An Old-Fashioned Girl (by Louisa May Alcott)

In re-reading some of my Louisa M Alcott books, I finally came to my favourite of all, ‘An Old-Fashioned Girl’. It’s not nearly as well-known as ‘Little Women’ and its sequels, but I have loved this book since the first time I read it, many years ago. Written as a contemporary novel, it was published in 1869, and as well as being a good story, gives a nice picture of American life of the era.

The last time I read 'An Old-Fashioned Girl' was in 2011, and I remembered most of the storyline. Polly is the main character in this book; she’s thirteen when we first meet her, a shy girl from the country who still considers herself a ‘little’ girl, and dresses appropriately. Although not wealthy, she comes from a very loving family, with a mother who gives her excellent advice.

In the first chapter, we meet Polly’s friend Fanny Shaw.. She is only a year or two older, but already considers herself a young lady. Fanny does not like to run, or get in a mess, and sends her brother Tom to meet her friend from the railway. Tom and Fanny have a younger sister, Maud, who is six and rather a whiner.

Polly finds herself in awe of the Shaw family’s large house and evident wealth, but she quickly realises that they are discontented. Fanny’s father works hard but has little time for his children. Her mother is an invalid, and their only positive adult influence is Grandma, elderly at not quite seventy, who spends most of her time in her room, longing to see more of her grandchildren. Tom and Fanny squabble constantly, and Tom teases Polly too.

Into this rather unhappy household Polly brings love and light, although she’s by no means a perfect child. Polly likes to be independent, and goes on walks - or runs - by herself, without letting anyone know. She’s quite tempted to extravagance too though she only succumbs once - and although Fanny and her friends rather despite some of her old-fashioned ways, most of them can’t help liking her.

The first half of the book recounts Polly’s two-month visit, before she goes home for Christmas, promising to visit again the next year.

The action then skips forward six years. Polly evidently has continued to visit her friend regularly and has been considered part of the family, but now she is almost twenty, and has to earn her living in order to support her brother Will at university. Fanny is now a very elegant woman, who flirts with young men, and lives a life of leisure, although she’s often rather bored. Tom is at the same university as Will, but a year ahead - and rather than being determined to work hard, he wastes time and money, and regularly plays pranks.

While the Shaw family are still pleased to be friends with Polly, her status has changed. Now she is a working woman, many of Fanny's friends look down on her, some of them shunning her entirely. This is something quite hard to understand in today's society.

As with other books by Alcott, some of the chapters simply follow a day in Polly’s life, or a scene that demonstrates some aspect of her nature. It’s not a plot-driven novel as such, although there are romances which become more overt in the last part of the book. We see Polly learning to deal with her stresses, and the Shaw family having to pull together to overcome their own difficulties before the entirely satisfying resolution in the final chapters, part of which I still find very moving.

While the book is very readable, it’s inevitably full of author comment and moralising, rather more so than I had remembered. I don’t mind that, but it could be irritating to anyone reading the book for the first time. The author was very keen for women to be a force for good in society, to work hard in the homes or outside them, and as in her other novels makes the point that women can do most things that men do. This was quite radical in her era, but since she still expects men to be the main earners and women to cook and clean (if they don’t have servants to do so) she doesn’t seem so much of a feminist in today’s more egalitarian society.

I used to consider this one of my all-time favourite books, though I don’t any longer. I still like it very much, however, particularly the concluding chapters. Recommended to any teenagers or adults who have enjoyed others by this author, or who want to see a bit of social history from the late 19th century in context.

'An Old-Fashioned Girl' is regularly re-printed, both by well-known publishers and also in print-on-demand editions now that it is out of copyright. There are many Kindle versions too, some of them free; it's also available at no cost for various formats at Project Gutenberg.

Review by Sue F copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

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