LMA because I felt that I could relate more to the independent Rose rather than the “old-fashioned” Polly. In order to decide which book to read I read the first chapter of both books then slept on it. An OldFashioned Girl was the one that stuck with me the most. Even though I didn’t feel that I completely related to either Polly or Fanny Shaw, I wanted to see how things would play out in this story of “Old-Fashioned Meets (or collides with) Modern & Trendy”.
Besides, its clear that the personality of Polly and Fanny were somewhat exaggerated (purposely), so it was no wonder that I didn’t completely relate to either of them. No matter- a good story is a good story, and excellent writing is excellent writing. Also, it would be fun to see if I could find within myself a little bit of each girl/character. I suspect it’s true for most of us.

One thing that definitely struck me about Polly was her strong sense of self and her resolution in her beliefs and morals- and I admired her for this. She is shy, yes, and self-conscious at times, but when it came down to it she defended herself and her family, their “country” way of life and their values. That type of character was very new and interesting to me. In my reading experience, when a character compares herself to others, or finds herself in situations where comparisons are inevitable, she initially doubts herself quite a bit.
Polly was almost unshakable, even when she experienced moments of uncertainty about herself and her un-modern ways they were very brief, and she kept her doubt to herself. Again, I found all of this very interesting. I’m used to Jane Austen characters who either show their vulnerability at all times, or have at least one confidant to whom they admit their insecurities. I think this is what usually happens in real life.
Most of us experience a lot of self-doubt, sometimes even to the point of trying to be something, or someone, that we’re not. But Polly never did that. She has her own brand of confidence; a confidence that obviously stems from her loving family, the bond she has with them, and the respect she has for them- especially her mother.
I’m sure I read somewhere a comparison between Polly and Melanie Wilkes from Gone With the Wind. I definitely see their similarities, but Melanie always seemed to me to be unaware of how different she was, whereas Polly is aware of the differences between herself and Fanny, and Fanny’s friends. Speaking of Fanny, it is the character by the same name (Fanny Price) in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park that Polly most reminds me of. They would both be considered “goody-two-shoes” and old-fashioned, both have very high moral standards and stick to them even when faced with ostracization.

Polly is a unique and interesting character, but not realistic. However, maybe she wasn’t meant to be realistic; she represents an ideal, a model to follow- LMA said as much in her preface to An Old-Fashioned Girl.
I think I do have a little bit, just a teeny bit, of an inner Polly. My morals and feelings regarding some things probably would seem old-fashioned to many people today. In fact, I know they are because my husband tells me so! (Haha!) However, I do also have a wild side and I’m certainly not the most conservative person I’ve ever known. I’ve got a little bit of an inner Fanny Shaw too- sometimes I have a temper (like she did with her brother!), I make mistakes, sometimes I have to go back and apologize, and, of course, sometimes I like to dress up, go out, and have fun!
Like many others, I was definitely more of a Fanny Shaw when I was young but- I grew up. The older I get and the more I grow as a person, the more I become like Fanny Price, Melanie Wilkes, and Polly too- smart, kind, and confident.

 

Must read: Ripple, the Water-Spirit

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I don’t know how in the world I didn’t know about this story before…

Back in February I bought myself a book at Barnes & Noble, The Snow Queen and other winter tales, a collection of 100 short stories. I’ve been working my way through the book and really enjoying it. There are some amazing stories in there, but Ripple, the Water-Spirit overshadowed them all. I was blown away! It’s amazing! Not only is the plot flawless, the writing is amazing as well. It’s an incredible story. Obviously, I’m very excited about it!  I had very high hopes for The Snow Queen and other winter tales, but still I was very surprised by Ripple, the Water-Spirit, it definitely exceeded my expectations. Even more surprising was the author- Louisa May Alcott. I did not expect a fantasy story from the author of Little Women.

All I knew of Louisa May Alcott was Little Women, I did not know that she also wrote and published a small book of fairytales Little Women is one of my favorite novels and is definitely on my ‘books-that-saved-my-life’ list. I was very influenced by its innocence and wholesomeness. I had never read anything like it, it was so tame, so sweet, so domestic and down-to-earth, but Ripple, the Water-Spirit is almost the complete opposite. It’s just as smart, sweet, and inspiring as Little Women, but far less tame, and definitely not at all domestic or down-to-earth.

“So farewell to the pleasant earth, until we come again. And now away, up to the sun!”

The story is about Ripple and the journey she undertakes to bring a little boy back to life because his mother is so bereft. Ripple is, as the title states, a water-spirit. In the story “spirit” and “Fairy” are used somewhat interchangeably so I gathered that a water-spirit is a sort of fairy.
In order to bring the little boy back to life, Ripple must get a flame from the fire-spirits. The problem is that the fire-spirits live next to the sun!

“It is far, far away, high up above the sun, where no Spirit ever dared to venture yet…” 

Even though some try to dissuade her, Ripple is still determined to keep her promise to the grieving mother. She leaves the sea and comes to dry land in search of someone who can tell her the way to the fire-spirits’ home. One by one, Ripple encounters the four Seasons of the year- first Spring, then Summer, Autumn, and Winter. The personification of the seasons is some of Alcott’s best work in the story.

Soon she saw Spring come smiling over the earth; sunbeams and breezes floated before, and then, with her white garments covered with flowers, with wreaths in her hair, and dewdrops and seeds falling fast from her hands, the beautiful season came singing by.

 

“Now I must seek for summer,” said Ripple…
“I am here, what would you with me, little Spirit?” said a musical voice in her ear; and, floating by her side, she saw a graceful form, with green robes fluttering in the air, whose pleasant face looked kindly on her from beneath a crown of golden sunbeams that cast a warm, bright glow on all beneath.

 

…with bright wreaths of crimson leaves and golden wheat-ears in her hair and on her purple mantle, stately Autumn passed, with a happy smile on her calm face, as she went scattering generous gifts from her full arms.

 

…Winter, riding on the strong North-Wind, came rushing by, with a sparkling ice-crown in his streaming hair, while from beneath his crimson cloak, where glittering frost-work shone like silver threads, he scattered snow-flakes far and wide…
“Do not fear me; I am warm at heart, though rude and cold without,” said Winter, looking kindly on her, while a bright smile shone like sunlight on his pleasant face, as it glowed and glistened in the frosty air.

Each Season gives Ripple a gift to help her on her journey. From Spring she receives a breeze that will “never tire nor fail”, from Summer a sunbeam, from Autumn a yellow leaf, and from Winter a snowflake that will never melt.

“Now, dear Breeze,” said Ripple, “fly straight upward through the air, until we reach the place we have so long been seeking; Sunbeam shall go before to light the way, Yellow-leaf shall shelter me from heat and rain, while Snow-flake shall lie here beside me till it comes of use.” 

Each of the first three gifts has an obvious use- the breeze is her means of transportation, the sunbeam is to light the way, the leaf is for shelter and comfort, but what about the snowflake?

At this point in the story I was both very excited and on the verge of being a little disappointed. I was thrilled that Winter gave her an eternal, never melt snowflake- I love the idea of a magic snowflake! But I was disappointed because it didn’t seem to have much use. You see, I have a thing for snow. Some people have a thing for hearts or roses, dolphins or sea turtles, tigers or butterflies- I like snow. I even have a snowflake tattoo on my wrist. So, I wanted the snowflake to be special. I wanted it to be the best of all the gifts that Ripple received. Snow never gets to be the best! It’s always the sun! And for a minute there it looked like that was going to happen again. When Ripple laid the snowflake to the side I got concerned that it was going to play only a minor role, or not appear again until as an after-thought in the end.

Well, in this story, snow got to be the hero for once. Finally!
That’s probably one of the main reasons I adore this story. There was just so much about it that was unexpected. In the end, it is the snowflake that saves Ripples life. Winter’s magic snowflake is the final and most important piece she needs in order to complete her quest. And I noticed something else interesting about that. Ripple is a water-spirit and she’s saved by a snowflake, i.e. frozen water. That detail wasn’t lost on me. I don’t really know what it means, if anything at all, but it does seem significant. Although, I will admit that because I have a thing for snow I might be focusing on the snowflake more than most people would.

In less the twenty pages Louisa May Alcott created multiple worlds and told one incredible story. The settings and plot are unique, and just when you think the story has come to its logical conclusion it takes another turn and surprises you yet again. The writing is excellent because the language and detail are rich but concise. I was, as I mentioned above, very impressed with Alcott’s description of the Seasons, but I was most impressed with her depiction of the fire-spirits, especially considering it was published in 1854! But maybe I’ve got it wrong, maybe these long-ago authors are exactly who I should expect such deeply imaginative stories from.
Check it out,

“…little Spirits glided, far and near, wearing crowns of fire, beneath which flashed their wild, bright eyes; and as they spoke, sparks dropped quickly from their lips…”

And, believe me, that is only a taste- only a fraction!- of what Alcott wrote about the fire-spirits. I don’t want to give it all away! I really want people to read this incredible story for themselves.