Sunday, July 13, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 235: Louisa May Alcott, How I Went Out to Service (#235)

Louisa May Alcott, "How I Went Out to Service" (1874) from Louisa May Alcott: Work, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Stories & Other Writings:

Louisa May Alcott is such an interesting person and writer. While we remember her today mostly for Little Women--and we remember Little Women primarily as a sentimental family story with some semi-typical romantic plots--she wrote a lot of other stuff, not all of which hits these sentimental notes.

(And really, is Little Women really unalloyed sentimentality? There's a lot of strangeness and darkness in that book. Though possibly nothing as weird/dark as her book Moods, from which I love to quote this climactic moment between two romantic rivals on a sinking ship (iirc): "In the black night with only Heaven to see them the men kissed tenderly as women, then hand in hand sprang out into the sea.")

"How I Went Out to Service" is much more in line with that dark and comic Alcott than the sentimental Alcott. It tells the story of how she, in real life, went out to "service" for a small and aging family: old father, nervous sister, reverend brother, and aged servant. That is, she was hired for light housework and to be a companion to the unwell sister of the house and to be one of the family. But it turns out that the situation is worse than that, since the reverend brother is a passive aggressive tyrant (who also, though its not explicit here, made the situation uncomfortable sexually).

Which is all pretty grim and uncomfortable; and though Alcott winds up the story with a silver lining (I learned a lot) and a moral (be nice to people), most of the story has that grimly comic and ridiculous tone, as the villainous reverend talks about how spiritual he is and then orders some heavy food in the same note. In some ways, his horribleness is the central idea here, and we only get a bit about how Alcott responded to it.

And one reason why I love Alcott is because she doesn't always hide the parts of herself that might seem less angelic or wonderful--the usual marks of 19th-century femininity. For instance, when she wants to leave this bad post, her mom
... advised me to be patient, to do the generous thing, and be sure I should not regret it in the end. I groaned, submitted, and did regret it all the days of my life.
Where most writers of the time might want to put a nice (Christian) gloss of working hard now and feeling better after, Louisa May Alcott the writer doesn't give in to the romantic and novelistic and sentimental ideas--the same ones that led Louisa May Alcott the young worker into this bad situation to begin with.

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