Saturday, June 19, 2010

Toshiba, Comments, & Alcott


So, I haven't been on the computer as much as I normally am lately, partly because it's summer and I've been spending most of my time outside, but also partly because I don't have a laptop at the moment. Well, I do have one, and it's a lovely machine called Henry that's functioned perfectly for more than 4 years now, but its particular type of power cord is known for sudden and irreversible failure after the first couple years. The new cord I bought in January stopped working last week and is on its way to Toshiba now to be replaced, but until the new one comes I'm relying on the library for internet access. Incidentally, this library is severely over-air-conditioned, which means this will probably be a short entry as I want to get outside into the warm.


We've been picking up spam comments on the blog, which I will soon figure out how to delete entirely (they're nothing but links to virus-laden websites), but I wanted to share their opening lines with you, dear readers, because they are oh-so-philosophical. So far, we have: "Constant dripping wears away the stone." "Variety is the very spice of life." (Not just the spice of life, my friends, but the "very" spice of life!) And, my particular favorite, "Make yourself necessary to someone."


Full disclosure: I do not like Little Women. I don't like its simplistic prose, easy morality, or pollyanna approach to war and poverty. Not a bad 19th century children's book, I suppose, but I really don't see what made it one of those classics we're all supposed to think of with warm affection and appreciation. It sits squarely in the mental box labeled "Not My Thing," along with all Apple products, beer, and early-morning classes.

That's why when I learned that Louisa May Alcott also wrote sensational thrillers, I was a bit surprised. I suspect, though I don't actually remember, that my jaw may have actually dropped. So when I found this at a used book store, I got very excited:

The cover of Louisa May Alcott's A Long Fatal Love Chase, with a young woman's face in blue light against black, tree-like silhouettes. A tagline reads: He stalked her every step--for she had become his obsession.
Check out that cover! The debossed lettering! The dark mysterious image! The tagline & NYT Bestseller banner! You can't see it, but it was blurbed by Stephen King! You wouldn't think that it had first been published more than 100 years ago, would you?

Actually, you'd be right. This novel, despite being written two years before Little Women, was rejected by publishers and didn't see the light of day again until
just a few years ago, when it was revived and (finally) published as Alcott originally wrote it. The publisher's reason for rejecting it was that it was "too sensational," even after Alcott toned it down and resubmitted it. Scandalous!

Or maybe not. Thing is, even a too-hot-for-periodicals story written in 1866 depends a lot for its shock value on 1866's common knowledge and common social conventions*. When it's revealed that a marriage was performed by an actor rather than by a real minister, it doesn't have the same impact on a reader in 2010 as it would have had on Alcott's publishers. Likewise, it's probably harder for a reader today to understand the profound trauma the protagonist experiences when she finds out, and her subsequent dilemmas may not seem like "that big a deal" if you're not familiar with the severely limited prospects available to her.

That doesn't make it less fun to read, though. Seriously, this is a terrifically exciting little novel made that much better by a strong, independent female lead with a complex interior life and a strikingly accurate portrait of an emotionally abusive relationship that never bothers with the "stalking is okay, 'cause he's showing how much he loves her" treatment that contemporary lit & movies traffic in way too often.**

And if that doesn't get you, how about secret wives, murder, asylums, convents, sexy priests, corrupt priests, international intrigue, and shipwreck? Yeah, it's pretty great.

Which is why it's sad that Alcott had to switch to the sentimental morality tale to make money, because that's how we get stuck with things like Little Women. March, a 2006 novel by Geraldine Brooks that revisits Little Women and re-imagines it from the perspective of Mr. March, who spends the year during which the book takes place away as a chaplain in the Civil War.

This is a book that could almost make me appreciate LW by giving some substance and context to its events and characters. By filling in a backstory for Mr. March and Marmee, Brooks takes the flat figures of Alcott's novel and giving them depth, showing them struggle with each other and with social expectations, react to slavery and the war, and grow and change as people. She also situates their intellectual life in the context of people like Henry David Thoreau and John Brown, who both make appearances.

I don't know how differently I would have read March if I wasn't familiar with LW. I think it does stand alone, that is, you don't have to be familiar with Alcott to understand it.*** I probably wouldn't have liked it less-it was a very rewarding read, compelling and occasionally poetic-but I might have appreciated it less. Reading it in contrast with LW highlights how much Mr. March may have hid from his family, how much real suffering coincided with the sort-of-suffering the girls experienced in LW. It gave me a sense of the world beyond the March home that I think would improve LW for me if I read it again (no plans to, though).

*This is a time when pregnancy in a novel is revealed by things like a character's "increasingly womanly bearing" or the sudden appearance of a baby, and hand-holding is supposed to register as kinda sorta steamy, depending on who's doing the holding.

**I'm looking at you, Twilight.

***As opposed to something like Wide Sargasso Sea, which gives a backstory to Jane Eyre's Bertha Mason. I think WSS really loses something when read apart from JE, because it calls attention to the silencing of Bertha in Bronte's novel and the appropriation of her story into a plot twist in someone else's. But I read JE many times before I read WSS, so I could be totally wrong there.