Monday, July 21, 2014

Louisa May Alcott: An Intimate Anthology

The title: Louisa May Alcott: An Intimate Anthology
The author:
Publication: New York Public Library Collection, 1997
Got it from: Annapolis Valley, 2013

I bought this book in anticipation of a trip I would be making last year and began it while I was visiting Concord, which you can read about here.  Louisa May Alcott is an author I admire almost as much as Lucy Maud Montgomery, and that's really saying something.  This collection is an excellent find for someone who, like me, knows Little Women back to front but wants to find out more about the author behind it.  There's a little bit of everything here: biographical sketches by those who knew her and selections of her diaries, poetry, letters and short stories.  The more I read, the more I was impressed by how ahead of her time Alcott was (as is the case in all the historical women I admire).  She understood the need for women to exercise, to learn and to be independent.  She had a sensitive and humorous understanding of society (G.K. Chesterton compares her to Austen) and advocated for women's rights and abolition long before it was fashionable to do so.  It is very difficult for me to separate the March family from the Alcott, and in fact when I visited Orchard House I had the disorienting experience of seeing both at the same time.

There are three very personal autobiographical sketches in this anthology.  In "Transcendental Wild Oats," Alcott paints a very vivid picture of her family's somewhat horrifying experiment with living in a commune at Fruitlands.  A hundred years before hippies made it popular, Bronson Alcott was advocating for peace, vegetarianism and brotherly love.  Unfortunately his lofty ideals couldn't support his family for long.  Particularly interesting to the history buff in me are the letters that comprise "Hospital Sketches," detailing Louisa's ill-fated experience as a nurse during the Civil War when she was thirty.  How exciting to read about the war firsthand from a woman my own age!  Unfortunately the experience doesn't last long, as Louisa developed typhoid fever and never fully recovered.  Perhaps the most amusing story is "How I Went Out to Service," chronicling a time during Louisa's youth that she went to work as a companion and ended up being taken advantage of by the family.  She ends up leaving in disgust but the family's vulgarity provides much fodder for amusement.

In addition to the lively glimpses of her life are some of Alcott's delightful stories.  "Debby's Debut" is a classic love-triangle story, with the "right man" obvious from the beginning.  "Pauline's Passion and Punishment," an early story of Alcott's, is a drawn-out melodrama that could easily have been one of the thrillers Jo March pens to amuse her sisters.  "Perilous Play" is actually about the dangerous effects of (shocker!) drugs.  Didn't I tell you she was ahead of her time?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness

The title: Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness
The author: Sheila Kohler
Publication: Bantam, 1994
Got it from: Book sale, 2011

Happy Bastille Day!

By coincidence, I have just finished reading Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness.  It's set during the time of the French Revolution, a time I always enjoy visiting, despite the rather gruesome realities.  The story is of one Lucy Dillon, a fictional biography of the real-life Henriette-Lucy, Marquise de La Tour du Pin Gouvernet.   Her mother is a favourite of Marie Antoinette and young Lucy herself visits court, hobnobbing with French nobility at Versailles and in Paris.  In her early twenties, the Revolution breaks out and she is forced to flee to America with her husband and young children.

The narrative is divided between Lucy's travels on board the ship crossing the Atlantic and flashbacks to her life of (caged) privilege back in France.  The story really picks up when the Revolution does.  The strength of the book lies with seeing how dramatic the day-to-day change was for an aristocrat before and after the Revolution.  The ordered world suddenly collapsed, leaving chaos and uncertainty on an unprecedented scale.  For many watching their friends and family members die at the guillotine, it must have felt like the world was ending.

Interestingly, the author chooses to paint Lucy as an unhappy victim of her circumstances.  It is only when she arrives in America that she gets to take control of her own destiny, becoming an ambitious dairy farmer in the Hudson River Valley.  This part of the story is very different than the 4/5ths of the book before it, now that Lucy is no longer a pawn in someone else's scheme.  Without spoiling the ending, it did leave something to be desired and I felt the narrative should have wrapped up differently.  However, it was a fascinating look at an absolutely fascinating time in history.