19/09/2011

An Old-Fashioned Girl (by Louisa M Alcott)

I've always enjoyed reading Louisa M Alcott's books - at least, the ones that were published, intended for teenage girls. She is, of course, best known for her classic novel 'Little Women' and its sequels, but my favourite of all her works is this one.

I last read 'An Old-Fashioned Girl' in 2005, and thought that it was high time for a re-read a few days ago. I had forgotten most of the details of the plot so enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with the characters and their circumstances, set towards the end of the 19th century.

Polly is the heroine of the book, the old-fashioned girl of its title. We meet her in her early teens, when she arrives from the countryside to pay a visit to her friend Fanny. Fanny is a couple of years older and has acquired city ways, liking to dress fashionably and giggle about boys with her friends. Inevitably there are some culture clashes between the two, although Polly is gentle and hates conflict of any kind. She struggles with her conscience as well as feeling deeply hurt by Fanny's friends looking down on her, and Fanny's brother Tom who teases her mercilessly.

However, Polly stays a couple of months and gradually eases her way into the hearts and lives of the entire household. When she has to return to her own home and siblings, her new friends are devastated, and give her a standing invitation to stay with them every year.

The book then fast-forwards to Polly as a young women, about to start work in the city as a music teacher. Her old friends want to help her, and Tom is particularly attentive, as is the likeable Mr Sydney who was polite to her even as a little girl. However she finds that some of Fanny's friends look down their noses at a 'working' woman, despising her respectability and genteel poverty. So Polly makes some new friends - artists and writers, mainly - and also gains insight into some of the problems besetting those whose poverty is a great deal more severe than her own.

It's interesting as a story about democratic America which apparently had just as much snobbery as the UK did at the time despite the theories of equality and the so-called Protestant work ethic. It's also a coming-of-age story - Polly struggles with temptations as much as anyone - and as well, perhaps inevitably, it's a low-key love story. Naturally it seems quite dated in some respects, a hundred and forty years after it was written; yet human nature does not change, and I could relate to Polly on many levels.

Originally intended for teenagers, I expect this would now more likely be read by girls of about nine to twelve, and also by adults like myself who revel in re-reading our childhood and teenage favourites. I'm happy to have a fairly good quality hardback edition, but 'An Old-Fashioned Girl' is now available for the Kindle in both the USA and UK, or can be downloaded in various formats from Project Gutenberg.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 19th September 2011

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