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“So Contrary and Provoking”: Love in Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl (1869)

Sirpa Salenius

Abstract

Although Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl (1869) promotes conventional gender expectations and traditional values, at the same time it depicts heterosexual marriage as mercenary and dispassionate. It proposes women’s choice to become self-sustaining as a positive alternative to marriage. Thus, the narrative seems to destabilize the same conventionality it promotes: “spinsterhood,” independent career women, and same-gender affection all appear in a positive light. Beyond Alcott’s conventional plot, the book proposes some progressive, provocative, and ambiguous scenarios the unveiling of which requires the readers’ collaboration.

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1Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl was first serialized in the children’s magazine, Merry’s Museum, between July and December 1869. The story follows the old-fashioned protagonist, Polly Milton, who moves from the countryside to live in the city with a friend, Fanny, and her family. Despite its seemingly conventional plot, Alcott places transgressive messages at the center of her story, proposing women’s choice to become self-sustaining as an acceptable alternative to marriage. Alcott’s progressive and complex messages, however, were not immediately evident for contemporary readers. Several reviews hailed it for promoting traditional values and reacted positively to its moral message. Often reviewers noted the contrast between the period’s fashionable girls and the protagonist, whom they perceived as exemplifying “all the perfections of our grandmothers” (Clark 127). The book received equally positive reviews across the Atlantic, where, however, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, in its October 1871 issue, found the independent, artist women implausible and interpreted the “queer sketch” of them to contain “a bit of utter unreality,” which rendered them “infinitely funny” (Clark 129). The reviewers, just like the period’s readers in general, confirmed their own expectations of the story’s moral message and mainly criticized errors in grammar. Elizabeth Lennox Keyser suggests that Alcott’s popularity relied on such conventional readings; it depended “upon her audience’s finding what it hoped and expected to find—a confirmation of its own values” (142).

2Alcott placed Polly in the center of a family whose members were alienated from one another, to demonstrate, as she states in the Preface, what home should be: “a happy place, where parents and children, brothers and sisters, learn to love and know and help one another” (6). When Polly comes to live with the Shaw family, her friend Fanny is already moving toward adulthood, whereas Polly, the more innocent of the two, still wears girls’ dresses and seems childish in her behavior, oblivious of her femininity, and unaware of her growing physical maturity. “You dress like a little girl,” observes Fanny; Polly’s clothes make her seem “odd” (17). And Polly’s conduct with the opposite gender—her childish games with Tom and walks with Mr. Sydney—reveals her sexual immaturity. Fanny, instead, is interested in getting new furs and going to Paris. With her hair piled up on top of her head, dressed in a suit with a sash, wearing earrings and several rings on her hands, she highlights her femininity, fashionability, and desire to appear like a grown up. To her, everything seems “so contrary and provoking” (313), but perhaps it is she who wishes to be provoking. She dresses the part of an already marriageable young woman by rendering herself physically attractive to men.

3Polly, instead, apparently aligns herself with prevailing dictates, for instance, when assessing cross-dressing, first at a theater, then at her friend’s home. Watching the “rather queer” theater performance, Polly is downright “disgusted,” feeling ashamed for the girls who are dancing “dressed as jockeys… cracking their whips, stamping the heels of their topboots” (25). But when Fanny’s brother, Tom, tries on his sister’s “ribbons, and collars,” earrings and dress, her velvet jacket and ermine muff, even powdering his face and putting on her false curls, Polly finds it harmless fun, despite its link to gender-fluctuation (99). The dancers, instead, seem to cross the line of propriety by wearing costumes that reveal their bodies. The “cracking” whips add a note of aggression considered unsuitable for women, and the overall effect of their appearance seems erotic.

1. Destabilizing Love and Marriage

4It is the idealized, altruistic Polly who connects love to class particularly in relation to Mr. Shaw, “a busy man, so intent on getting rich” (53):

There was so much love in her own home, that she quickly felt the want of it in Fanny’s… Poor Mr. Shaw had been so busy getting rich, that he had not found time to teach his children to love him; he was more at leisure now, and as his boy and girls grew up, he missed something. Polly was unconsciously showing him what it was, and making child-love so sweet, that he felt he could not do without it any more. (72-74)

5In the excerpt love is something that is being taught, here seen as Mr. Shaw’s (failed) responsibility. It is Polly who “unconsciously” demonstrates him that “child-love” was “so sweet” “he could not do without it any more.” This could be read as innocent affection, but it can also be taken to hint at something more ambiguous. According to Paula Bennett, words such as ‘sweet’ “possess erotic connotations,” for instance in Emily Dickinson’s poetry (239). Polly’s innocence, however, is stabilized through her inadvertent demonstration of love, one linked to children, but Alcott’s portrayal of Polly as a teenager, yet still a child, may here also acquire somewhat disturbing nuances.

6Alcott further highlights the potentially problematic nature of the relationship between Mr. Shaw and the adolescent girl: “Mr. Shaw was very kind to her [Polly], for he liked her modest, respectful manners; and Polly was so grateful for his many favors, that she soon forgot her fear, and showed her affection in all sorts of confiding little ways, which pleased him extremely” (73; emphasis added). The reader never finds out to what these “many favors” refer, but some of Polly’s “confiding little ways” reveal her submissive nature: at times, she accompanies Mr. Shaw to work, then waits for his return by the window with “his slippers ready, his paper in its place, and a pair of willing feet ready, eager to wait upon him” (73). Polly’s dedication to the older man is a sign of her virtue, but the devoted girl also seems to take the place of Mrs. Shaw, the “nervous, fussy invalid” (74). The teenager replaces the mother also when helping the son, Tom, with his homework and teaching the children how to bake and make molasses candy. Her morally didactic role altogether is another usurpation of the mother’s role.

7Mr. Shaw’s distant behavior toward his own daughters contrasts with his closeness to Polly. For instance, one night when the girls are ready to go to bed, “Polly kissed [Fanny’s] grandma, as usual, and Fanny laughed at her, saying, ‘What a baby you are! We are too old for such things now’” (74). To this, Polly responds: “I don’t think people ever are too old to kiss their fathers and mothers” (74). In the scene, Mr. Shaw then stretches his hand toward “my little Polly,” as he calls her, “with such a kindly look, that Fanny stared surprised” (74). This does not exclude a reading of Mr. Shaw as simply affectionate with Polly because she appears more receptive to his display of tenderness and emotions in general, but Alcott’s insistence in depicting Polly as a young girl rather than a sexually more mature teenager foregrounds Polly’s innocence but leaves Mr. Shaw’s feelings unclear.

8When Polly is about to return to her own family, Mr. Shaw gives flowers to her and his daughters for their dance party. Polly’s bouquet, the “sweet one,” consists of “sweet-peas and mignonette, with a few cheerful pansies, and one fragrant little rose in the middle” (160). The repetition of the word “sweet” in Mr. Shaw’s connection to Polly—sweet child-love, sweet bouquet, sweet-peas—may be interpreted to have erotic connotations as previously suggested or simply stand for the sweetness of childhood or innocence. However, since Alcott was familiar with the Victorian language of flowers, she must have been aware that it was “the language of love,” although not necessarily limited to romantic love (Seaton 44, 122, 135); but generally, it was the “language of romance and courtship codified in the floral dictionaries and gilt-bound gift books of the period,” as Ed Madden explains (11). Although different dictionaries and books would feature different, at times even contradictory meanings for various flowers, Victorians agreed that the language of flowers was a way to send carefully coded secret messages about love and courting (Madden 13-14). Bennett argues that the language of flowers was used not only in literature and arts but “throughout the nineteenth century, this language, presumably with varying degrees of awareness was used in the United States by sex educators” (242). She further suggests that “flower language was so widely deployed for sexual purposes that Freud, writing in the first decades of the twentieth century, could casually refer to its erotics as ‘popular symbolism’ and assume his audience would not demur” (241). Amy M. King, who traces the history of vernacularized botanical language and its use from “the eighteenth-century novel of seduction to the nineteenth-century lineage,” places the marriageable girl at the center of what she calls the “bloom narrative” (15). This “blooming girl,” according to King, is repeatedly associated with courtship, sexuality, and marriage (King, Chapter Three). Both Polly and Fanny appear as such “blooming girls” moving toward courtship and marriage.

9Pansies that appeared in Polly’s bouquet often carried the message of love and were used as a sign for secret courting. A pansy could mean “thoughts” or convey a request: “think of me” (Greenaway 32; Seaton 141). In her novel Work: A Story of Experience (1873), Alcott uses pansies as a flower suitable for an unmarried woman (211). A pansy may also be interpreted to signify “innocent sexual promise” as scholars have suggested in the case of Henry James’s Pansy Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady (1881) (King 217). Sweet-peas in flower language may be associated with delicate pleasures (Seaton 146; Greenaway 39); mignonettes may symbolize happiness and hospitality or state that “your qualities surpass your charms” (Greenaway 29). At the same time, though, “mignonette” resembles the French word mignonne, which means “cute” or “sweetheart.” The fragrant single rose right in the middle of Polly’s bouquet is the traditional flower of love and passion, denoting eroticism, which is further foregrounded through it being “fragrant,” a common metaphor of seduction; but its meaning could also refer to “soul” (Seaton 159). The single, solitary rose in the flower arrangement draws attention to it, emphasizing its uniqueness. However, the message conveyed through roses varies depending on the color and condition, whether it is a rose bud, fully opened one, or already withering. In Work, a half blooming rose bud indicates it is from “a lover to his idol” (211). Christopher Looby observes that “at all points, flowers seem to have served as objects onto which fantasies of gender [and] sexuality… could be projected” (125). Could Polly’s bouquet, then, unveil Mr. Shaw’s feelings and / or fantasies?

  • 1 These are merely some possible coded meanings for these flowers.

10To his daughters Mr. Shaw gives flowers that appear quite different from Polly’s. Fanny’s “smart” bouquet consists of tea-roses that can be associated with domesticity and sociability; they are combined with “scentless,” thus unerotic, ornamental heath and smilax perhaps representing loveliness; heath may also signify solitude (Seaton 178; Greenaway 21). The younger daughter, Maude, receives the “gay” bouquet of verbenas, underscoring her spirited nature, but perhaps also evoking protection as might feverfew, which is the other plant in this arrangement. With its daisy-like flowers it could also be a code for innocence.1

11Unfortunately, Alcott does not reveal the colors of these flowers, which in her view also carried encoded messages. In Work, violet flowers indicate “the best and purest love, the sort that makes life beautiful and lasts for ever [sic]” (237). Since violet is the most common color of the pansy, it can be assumed to be the color of the “cheerful pansies” Mr. Shaw gives Polly. Sweet-peas are also often violet. Mignonettes are often white, the color that often refers to purity; in Work it is associated with engagement or used as a color for bridal flowers. The flower message could well mean to convey Mr. Shaw’s desires.

12The relationship between Mr. Shaw and Polly is further complicated by a reference to Mr. Shaw’s “stern voice,” which sounds “like Bluebeard.” When hearing it, Fanny becomes “frightened out of my [her] wits,” asking Polly to stand by her. The answer, “’I will,’ whispered ‘Sister Ann,’” links Polly with the sister of Bluebeard’s wife (94). Significant in the intertextual reference are the parallels, for instance, in how frightened the girls are in both stories. Moreover, in “Bluebeard,” the young women move into the luxurious home of Bluebeard where they become his wives against their will. In An Old-Fashioned Girl, Polly lives amidst the luxury of the Shaw family home, so it may be legitimate to speculate that she also steps into the role of a (seduced) “wife.”

13The real wife, a mother with no obligations, has become a near invalid, thus reflecting the emptiness and frustrations of upper-class nineteenth-century women. To Polly, she is the “feeble, selfish Mrs. Shaw” (373). Mr. and Mrs. Shaw’s marriage is one of convenience, a conventional union based on traditional expectations of gender roles, representing a calculated economic rather than emotional relationship. Thus when Fanny becomes interested in wooing one of the most eligible bachelors, she wonders how to “make Mr. Sydney love her” (313; emphasis added). Love, then, is not perceived as a spontaneous emotion but something that is taught or even coerced. The idea of forcing certain emotions to capture the attention of a bachelor who would make an ideal spouse—financially—again emphasizes marriage as an institution for social and economic benefits.

14Heterosexual unions form a contrast with more positively depicted alternatives such as self-sustaining women. After six years’ absence, when she is in her twenties, a more mature Polly returns to the city where she independently supports herself as a music teacher. When she goes to visit the Shaw family, Mrs. Shaw expresses her jealousy of the young woman by preferring that Polly find lodgings for herself elsewhere: “It was all very well to patronize the little music-teacher, but it was not so pleasant to have her settled in the family” (182). Mr. Shaw, instead, welcomes Polly warmly, “for she was his favorite still. It was good to see her put both arms about his neck, and give him a tender kiss, that said a great deal” (184; emphasis added). Although the kisses may be innocent enough, the scene of an adult young Polly wrapping her arms around the neck of Fanny’s father, then giving him a meaningful “tender” kiss that “said a great deal” does appear to carry erotic overtones. Such reading seems to be supported by Mrs. Shaw getting no such greeting. Instead, she “fell back in her chair, and took out her salts” (187).

15At the end of the story, when the Shaw family is going bankrupt, the children learn to care and console their father, while the “feeble, selfish” mother, who gets to keep her property, remains sleeping in her own room (373). In this moment of bonding with his children, Mr. Shaw wants Polly to be there with them. “She was there at once; gave him one of the quiet kisses that had more than usual tenderness in it” (374). Polly is the only one kissing Mr. Shaw as his daughters merely embrace their father, and the displaced mother remains completely absent. Although Polly’s wish in the narrative was to show everyone what love is, she seems quite focused on Mr. Shaw who excludes his daughters from any physical demonstrations of affection.

16Alcott portrays expressions of emotions as gender specific. Mr. Shaw conveys his love toward Polly in what may appear an unnatural way and Tom is incapable of expressing his feelings at all. This becomes evident when Polly bursts into tears thinking about her dead brother: Tom is “full of sympathy, but did n’t [sic] know how to show it” (88). It is Fanny, who comes to the rescue and “cuddled Polly in her arms, with soothing little pats and whispers and kisses” (88). Here young women kissing is presented as natural, which may indicate that it occurred frequently, but it may simultaneously be Alcott’s strategy to normalize it.

2. Heterodox Love and Affection

17An Old-Fashioned Girl as a seemingly conventional narrative promoting traditional values also becomes Alcott’s vehicle to advance her more transgressive and feminist agenda. For instance, Polly rejects Mr. Sydney who is courting her when she discovers that Fanny is attracted to Polly’s suitor. She explains to Fanny that “I can’t sell myself for an establishment,” which, according to her is “the plain English of half your fashionable matches” (351). She thus makes it clear that the modern marriage is a mere business transaction, the selling of oneself to a man. Another reason Polly gives for refusing Mr. Sydney’s advances is that she claims to be “‘odd,’ you know, and prefer to be an independent spinster and teach music all my days” (351). Polly, who is referred to as ‘odd,’ something abnormal or queer, prefers financial independence, even when it would mean living alone.

  • 2 Many of Alcott’s stories have such demonstrations of same-gender love. In “Anna’s Whim,” it is the (...)

18In gratitude for Polly´s altruism, Fanny leans forward “with an irresistible desire to win back the old-time love and confidence” (352). Both women openly demonstrate the “old-time love” they had shared since they were girls. At that time, they had slept in the same bed.2 Victorian teenage girls kissing and cuddling is here instinctive and acceptable, a form of female intimacy and bonding. It happens again after Fanny has offended Polly by reading her diary. “Will you kiss and be friends,” suggests Tom (111). Undeniably, girls and young women snuggling was common at the time, without necessarily being seen as erotic or sexual.

19As Gregory Eiselein observes, romantic love between women was not uncommon in the nineteenth century, but according to him, “sentimental friendships nourished not only romantic affections but also sexual desires and practices” (209). And Marylynne Diggs, among other scholars, notes: “although romantic friendship had a certain degree of visibility in nineteenth-century American literature, that visibility is not necessarily a sign of conventionality or social approbation” (321). In An Old-Fashioned Girl, the self-supporting Miss Mills argues that “women can do a great deal for each other, if they will only stop fearing what ‘people will think’” (259; emphasis added). Miss Mills’s comment seems to echo the period’s attitudes toward independent women but also toward their explicit demonstrations of same-gender love and attraction that Alcott’s readers probably would have condemned had they even imagined they could be physical—beyond seemingly innocent kissing and cuddling—let alone sexual.

20After Polly has introduced Fanny to Miss Mills and other independent ‘spinsters,’ Polly takes her friend to meet two artists working in a “queerly furnished” studio “occupied by two girls,” who are described as “lively, odd, and pleasant” (318). Alcott introduces her readers to women who, just like Polly herself, are defined as “odd.” When Fanny and Polly are about to leave the studio, the narrator explains how “Fanny was amused to see that the girls did not kiss at parting, but shook hands in a quiet, friendly fashion, looking at one another with eyes that said more than the most “gushing words.” Although their eye contact reveals more than any words, their handshaking appears as Alcott’s way of taming these otherwise radical women in order to appease her readers. However, their behavior and control of emotions are coded masculine. Indeed, according to Fanny, it would have been normal for the girls to kiss each other. And she continues: “‘I like your friends very much, Polly. I was afraid I should find them mannish and rough, or sentimental and conceited” (328). Here Fanny seems to express the prevailing prejudice concerning artist women: for many in the nineteenth century, as Anne Boyd points out, there existed “a tension between the essentially feminine nature of ‘woman’ and the masculine conception of ‘artist’” (80). Once again, Alcott addressed contemporary controversies that reviewers brushed off as “queer,” “funny,” and utterly unreal (Clark 129).

3. Conclusions

21Alcott’s views about gender and love come across in An Old-Fashioned Girl, for instance, in her depiction of tenderness, devotion, and fidelity between girls and women, in particular the independent artists, whose relationships are contrasted with heterosexual marriage that is portrayed as mercenary and dispassionate. Alcott herself seems to have never openly declared her preference for women but to have privately confessed to having fallen in love with others of her own sex: Strickland notes that Alcott had erotic feelings toward other women (108) and according to Boyd, Alcott had told Louise Chandler Moulton that she was ‘‘half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body... because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls, and never once the least little bit with any man’’ (68). At the end of her life, she moved in with another woman, Dr. Rhoda Lawrence, at her home in Roxbury (Anthony 278). Moreover, Kessler states that “Of marriage Alcott claimed she knew little save that few were happy” (136). Perhaps herein lies the explanation why Alcott presents gender heterodoxy tenderly and marriage rather negatively.

22And yet, as can be expected of a nineteenth-century sentimental story, An Old-Fashioned Girl ends with Polly marrying Tom, Fanny marrying Sydney, and Polly’s brother finding a spouse, Maria, in the West. Alcott’s last words remain flat as they fail to convey the assumed bliss felt by these couples who supposedly married for love: “And so they were married, and all lived happily till they died” (456). The tone is detached and uncaring. And beyond the conventional plot, the book proposes some very provocative scenarios. However, the unveiling of Alcott’s depiction of unorthodox love requires the readers’ collaboration. An example can be found at the ending of the story. To quote An Old-Fashioned Girl: “women are queer creatures, and there’s no accounting for their tastes,” said Polly, with a sly look, which Tom fully appreciated” (448; emphasis added). The “sly” look was directed at Polly’s future husband, the same Tom who felt “lovely” when wearing his sister’s dress.

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Bibliography

Alcott, Louisa May. An Old-Fashioned Girl. Floating Press, 2010.

---. Work: A Story of Experience. Floating Press, 1901.

Anthony, Katharine. Louisa May Alcott. Greenwood Press, 1965.

Bennett, Paula. “Critical Clitoridectomy: Female Sexual Imagery and Feminist Psychoanalytic Theory.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society, vol. 18, no. 2, 1993, pp. 235-59.

Boyd, Anne E. Writing for Immortality: Women and the Emergence of High Literary Culture

in America. Johns Hopkins UP, 2004.

Clark, Beverly Lyon. Louisa May Alcott: The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge UP, 2004.

Diggs, Marylynne. “Romantic Friends or a ‘Different Race of Creatures’? The Representation of Lesbian Pathology in Nineteenth-Century America.” Feminist Studies, vol. 21, no. 2, 1995, pp. 317-40.

Eiselein, Gregory. “Sentimental Discourse and the Bisexual Erotics of Work.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 41, no. 3, 1999, pp. 203-35.

Greenaway, Kate. Language of Flowers. 1884. Dover, 1992.

Keyser, Elizabeth Lennox. Whispers in the Dark: The Fiction of Louisa May Alcott. Tennessee UP, 1995.

King, Amy M. Bloom: The Botanical Vernacular in the English Novel. Oxford UP, 2003.

Looby, Christopher. “Flowers of Manhood: Race, Sex, and Floriculture from Thomas Wentworth Higginson to Robert Mapplethorpe.” Criticism, vol. 37, no. 1, 1995, pp. 19-56.

Madden, Ed. “Say it with flowers: The poetry of Marc-Andre Raffalovich.” College Literature, vol. 24 no. 1, 1997, pp. 11-27.

Seaton, Beverly. The Language of Flowers: A History. Virginia UP, 1995.

Strickland, Charles. Victorian Domesticity: Families in the Life and Art of Louisa May Alcott. Alabama UP, 1985.

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Notes

1 These are merely some possible coded meanings for these flowers.

2 Many of Alcott’s stories have such demonstrations of same-gender love. In “Anna’s Whim,” it is the “kind-hearted Clara” who embraces her friend, Anna, “and warmly presses the ‘lips that were made for kissing,’ thereby driving several approaching gentlemen to the verge of distraction” (829). In Work, it is Christie who first kisses Helen’s “white lips” (105, 107) and later finds another love, Rachel: she “wooed this shy, cold girl as patiently and as gently as a lover might” (121; see also Eiselein 221-24).

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References

Electronic reference

Sirpa Salenius, “So Contrary and Provoking”: Love in Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl (1869)European journal of American studies [Online], 17-3 | 2022, Online since 26 October 2022, connection on 29 November 2022. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/18637; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.18637

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About the author

Sirpa Salenius

Sirpa Salenius, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer at the University of Eastern Finland. Her research interests include race, gender, sexuality, and space. Among her most recent publications are An Abolitionist Abroad: Sarah Parker Remond in Cosmopolitan Europe (University of Massachusetts Press, 2016) and Neglected American Women Writers of the Long Nineteenth Century (Routledge, 2019), co-edited with Verena Laschinger.

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Copyright

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