Sunday, April 29, 2012

Review: Good Wives

Good Wives, a serial novel by Louisa May Alcott (as I understand it, each chapter was published in a newspaper much like Dickens’ writing) is now usually sold bound together with Little Women and serving as the second half.  When I purchased Little Women at a thrift store earlier this year, I made the mistake of buying a copy that lacked this second half.  After finding and reading a separate copy of Good Wives, I can say that I am actually quite pleased with this mistake.  The two truly function as two separate novels, rather than one large one divided into two parts.  Not only is there a gap in time – Good Wives picks up three years after Little Women left off – there are huge differences in theme.

Little Women is a book about children.  I hesitate to say that it is a children’s book, because I suspect that many modern children would have trouble sinking their teeth into it.  A brief digression here, if I may: when I was a child, my wonderful mother purchased for me the complete sets of Little Women and Anne of Green Gables  books.  In a completely inexcusable fit of stubbornness (or perhaps simply because I was too wrapped up in my fantasy books to be interested in fiction about such real, normal lives), I never once read any of them.  Heinous!  In any case, Little Women is about childhood and the lessons children learn.  Picnics, school experiences, parental love, and big dreams of the future all play a part.

Good Wives is separated only by three years, but the result of this short time is a complete shift from childhood to adulthood.  Adolescence is somewhat nonexistent.  The concept of irresponsible, rebellious teenage years doesn’t seem to have been a part of Alcott’s experience.  (In fact, the cultural understanding of teenage years is quite a modern construction.  I’m interested now to find out when that came about and what impact it had on literature, as well as real-life experiences of growing up and accepting adult responsibilities.)  In this novel, the March girls are grown up and facing grown-up tasks and troubles.  Moralizing is also much more prominent, and Alcott refers to it quite directly and, on occasion, humorously.

(Spoiler alert.)  In this novel, the four girls’ lives take different directions, but remain fundamentally intertwined, as Alcott believes families should.  Superficially, the book focuses on three of the March girls’ finding husbands, but it would be more accurate to say that this book traces their journeys into adulthood and the changes each must undergo.  Meg’s wedding to John Brooke takes place in the second chapter; her trial is not the finding of a husband but learning to live peacefully and prudently with one, and she finds that the raising of children is no easy task.  Over the course of the novel, Jo’s tempestuous nature turns self-reflective.  She discovers new tenderness within herself, and she is rewarded by success in publishing her writing and with a husband who complements her nature far better than her impassioned childhood friend Laurie ever could.  Laurie, too, finds his own perfect compliment in Amy, who grows from a selfish, vain child into an elegant, thoughtful, and artistic lady.  My mother once told me that she was always disappointed that Jo and Laurie never ended up together, but I think everyone ended up the better for ending up with spouses that compliment, rather than match, their wild passions.  My one complaint is that a discussion of the changes that take place over the course of this book is limited largely to only three of the four girls.  While Beth’s is a beautiful soul, her character remains rather flat.  She alone changes little, and is never given the chance at romantic love.  Alcott often holds Beth up as a model of womanly perfection, through Beth’s devotion to domestic duties and family, but I can’t help feeling that her character exists only to impact the other girls.

While I can imagine that Little Women could be enjoyed by children and treasured throughout one’s life, I have difficulty thinking that children would understand or enjoy the real beauty of Good Wives.  I myself would have found aspects of it quite boring until only recently.  Meg’s process of exploring and mastering her new roles as wife and mother would have been difficult to connect with even just a few years ago – but now, the lessons she learns as she struggles to manage her new roles really resonates with me.  There is some really great advice for newlyweds and new parents in here.  In retrospect, I’m (surprisingly) glad that I never read this book until now.  I suspect that familiarity with the plot would have muted the similarities to my own situation and thus dimmed the freshness of Alcott’s insights.

Things to consider:
When you first encountered this book, did you read it as part two of Little Women or as a separate novel?  How did that color your experience of the two?  I read it as a separate book and was thus predisposed to analyze them as separate novels.  If you read them together, did you focus more on the continuity of the March sisters’ stories?  Which sister resonates most with you – and did this change as you reread the book over time?

Things I’m reading:
Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
Musicology and Difference, Ruth A. Solie, ed.
The Country of the Pointed Firs, Sarah Orne Jewett


  1. Bearing in mind that Little Women was loosely based on Alcott's own family, and the character of Beth on her sister Lizzie, who died aged 22, it seems a little hard to say that Beth 'exists only to impact the other girls.' Certainly, she doesn't change a lot, but I think while she is dying we see her distress that her life could be seen as meaningless because its purview has been so small, and even her family are surprised by how many friends she has accrued in its short span because she has always been so timid! But then, Beth was always my favourite of the sisters... Although I've sympathised more and more with Jo as time has passed.

    Aside from anything else, Beth represents one of the archetypes of Victorian literature, the wise child who is 'not long for this world' - someone who is good and self-sacrificing and just breaks your heart. (Little Nell in the Old Curiosity Shop, Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Helen Burns in Jane Eyre, Little Arthur in Tom Brown's School Days...) Such characters act as a moral compass and a spiritual ideal; they are supposed to be sort of 'prodigies of holiness' that most people can't even aspire to in their lifetimes. And, as archetype, ideal, angel or whatever, they have very little in the way of character growth to aspire to - the only way for most of them is down! (As you would be interested to see something on the evolution of literary representations of adolescence, I'd be interested to see writing on the change from a focus on such paragons of virtue, to the developing idea that pure virtuousness is kind of irritating, and it is the inner triumphs of a naughty character that are more interesting to read about).

    There is an entertainingly obnoxious character in the Australian children's book 'Playing Beatie Bow' who tries to portray himself as such a character without much success! Likewise, we get another character in Jane Eyre who has the outward trappings, but not the inward nature, of one of these 'angels on earth' in the form of Rev Brocklehurst's son, whose claim to preferring psalms to gingerbread is rather undermined by the double reward of gingerbread he claims 'in recompense for his infant piety,' which always seemed very suspicious to me!

    I read the two books in a combined edition, but saw them very much as separate novels. Like your mother, I was agitated for years that Laurie and Jo didn't end up together, but - like Jonathan and Alanna in the Tortall books, if you've read those - with more experience you can see why that wouldn't have worked. Age has also helped me interpret some of the more culturally obscure Americanisms, since when I was first exposed to the story as a kiddywink I somehow got the idea that anyone in a crinoline must be English, and it took me a while to work out why that in fact wasn't the case... At any rate, my copy has now been read so often that the pages are tea-coloured and the cover is dissolving at the edges and consists largely of sticky-tape. But there's always time for another reading!

  2. Wow, Angharad, you bring up some really excellent points! Now that you mention it, of course Beth plays the same role as Helen Burns! A study of virtue-characters and their evolving roles would be fascinating. I wonder if their decline coincides with the decreasing popularity of virtue names (like Hope, Charity, Patience) - my husband has been considering writing on that topic for a while.

    And you're exactly right, regarding Jonathan and Alanna. It always bothered me that they didn't end up together. I always saw George as a sort of consolation prize, but looking back, he was the only one steady enough to compliment her fierce spirit.

    And I think there's really nothing better than a well-worn, well-loved childhood book. :-)

  3. I read the combined edition, but I always thought they were one book. In fact, after reading your entry, I dug the actual paper copy out (instead of the one on my Kindle) to check because I just couldn't believe it. I did focus on the continuity - going through the rough pre-teen years (really, did anyone have a good middle school experience?), I was comforted by the depiction of life as a continuum, and reminded that this too shall pass. While I think my favorite character is still Jo, the character with whom I resonate seems to change depending on my life. Right now, for instance, it alternates between the Jo in Little Men (when I'm dealing with 2 year old Jefferson), and Meg in Good Wives (when dealing with 3 week old Calvin). Thank you for reminding me of this series, and therefore prompting me to get on with unpacking the office and re-reading an old friend.

    1. There really is something in there for every stage of a woman's life, isn't there! When I start having children, I'll be able to turn to these books and learn some lessons and find some comfort. Even as an old woman, there are characters to model how to age gracefully and devote yourself to your family. I think it's marvelous how a girl can grow with these books, and I only wish I'd been less stubborn as a child, so that I could have had them for fifteen more years!

      Your children sound lovely, and I hope they're not as much of a handful as little Demi!