Tag Archives: Eden’s Outcasts

Book Notes

I’ve recently finished reading two books:

It’s taken me several weeks to read Eden’s Outcasts and at one point I nearly abandoned it because I thought it was too much about Louisa May Alcott’s father. I’m glad I persevered because the second half of the book  concentrates much more on Louisa and I realised that the title does convey the subject matter very well as it reveals the relationship between them. Bronson Alcott was a complicated person who appeared to have mellowed as he grew older. Louisa, well known and loved for her children’s books never achieved her ambition to write serious books for mature readers, enduring debilitating illness in her later years.

I learnt a lot from this book about their lives and their relationships with other writers such as Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne. It’s a very detailed book and there is no way I can summarise their lives in a few words and a double biography is even more difficult to deal with. In the final  paragraph Matteson sums this up very well:

To the extent that a written page permits knowledge of a different time and departed souls, this book has tried to reveal them. However, as Bronson Alcott learned to his amusement, the life written is never the same as the life lived. Journals and letters tell much. Biographers can sift the sands as they think wisest. But the bonds that two persons share consist also of encouraging words, a reassuring hand on a tired shoulder, fleeting smiles, and soon-forgotten quarrels. These contracts, so indispensable to existence, leave no durable trace. As writers, as reformers, and as inspirations, Bronson and Louisa still exist for us. Yet this existence, on whatever terms we may experience it, is no more than a shadow when measured against the way they existed for each other. (page 428)

Turning to Climbing the Bookshelves by Shirley Williams,  I thought an autobiography would maybe include more personal recollections and descriptions of events. It starts off very well with her descriptions of her early childhood – her earliest memory from 1933 when she was three and fell on her head from a swing at the Chelsea Babies’ playground. I was very impressed by her memories of the time she spent in America as a young girl during the Second World War and her self-reliance and independence.

However, much of the book consists of her accounts of her political life, making it very much a political history of Britain, rather than a personal account of her life. There are some personal memories and I particularly liked her descriptions of her fellow politicians – Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Roy Jenkins and so one – very little about Margaret Thatcher and a few pertinent comments about Tony Blair. Having said that she comes over as a very honest, genuine person who cares deeply about being a good politician. And maybe it is more personal than I originally thought because in the last chapter she writes these words:

Being an MP is like being a member of an extended family. You learn to love your family with all its knobbliness, perversity, courage and complexity. You learn respect and build up trust. …

To be a good politician in a democracy you have to care for people and be fascinated by what makes them tick. … The politician whose eyes shift constantly to his watch, or to the apparently most important person in the room, feeds the distrust felt by the electorate. It is a distrust born of being manipulated, conned, even decieved and it is fed by a relentlessly cynical national press. (page 389)

A side effect of reading this book is that I’m going to read her mother’s book, a best seller published in 1933 – Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. Shirley describes it as

… an autobiography of her wartime experience as a nurse and her personal agony in losing all the young men she most loved … (page 13)

In the preface to Testimony of Youth she wrote:

Testimony of Youth is, I think, the only book about the First World War written by a woman, and indeed a woman whose childhood had been a very sheltered one. It is an autobiography and also an elegy for a generation. For many men and women, it described movingly how they themselves felt.

This looks like a much more personal autobiography.

Sunday Salon

Reading today:

Eden’s Outcasts: the Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson. I’m making heavy weather of this book, mainly because I’m finding Bronson Alcott such a difficult person. I’m only reading a few pages each morning, which is about all I can put up with Bronson’s self-centred approach to life.

It will take me a while to finish this book as it’s over 400 pages long. So far, I’m up to page 118, and Bronson has tried and failed at almost everything he has undertaken in his search for perfection. His efforts at running a school have failed and he is about to embark on a new project – a self-sufficient commune, a ‘beacon of morality in a fallen world.’  This was to be ‘an earthly heaven‘, anything that came from the work of slaves was excluded, they would do away with money, shun the use of animal products and rely as little as possible on animals for work.

He asked Emerson to join him in his venture and also to back him financially. Emerson refused and wrote in his diary:

For a founder of a family or institution, I would as soon exert myself to collect money for a madman. (page 114)

I have to agree with Emerson.

There has been little yet in this book about Louisa but I’m hoping that will soon change as she is now 11 and beginning to rebel against her father, who baffles him with her stubbornness.

I’ve also started to read Perfume: the Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind. I’m not sure yet what I think of this novel. It begins well, grabbing my attention with a description of the birth of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Paris just before the French Revolution began. The description of the smells of Paris at that time is breath-taking in its awfulness:

The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells of mouldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlours stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber-pots. The stench of sulphur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese, and sour milk and tumorous disease.  (page 3)

Grenouille born in this stink, is not an attractive character either. Having no odour of his own but a highly developed sense of smell, he is a strange character to say the least. On the trail of an elusive but exquisite smell he tracks it down to a young girl and kills her to possess  her scent for himself.

Peter Ackroyd is quoted on the back cover:

A meditation on the nature of death, desire and decay.

I’m reserving judgement for the time being.

Louisa May Alcott: Little Women

I had forgotten that Little Women is such a moral tale. In fact, I doubt that when I first read it years ago I ever thought of it as a moral tale at all, but the emphasis on the characters of the four sisters  with their individual flaws and efforts to overcome them was the dominant theme that struck me whilst I was reading the book this time.

I loved Little Women when I first read it and re-read it several times. It remains in my memory as one of my favourite childhood books. But reading again now it seems dated (although I did like reading what the girls wore – gloves were essential wear for a party!) and rather pious. I’m also reading Eden’s Outcasts: the story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, so I flipped forward in that book to see what John Matteson had to say about Little Women and Louisa May’s thoughts on writing her book. She wrote Little Women after Thomas Niles, a partner in the publishing firm of Roberts Brothers had asked her to write a book for girls. She wasn’t too keen but agreed to do so even though she said that:

I don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters. (Quoted in Eden’s Outcasts page 332.)

She consulted her mother and sisters and with their consent wrote the book based around the Alcott girls’ lives.

Little Women is about the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, and their mother – ‘Marmee’. Their father is absent for most of the book, working as a chaplain in the army,during the American Civil War.  The first part of the book is a series of scenes of the March family life illustrating each sister’s burden of character flaws, and their attempts to overcome them. Meg is vain and materialistic, Jo has a temper and flies into great rages, Beth is painfully timid and shy and Amy is selfish. This section of the book is loosely based on Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, as some of the chapter headings indicate – for example, Playing Pilgrims, Amy’s Valley of Humiliation, Jo Meets Apollyon and Meg Goes to Vanity Fair.

The second part of the book centres on Jo (based on Louisa herself), her writing and her reluctance to grow up. Again this hadn’t struck me when I read as a child (I can’t remember how old I was); I’d thought of her as a tomboy character. She says to Meg, who at 17 is a year older and falling in love:

Don’t try to make me grow up before my time, Meg: it’s hard enough to have you change all of a sudden; let me be a little girl as long as I can. (page 162 of my copy of Little Women)

Laurie, who lives next door with his grandfather becomes a friend to all the girls, but especially to Jo. The family go through a number of dramas, both small and large, culminating in Beth catching scarlet fever after visiting the poor Hummel family, whilst Marmee is in Washington staying with Mr March who was very ill in hospital. Mr March is mostly absent from the book, and even when he does come home there is very little mention of him; he is a man of few words. He discovers that his ‘little women’ have changed for the better whilst he has been away, despite it being a rough road for his little pilgrims to travel:

“But you have got on very bravely; and I think the burdens are in a fair way to tumble off very soon,” said Mr March, looking with fatherly satisfaction at the four young faces gathered him. (page 232)

Little Women ends with Meg’s engagement to John Brooks, Laurie’s tutor. The story continues in Good Wives,which I have as a separate book, but it was originally published as volume 2 of Little Women. These two books were followed by Little Men, the story of Jo and her husband Professor Bhaer at Plumfield school, and Jo’s Boys, continuing the lives of the family and the boys ten years later.

Even though it is a sentimental tale, which it wasn’t in my memory, I did enjoy the experience of re-reading Little Women – some of the magic was still there. And I think I’ll re-read the other books soon as well.

Sunday Salon

tssbadge1Earlier this morning I was reading Danielle’s blog A Work in Progress. She wrote about books she’s recently borrowed from the library. One of them is a biography of Louisa May Alcott by Harriet Reisen which looks very interesting. You can see more information on this website. Little Women, Good Wives, Jo’s Boys and Little Men were among my favourite books when I was younger but I didn’t know she wrote books for adults as well.

It reminded me that I have Eden’s Outcasts: the Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson. As I’ve just finished reading one book and thought that I’d read this and went to find it.

I bought it some time ago and thought it was on the bookcase with the to-be-read books, but it wasn’t there. We’re sorting out what to pack to move house, but haven’t touched the books yet. My bookshelves are in rough a-z order but in different sequences in different rooms and I looked through all them several times with no success. I was about to give up when I remembered that we had bought some clear plastic boxes and had filled one with books to see if it would be suitable. This box was at the bottom of a pile of boxes and there at the bottom of it was Eden’s Outcasts. I’ve rescued it and started to read it.

I can see that moving house is going to mean lots of books are going to be inaccessible for some time, especially if we have to put our stuff in storage for a while. Although there’s not going to be much time for reading I really need to sort out some books to keep out to see me through until we’re settled in the new house. It’s difficult to be patient, whilst we wait to see if the solicitors can sort out the contracts in time for us leaving this house on 27 November! I hope we’ll have some definite news in the next few days, otherwise we’ll be looking for somewhere to rent. After these next two weeks I probably won’t be able to blog – either reading others’ or writing my own. I’m going to miss it!

Yet More Books

No sooner do I think I have plenty of books to read and that I’ll concentrate on reading the books I already own than I go out looking for more. Nan over at Letters From a Hill Farm has far more resolve  – she has decided not to buy any more books for a whole year and also not to borrow books either. Well I thought that was a good idea and maybe I should take it one month at a time and not buy any books, although I knew I would borrow books from the library. That thought soon deserted me; but at least I can comfort myself because I’d already identified the book I’ve now bought as one I’d planned to read this year.

It’s Eden’s Outcasts: the story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson and now of course I want to start reading it at once. The little I know of Louisa May is that she wrote some of my favourite childhood books – Little Women, Good Wives, Little Men and Jo’s Boys.  I know even less about Bronson, her father, beyond the fact that he was a close friend of Emerson and Thoreau.

The only things that are holding me back from jumping straight into this book is that I’m already reading a few books – The Language of God: a Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis Collins, a book I started to read last year and stopped because I was finding it hard to follow. Collins is the head of the Human Genome Project and has “an unshakable faith in God”, but when he came to describing the Project, DNA and genomes he lost me. I do want to finish this book though and have started it again this year. In complete contrast I’m also reading The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris about the irrationality of all religious faiths.

 

But the book that has really grabbed my attention is The Road to Nab End: an Extraordinary Northern Childhood by William Woodruff. My friend, Margaret lent me this book saying that it’s a wonderful book and she is right. In some ways it reminds me of Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee, but this is about a Lancashire childhood, a life of poverty in Blackburn. I know it’s a cliché but I really am finding hard to put this book down. It’s beautifully written, rich in description of both people and places and of the period. Woodruffe, an historian, was born in 1916 and lived in Blackburn until 1933.

So why when I went to the library yesterday did I pick up three more books? I returned a couple of books and then browsed the shelves to see if anything caught my eye. Of course there were many, but I restricted myself to three – An Imaginative Experience by Mary Wesley, even though her biography Wild Mary didn’t make me want to rush out and read her books this one was just sitting there as though it was waiting for me. The other two are Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen by P G Wodehouse because I enjoyed Something Fresh and fancied a bit of humour and The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side by Agatha Christie, a great title taken from Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, and promising to be a satisfying murder mystery solved by Miss Marple.