Under the Lilacs (by Louisa May Alcott)

In re-reading novels by some of my favourite authors, I picked up ‘Under the Lilacs’ by Louisa M Alcott. I last read this book in 2005 and had mostly forgotten it. This is partly because it’s not particularly memorable, and partly because I haven’t read it many times; it’s nowhere near as well-known as some of the author’s other books.

‘Under the Lilacs’ opens with a sweet scene portraying two small girls, Bab and Betty, about to have a dolls’ tea party. They are sisters, respectively nine and eight years old, and clearly of very different character. There’s much description of the dolls, a hotch-potch muddle of loved toys, written in an gently ironic style that might appeal to children, but is certainly enjoyable to me as an adult.

Into this idyllic scene comes a thief… accusations abound until the dog Sancho is revealed, along with his master Ben. Ben is twelve, and has run away from the circus where he was ill-treated. He’s very hungry and tired, and can’t quite believe it when the girls’ mother offers him food and a bed. She even persuades a neighbour to offer him some work.

It’s a character-based children’s book, but there are some grown ups too; in particular Miss Celia, owner of the big house in whose gardens the girls have been playing. She is a gentle young woman who cares for her fourteen-year-old invalid brother Thornton.

There’s not a great deal of plot; instead, each chapter recounts another incident in the lives of the girls or Ben, as he gradually adjusts to everyday family life. He’s nicely drawn and quite three-dimensional, full of doubts and suspicions, worried about his father, whom he hasn’t seen for months, and passionately devoted to his dog.

Inevitably there are authorial asides, and insights into the education system, much of which seems very dated by today’s standards. But this book was written in 1878; for a book that’s 140 years old, some of the themes are surprisingly modern. Betty is compliant and loving, Bab mischievous, determined to do everything that boys can do. The sexist attitudes portrayed by Ben and some of his contemporaries were probably normal; Alcott was unusual in her insistence, in this book as well as others, that women were as good as men, and could do many of the same things.

I don’t know many children nowadays who would enjoy this book, but a fluent reader around nine or ten who doesn’t mind old-fashioned language might like it. It could also make a pleasant read-aloud for younger children. With each chapter complete in itself, it would be a good bedtime book, or could be the springboard for discussions about the differences between children nowadays and at the end of the 19th century.

All in all, I enjoyed 'Under the Lilacs' more than I expected to. I would recommend it to Louisa May Alcott fans, or anyone who likes children’s fiction of this era. Since it is long out of copyright, there are many editions available - if you buy it online, check that it's a full edition.  It can also be found as a free download in various formats on Project Gutenberg.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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