Several weeks ago I announced my intention to write about my treadmill reading, and so far I have followed up with only one such post. Today I’ll make up for lost time with a compendium of remarks about several books I’ve been reading, both on my Kindle while walking and in hard copy. Mostly I’m still concentrating on Louisa May Alcott, both on Kindle and in print, but I’ll mention only a few of the works by LMA, omitting the ones about her.
The first of these was Work: A Story of Experience, published in 1873. The story was one that Alcott had been working on for some time when Henry Ward Beecher’s magazine, the Christian Union, offered her $3,000 for a serial to run in weekly installments for six months. She accepted the $1,000 advance and resurrected this unfinished manuscript, begun even before she had written the first draft of Moods, and completed it. Like Moods, it was a serious novel for adults. Whereas in Moods she had explored the idea of marriage and what a woman can expect from it, here she considers the idea of what sort of meaningful career a woman can have, and how she can determine what sort of work she is best suited for.
This is a sprawling book, with the usual Alcott mix of humor, romance, and moralizing. In some ways, the central section of the book (after protagonist Christie Devon has had many adventures in a wide variety of those occupations open to women) is a classic Harlequin plot: Christie and David Sterling become friends and gradually fall in love, but through typical misunderstandings, each thinks the other’s heart is engaged elsewhere, and so they remain silent about their feelings. When they finally declare their love for each other only four-fifths of the way through the book, the reader knows their romance cannot end well. The fly in their ointment is the Civil War, to which duty ultimately calls them both, him as a soldier and her as a nurse. He is fatally shot while helping a fugitive slave escape; she reluctantly survives but is rescued from despond only by the birth of their daughter (delicately conceived offstage).
This novel is read today, if at all, only as a curiosity or period piece, but it is generally regarded by Alcott scholars as being “autobiographical” and therefore primary source material about the author’s life. Anyone familiar with LMA’s biography might find this hard to see, as Christie Devon’s life and career are very different from Alcott’s. But Alcott had first-hand experience of many of the types of work Christie did, including needlework and nursing, and she was certainly familiar with life in a garret in Boston, often in dire penury. Still, this is a work of fiction and imagination and not a retelling of her life story.
Published in 1893 to capitalize on the continued strong sales of “the Little Women books,” this is a compilation of plays “By Jo and Meg,” that is, by Louisa and Anna Alcott. Although LMA is credited as the author, it was published after her death and copyrighted by Anna B. Pratt, and billed on the title page as “WRITTEN BY ‘JO’ AND ‘MEG’ and acted by THE ‘LITTLE WOMEN’.” The “Foreword by Meg” makes it clear that the plays were collaborations between Anna and Louisa, and it was generally thought that Anna was at least as good a writer as Louisa, which is evident in the introductions she has provided for some of these plays.
She leads off with the strongest card, “Norna; or, The Witch’s Curse,” which was evidently a popular favorite, and which is here enhanced by Anna’s notes on how the multiple characters were represented by just two actors with quick costume changes and other subterfuges. There’s no question these girls were clever. Although it’s easy to see why that play would be popular, I actually preferred “The Captive of Castile; or, The Moorish Maiden’s Vow.” The plays seem to trend downhill from there, the last, “The Unloved Wife; or, Woman’s Faith,” being just silly. As for “Ion,” Anna writes, “This play was found too uninteresting for presentation, and was left unfinished, but is here given as a specimen of what the young authors considered very fine writing.” All of the plays feature dialogue of a very high style, i.e., King James/Shakespearean thees and thous and thuses and inversions. This, together with their total implausibility, makes them quite risible, and it may well be that they were not meant to be taken seriously.
Obviously, at this remove even Anna did not take them seriously, but they do give the reader a sense of the type of melodrama that was popular in the mid-nineteenth century. All are set in exotic locales, and it has been noted that after LMA had the opportunity to actually travel to some of these settings, she no longer used them for any of her writing.
Alcott uses the idea of “a dozen young people” (evidently cousins), gathered at the home of their grandparents (Joel Manlius Shirley and the former Elizabeth Rachel Morgan) for Christmas and housebound, at least at first, by a blizzard, to collect an assortment of stories no doubt previously published in periodicals (the collection was published in 1884). Of special interest is “Eli’s Education,” which is generally regarded by Alcott scholars as a fictionalized account of the childhood and education of Bronson Alcott. Some of the stories dip back into pre-Revolutionary times (“Tabby’s Tablecloth”), and all offer a moral of some sort. I enjoyed them all, even though (and sometimes because) they were very old-fashioned.
I’m still reading this one, another collection of stories, published in 1876. The title story has a temperance moral that would doubtless have received the WCTU stamp of approval. Indeed, I learn from Carol Mattingly’s Well-Tempered Women: Nineteenth-Century Temperance Rhetoric that Alcott served as president of the Concord chapter of the WCTU in 1883. As Mattingly notes, Alcott “makes reference to temperance in nearly all her novels.” Mattingly refers to “Silver Pitchers” as a “specifically temperance story” and summarizes the plot.
All of the above works are available free for Kindle and can also be read online (in very attractive HTML layout, with illustrations) here. For other presentations, see the University of Pennsylvania’s Online Books Page or the Literature Network.
Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, by Simon Garfield. If you’re a fontaholic, you’ll love this book. It’s a quick read but full of useful information. Though I whipped through it in less than 24 hours, I will no doubt refer to it often. It is not available for Kindle, with good reason: in addition to numerous illustrations, which could be represented by graphics, the author uses numerous fonts in the body of the text, and Kindle would not be able to handle them.
A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil McGregor. McGregor is the director of the British Museum, and the book is based on a series of BBC Radio 4 radio programs broadcast in 2010. “The rules of the game,” McGregor writes in his preface, “were simple. Colleagues from the Museum and the BBC would choose from the collection of the British Museum 100 objects that had to range in date from the beginning of human history around two million years ago and come right up to the present day. The objects had to cover the whole world, as far as possible equally. They would try to address as many aspects of human experience as proved practicable, and to tell us about whole societies, not just the rich and powerful within them. The objects would therefore necessarily include the humble things of everyday life as well as great works of art.” I’m still reading this, but on the basis of the 20% of it that I’ve read, I highly recommend it. It is a ponderous tome (3 lbs. 4.8 oz.), not at all comfortable to hold, making it a strong candidate for Kindle reading. Although its lovely color illustrations make it not so suitable for a B&W Kindle, a friend who has just bought a Kindle Fire says that the illustrations are glorious on it.
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize. If you watched The Tudors, you will get a very different slant on the Thomases (Wolsey, Cromwell, More, Boleyn, Howard, Wyatt, Cranmer) from this novel, especially Thomas Cromwell, who is the central figure. I’ve read only a small fraction of it, but I’m enjoying it very much so far.