I'd never heard of this book until I bought it at a second hand shop recently. That's why I'm choosing it as a book by a favourite author I've never read in this year's Back to the Classics Challenge. It seems that in a sober mood, Louisa May Alcott decided to write this story for adult readers rather than children and youth, which I took as a clue that I should prepare myself for plenty of frank, reflective passages.
Basically, we get a glimpse into the job seeking maze of the nineteenth century.
It's about a young woman named Christie Devon, who was an orphan living with her mother's brother. She suspects that Uncle Enos isn't thrilled about having her there and decides to strike out on her own to find work. Christie feels sensitive about wearing out her welcome and also sees only 'bad marriage, sour spinsterhood or suicide' before her if she stays. That's a pretty bleak attitude for a 21-year-old, but gives her a sort of gloomy optimism that however she fares in the wider world could be no worse than staying. This poor girl is knocked around by the world at large, but something about her quiet, steady and modest soul reminds me of Jane Eyre.
The first several chapters are named after different occupations, as Christie tries her hand at each of them and feels compelled to move on, for a series of legitimate reasons. (Servant, Actress, Governess, Companion, Seamstress, and so on.) The format reminds me a bit of those feel-good tales where young heroes try many alternatives before returning to where they started, convinced now it was the best. However, this is anything but that! Retreating home is not an option here, as Christie has burnt her bridges where Uncle Enos is concerned. She'll never go back.
There is a romantic thread, in the form of two contenders for her heart. First is Philip Fletcher, the brother of one of her employers, whose sole aim is to be a dilettante and kill time. That is, until he's inspired by Christie's fine nature. The second is David Sterling, the son of another employer, who is nursing some mysterious heartache of his own and devotes himself to his floristry business and a quiet life. (This guy may or may not have similarities to Alcott's family friend, Henry David Thoreau, but maybe it's just the name.)
This tale has a desperate, raw quality which never makes it into Alcott's juvenile fiction. Christie's world sometimes seems shrouded in darkness and the heavens seem like iron. 'What have I ever done to be so desolate and miserable, never to find any happiness however hard I try to do what seems my duty?' She even contemplates suicide and has to be drawn back from the brink. The old-timers from the nineteenth century surely knew about hardship, struggle and grief, so I read it with a sense that it behooves us to listen to them. There's always a feeling that when Alcott writes Christie back to mental and physical health, we'd do well to latch onto any solution she suggests.
And there are plenty to choose from. I found myself copying several quotes, but for the sake of staying fairly brief, I'll just give one of my favourites. It's this exchange between Christie and David.
Christie: You said you'd learned to feign happiness. I wish you would tell me how you do it, for it is such an excellent imitation, I shall be quite content with it til I can learn the genuine thing.
David: I did not love my work, but it was good for me and helped cure my sick soul. I never guessed why I felt better but dug on with indifference at first, then felt pride in my garden, then interest in the plants I tended, and by and by I saw what they had done for me and loved them like true friends. If I keep tugging, I may yet be the cheerful, contented man I seem.
Yeah, I dig that. David Sterling predates the maxim, 'Fake it til you make it,' but he sure enters into the spirit of it.
It's a very simple, yet profound story that stays in your mind. Sometimes it's pretty shocking, such as when the Civil War rocks the nation, and Christie's pious mentor Mrs Wilkins pays out her poor husband for hesitating to enlist and put himself in the firing line. She tells their 10-year-old son, 'I wish I could add ten years to your age and send you off to fight for your country like a man!' and then nags the dad until he caves in. I have to assume this sort of blind, fanatical fervour is Louisa's own, and it leaves a sour taste in my mouth. But she was an author who sure could pick up a pen for a cause.
I'll finish with another convicting speech, this time from Christie's friend Rachel, an ex-prostitute who faces a group of judgmental fellow seamstresses, who used to be her friends and now wish to fling her out on her ear.
'It's no use for such as me to try. Better go back to the old life, for there are kinder hearts among the sinners than the saints and no one can live without a bit of love. Your piety isn't worth much, for though you read in your Bible how the Lord treated a poor soul like me, yet when I stretch out my hand to you for help, not one of all you virtuous Christian women dare take it and keep me from a life that's worse than hell.'
Bravo! On the whole, this book is definitely no barrel of fun. But it's one I'll still recommend. And might even dip into again down the track.