Thursday, July 26, 2012
The Classics Club: An Old-Fashioned Girl
~An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott
I first tried reading An Old-Fashioned Girl when I was ten and had run out of things to read. I think I got about halfway through the first chapter before I tossed the book down in disgust.
I don't know what I was thinking.
When I picked up AOFG again, I must have been about twelve. This time, the story came alive for me. Polly, Fanny, Tom, Maud, Grandma Shaw, Will, Mr. Sydney all seemed so tremendously real, even more so than the March sisters in Little Women (sacrilege, I know). Since then, I've read AOFG a good half-dozen times, and this most recent re-read was the best yet.
Polly Milton, the protagonist, is one of those overlooked literary heroines. She's sweet without being sloggy, funny without being over-the-top, old-fashioned and charming but not prudish, pleasant and likable but not without her faults... in short, she's the kind of girl everyone would want for a friend, and I don't know why she isn't more well-known in the bookish world. When the story begins, she's fourteen, but the book skips ahead six years about halfway through, and for the rest of the story she's twenty. I liked her in the beginning, of course, but I liked her even better in the second half of the book. I'm not quite sure why, but she just seemed more real somehow.
For those of you who don't know the story, Polly is a country girl who comes to stay with her friend Fanny Shaw in the city, and during her stay she's exposed to a lot of unfamiliar things in a much faster-paced world (it's the 1870's, mind) than what she's been accustomed to. She embarrasses Fanny at times with her lack of airs and graces, but by the time she goes home again, the girls are closer friends than before and the entire Shaw family (including Fanny's incorrigible brother Tom and spoiled sister Maud) is (are) sad to see Polly go. (I know "family" is a singular word, but I always want to put "are" instead of "is," especially when I'm specifying people in parentheses... anyways.)
Then the narrative takes a six-year leap and suddenly Polly's back in the city again, this time to earn her own living as a music teacher. Fanny's an unhappy young society woman, Tom is a college dandy and Maud an attention-hungry schoolgirl. And this time a little bit of romance starts to creep into the story, and refreshingly enough it doesn't quite look like there's going to be a happily ever after until the very last chapter (in which there IS a happily ever after--yes, I know I just spoiled that, you're welcome.)
Fanny always annoyed me a bit when I read the book in previous years. She struck me as a silly little snip who didn't appreciate what a good friend she had, and even after Polly's good influence didn't seem to change much for the better. But when I re-read AOFG a few weeks ago, I saw Fanny in a different light-- maybe it was the fact that I hadn't read the book in over a year, or maybe it's that I'm getting older and more mature (now wouldn't THAT be nice) or maybe it's that I just missed stuff the first few times. But at any rate, I found myself liking and pitying Fanny more than ever before, and truly rooting for her to have a happy ending. (Yes, of course I knew how the story turned out, but there's still that feeling of suspense, you know?)
"Do go along, or you'll be too late; and then, what will Polly think of me?" cried Fanny, with the impatient poke which is peculiarly aggravating to masculine dignity.
"She'll think you cared more about your frizzles than your friends, and she'll be about right, too," [said Tom.]
Tom is one of my favorite characters in the story. At fourteen he's funny, mischievous, prank-playing, a good sport and a bit annoying at times but well-meaning. At twenty, he's suddenly become a bad student, far too attentive to his appearance (and not in a Sir Percy way--Tom is just annoying) and, horror of horrors, engaged to a girl with the loathsome name of Trix. (What were her parents thinking? I bet they worked for General Mills. Yes, that must be it.) Yet he still has a good heart underneath, and though he gets into trouble even more as a young adult than as a teenager, you can't help liking him. At least, I couldn't.
Maud was simply hilarious when she was a spoiled-brat six-year-old, and quite likable and cute at twelve. She seemed to be much more of a real person in the second half of the book, but I was always amused at her lisping whines in the first part.
...and a little girl, of six or seven, came roaring in. She stopped at sight of Polly, stared a minute, then took up her roar just where she left it, and cast herself into Fanny's lap, exclaiming wrathfully, "Tom's laughing at me! Make him stop!"
"What did you do to set him going? Don't scream so, you'll frighten Polly!" and Fan gave the cherub a shake, which produced an explanation.
"I only said we had cold cweam at the party, last night, and he laughed!"
"Ice-cream, child!" and Fanny followed Tom's reprehensible example.
"I don't care! it was cold; and I warmed mine at the wegister, and then it was nice; only, Willy Bliss spilt it on my new Gabwielle!" and Maud wailed again over her accumulated woes.
One thing that particularly stands out to me in AOFG is the simplicity of the dialogue. The way the characters speak is so very real--there are a few times in Little Women and, yes, even Eight Cousins where the conversations come across as rather stilted and unnatural. Not so in AOFG (though AOFG might seem more likely to have saccharine dialogue--the title itself, you'll have to admit, sounds rather hopelessly Victorian and rosy and cutesy). Now, of course, Little Women was scribbled out over a period of six weeks without much wiggle room for editing, so it's only natural that some parts of it should be not quite on par with the rest, but AOFG is still my favorite as regards the dialogue. As Alice says, a book is no good if it has no pictures or conversations, and though I don't quite agree about the pictures (sounds too much like Gaston...) I have to agree that a book with dry conversation is apt to be a dry read on the whole. And AOFG is jam-packed with interesting conversation, the kind that makes you really want to find out what happens on the next page.
"Don't do that again, chicken, or you'll blow me away. What's the matter?" asked Tom, throwing down his book with a yawn that threatened dislocation.
"I'm afraid I can't go to Polly's," answered Maud, disconsolately.
"Of course you can't; it's snowing hard, and father won't be home with the carriage till this evening. What are you always cutting off to Polly's for?"
"I like it; we have such nice times, and Will is there, and we bake little johnny-cakes in the baker before the fire, and they sing, and it is so pleasant."
"Warbling johnny-cakes must be interesting. Come and tell me all about it."
"No, you'll only laugh at me."
"I give you my word I won't, if I can help it; but I really am dying of curiosity to know what you do down there. You like to hear secrets, so tell me yours, and I'll be as dumb as an oyster."
And now I'm going to be mean and say that if you, too, are dying of curiosity to know what Maud and Will and Polly "do down there," you'll have to read the book and find out for yourself, because I'm not going to tell you. Horrid of me, I know.
My rating-- nine out of ten stars. I'm hesitant to give it ten out of ten, simply because that would mean it's absolutely perfect, and I wouldn't say it's quite perfect. It has one major shortcoming, and that is that it's simply not long enough and there's no sequel.
Oh, well, never mind-- no sequel means I get to make up the post-ending myself, and that's always fun.