In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Jo and Meg are invited to a New Year’s Eve party and with “the united exertions of the entire [March] family,” the girls finally look elegant enough to go “even though Meg’s high-heeled slippers were very tight and hurt her, though she would not own it, and Jo’s nineteen hairpins all seemed stuck straight into her head, which was not exactly comfortable.” But of course, both girls are quick to remember that despite the tight shoes and the poky pins, they would “be elegant or die” before going to the party looking plain.
I took an unexpected hiatus this week from VMMV. I’ve been meaning to post these pictures since Monday, but a double butter-cream batch and three parties in just as many days means I haven’t had even a moment to get them up. My favorite little women had our annual Christmas party and it was, as usual, the most special of nights. Somehow we all grew up and got far, far too busy but right before a new year begins we all manage to get back together, dress up, and make another New Year’s resolution to be the most elegant little women we can be. It’s a resolution just vague enough to avoid certain failure and noble enough to be worthy of a fresh start. It’s a resolution for poise under any circumstance, for being simple yet graceful, and, according to Webster, being “pleasingly ingenious on any occasion.” So, in 2014, “let us be elegant or die!” The March sisters strived to be and that’s good enough a model for me.
You may have noticed fewer posts this month, that’s partially because of my big announcement, and the time that has been involved with getting myself ready for that and all that it entails, but also because of something exciting that is happening to the blog. In my last highlights post, I mentioned that May may be bringing something special to the blog but alas I was slightly preemptive on that foreshadowing so you must all wait and wonder until all is revealed. I’m shooting for the end of the summer: summer used to mean quiet, sluggish days and lazy nights, but I’m preparing for a rather active one. I’m chock full of ideals and hoping my motivation will last me because I have much to do!
When Louisa May Alcott wrote the character of Mrs. March (or, “Marmee”) for her novel Little Women, Alcott succeeded in creating arguably one of the most beloved mother caricatures in literary history. Besides being kind, loving, and the stalwart supporter of her four daughters, Marmee also has endless monologues teaching her girls the importance of education, independence, and equality for women, in a time where those things were nothing to aspire to for “well-brought up” ladies. Marmee exuded love and devotion to her husband and family, standing as the heart of one of the coziest, most adorable family portraits ever put to paper. The March family life was simple and rustic yet in its quaint raw-ness, it was overwhelmingly beautiful, for Alcott wrote a story of what family life should be, what motherhood is, and what all girls can be. I think if Mrs. March pinned, her boards would be something to see.
In last month’s edition of Elle magazine, Daphne Merkin tackled a review of the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’ new book Missing Out: Praise of the Unlived Life. From Phillips’ book, Merkin quotes that the “idea of the unlived life-or, as he calls it, ‘the myth of our potential’- is more prevalent now than it once was, because affluence has allowed more people than ever before to think of their lives in terms of choices and options.” The quote struck something in me, for post-college life has made me uncomfortably aware of the enormity of the consequences of decisions I now make. For the first twenty odd years of my life, my “plan” seemed murky at times but the fog always eventually cleared into a straight forward line. From elementary you trudged through middle school, from those troublesome years to high school, and from high school you went to college, and then from college you went….where? Now, every decision eliminates certain paths, dreams, and desires, for I fully believe you can only walk down one, if you want to walk it well, despite the modern addiction of “having it all.” As I began to read Merkin’s article, “Who’s Sorry Now,” the ever-present female struggle between self, ambition, and the woman’s inherent nurturing nature reared it’s head yet again. Not more than two paragraphs into her article, Merkin says that Phillips’ book forced her to conjure her own life regrets wherein she discovered that her biggest was her failure to fully fulfill and see through a traditional role as wife and mother:
One of my sharpest feelings of regret involves a vision of myself as Marmee in Little Women. These range from an ongoing feeling of nostalgia for my daughter’s early years and a pained sense that I hadn’t fully appreciated them, hadn’t been sufficiently alert to every gurgle and adorable bit of phrasing.
She goes on to detail her regret over being a single mother of an only daughter who “loves me one minute and despises me the next,” and woefully describes another imaginary life where she dreams of she and her ex-husband working things out and being the happy friends in marriage as they now are outside of it. Seemingly frustrated by the relationships in her life, Merkin finds comfort in Phillips’ theory that “all love stories are frustration stories,” and the unlived or “wished for” lives that paralyze our potential decisions or fill our current decisions with regret aren’t really bad but “are as important to us as our real existence-if not more so- because they provide us with a metaphysical safety net, allowing us to consider transgressive urges and ungratifiable impulses without necessarily acting on them.” Here though, as a fellow woman, I have to disagree with Merkin and ask her if this constant consideration of transgressive urges and “wished for” lives are not the reason for her current regret, if those things actually distracted her from fully appreciating and being “sufficiently alert to every gurgle” of her daughter’s youth, creating instead a young woman who grew up ever-conscious that her mother’s life with her was not complete enough to stave off other, “wished for” lives.
Probably the most archetypal source for this now mainstream story of female struggle and regret is Virginia Woolf’s protagonist in Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa Dalloway is a frustrated, bourgeois housewife, struggling, as many were post World War I, with personal identity and a crisis of life purpose. Troubled and feeling stagnant in her role as an aging wife and now unneeded mother, her present life is constantly interrupted by remembrances of her childhood friend Sally Seton who represents in Clarissa’s memory what Clarissa had always wanted to be: an independent woman, staving off the repressive institution of marriage, and carefree of tradition, societal norms, and reputation. Her vision of Sally as she last knew her stands in stark opposition to the reality of her own life:
But often now this body she wore, this body, with all its capacities seemed nothing-nothing at all. She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress…this being Mrs. Dalloway, not even Clarissa anymore; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway.
To Clarissa’s shock however, when she again chances across Sally Seton, the wild-child Sally has transformed into the elegant Lady Rosseter, wife to the self-made Lord Rosseter, mother to five boys, and yet, still exuding her individual, independent self. Unlike Clarissa, Sally was happy in her choice, she had committed to her marriage and family and in her full commitment to one choice had not lost any of herself in these mental wanderings of “wished for” lives as Clarissa had done and as Daphne Merkin now does. She had chosen a path and had used all that she was to make that choice everything it could be. She had not lost herself nor regretted what could have been because she was fully involved in what was. She would never have to regret not being “sufficiently alert” to her children’s youthful gurgles, nor was she haunted by feelings of a lost self, being “invisible; unseen; unknown,” because the present was all that she lived in.
We all digress into regret now and again. Especially as modern women there are myriads of lives we have the opportunity to choose, to dream about, and to live. Yet, I have to disagree with Adam Phillips, Daphne Merkin, and Clarissa: I don’t want to lose myself into even the imaginings of “wished for” lives even if I never act upon them. I’d rather not lose myself to the Dalloway complex of always wishing, longing, regretting, and imagining a life better or more fulfilled. As Clarissa found out, what she imagined someone else’s life to be was not always what it was, so why imagine another life from your own? Just live what you’ve chosen the best way you presently can.
You may not think of it as a tale for Christmas-time, but Little Women is one of my favorite films to watch as soon as the twinkle lights go up. With scene after scene of the little family gathered around a fire and a Christmas tree, it’s impossible not to get excited that December has come again at last.
Beyond it’s Christmas cheer though, the story also has quite a bit to say about some pretty hot topics even for the modern world. The 1994 version starring Winona Ryder as the indomitable Jo March I think captures very well what Louisa May Alcott intended to do with her novel. Though you may believe it to be merely a children’s story, Little Women is chock-full of some rather serious themes: Anti-slavery, transcendentalism, women’s rights, war, and the list goes on. Very quickly it becomes clear that Jo (Winona Ryder) is the new feminine ideal that Alcott seeks to promote. While the other girls follow typical (for the time) feminine pursuits of seeking love and marriage, Jo longs for adventures and accomplishments outside the home. Disgusted when her oldest sister Meg begins to fall for a young tutor, Jo remarks that she “can’t get over (her) disappointment in not being a boy, and it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with Papa, and I can only stay home and knit like a poky old woman.”
Set during the Civil War era, women definitely had few rights and were expected to fulfill their roles as wife and mother without thoughts of education or accomplishment. The March family, and Jo specifically, is rather radical however. They promote education, Mrs. March encourages Jo in her writing and even assists her in gaining a position as a governess in New York City when Jo grows fitful and restless in the domestic realm of her home.
Through Jo, Alcott captures the battle many women, even modern women, experience: the pull between loving one’s family so desperately yet simultaneously seeking to use their skills to change the world beyond their intimate family. Jo is, by far, the most sentimental of all her sisters. Though she longs for experiences beyond her home, she is in anguish over her family being “broken up” by growing up, getting married, and becoming women. When she at last goes to New York, Jo comes up against obstacle after obstacle for all the adventures she believes she will begin to have. The writing she intended to live off of is described by the serious journals as simple “fairy tales,” and she is crushed that the talent she had nurtured at home begins to be seen as insignificant in the world at large.
Longing to be respected as other male writers, Jo writes of violent battles, pens dark tales, and publishes under the pseudonym “Joseph March.” Despite her friend Professor Bhaer’s advice to “write what she knows,” for only then will her writing illustrate the passions of her heart and be memorable, Jo tries again and again to write how she believes she should. It is only when Jo returns home following her sister’s death when she discovers what Professor Bhaer meant. Sitting in the attic of her childhood home, the film shows Jo writing page after page of the “domestic” story of how she and her sisters grew up. The story, though Jo shrank from writing it for she believed it to be merely a woman’s tale, is a huge hit: Jo at last writes from her heart, her feminine heart. She wrote about what broke it, what fulfilled it, what she hoped for, who she loved, and why she loved them. She stopped trying to live out the adventures she wished she could have fighting alongside the men on the front-lines, and wrote about the battles she faced in her own life.
Jo came to understand that she didn’t have to try to live her life as a man did for she had something to offer they didn’t. She could use her femininity to her advantage. She began a school in the manor her wealthy aunt left her, married her best friend Professor Bhaer, and sought to teach others what her mother had first taught her. Though it took her most of her young life to understand, Jo realizes that in their own way, “women work a good many miracles,” and THAT power is a significant one indeed.