15/07/2018

Eight Cousins (by Louisa M Alcott)

Having recently re-read Louisa M Alcott’s classic series that begins with ‘Little Women’, I decided to re-read some of her other books too. I last read ‘Eight Cousins’ shortly after I acquired it back in 2009, and that was the first time in probably thirty years. I vaguely remembered that it was about a girl called Rose who had seven male cousins, but nothing much else.

As with others by this author, the book was written as contemporary fiction in the late 19th century. It’s set in small town USA, somewhere near a beach but the exact location doesn’t much matter. We meet Rose, aged thirteen and recently orphaned, after an experimental period living with her two great aunts who have the unlikely sounding names of Peace and Plenty. She has been away at school but didn’t like it at all.

What’s slightly mystifying is that she has not yet met her seven cousins, and is convinced she doesn’t like boys at all. Yet once she has met them, and decided they’re not so bad after all, she spends almost all her time with one or more of them as they all live nearby. In addition to the great aunts, Rose has four aunts. Jessie is her favourite; her husband is at sea, and she has four sons: Archie, who is sixteen, and three younger boys.

Then there’s Aunt Jane, who is quite strict although married to the friendly Uncle Mac. They have two sons: the bookworm, another Mac, and the dandy Steve. Aunt Clara is keen on fashion, and has one son, Charlie. Then there’s Myra, who is convinced Rose (and everyone else) is fading away, and wants them to take pills and potions and lie indoors. Myra is widowed and lost her only daughter some years ago.

All the aunts have different ideas about what should happen to Rose, and how she should be brought up. But she has been left to the guardianship of Alec, her late father’s brother. Rose meets Alec for the first time shortly after the book begins, and he proposes a year’s ‘experiment’ whereby he encourages her towards outdoor pursuits, nourishing food (without any of Myra’s medications) and a low-key relaxed (if formal, at times) education at home. It’s clear that the author is on her hobby-horse with this book, which would have been quite radical in its day. Alec, who is a doctor, is very outspoken against some of the fads of the era, particularly corsets. And, naturally enough, Rose benefits strongly from his advice.

Each chapter outlines a different incident in Rose’s life, mostly involving her cousins, although she also befriends Phebe, the kitchen maid. The author is also quite outspoken against the injustices of poverty, and Phebe’s lack of education; while still seeing quite a distinct difference between the gentry and servant classes.
Even then a moral is drawn as Phebe is thankful for all she has, while Rose tends to get bored, and complains about what she doesn’t have.

There’s a great deal of inherent sexism too, alongside the author’s attempts to show that Rose is every bit as intelligent and courageous as the boys, if not more so at times. We see her making a big sacrifice in one chapter, and several small ones when her cousins fall into scrapes, or are sick in any way. We also see her gentle influence on her cousins and the households where she lives or stays. Rose is almost too good to be true, but is so full of genuine doubts and questions, and so loving that she is quite an endearing character.

Inevitably the style of writing is old-fashioned, along with some of the principles and values; yet it remains an enjoyable book, interesting from the social history point of view, and in better understanding the attitudes of the times. The aunts are all slightly charactured, other than Jessie, but that doesn’t matter; despite their foibles, each one has her endearing side, and they all genuinely care about Rose.

Originally written for teenagers, this would probably appeal to children (mostly girls) over the age of about eight or nine who are fluently reading. It would make a good bedtime read-aloud book too, as each chapter is complete in itself. Many teens would find it too date or moralistic, but there are some good principles involved, and I love the way that family ties and loyalties are seen as supreme. I skimmed a few descriptive sections here and there, but on the whole liked it very much. There were one or two places which I found very moving.

There’s not all that much story; it’s mostly incidents over the course of Alec’s experimental year, but Louisa M Alcott does that kind of thing well, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes her style of writing, or books of this era.

Regularly republished in paperback, often found second-hand, and available in Kindle and other e-book form too.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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