Revisiting it a full fifteen years later not only brings fresh perspective on the situations and characters I once adored, but confirms that this “Young Adult” novel is one for the ages!
Seven Boys and a Girl
Rose Campbell has recently lost her father, and so is forced to move in with her great-aunts on the “Aunt Hill,” where the whole of her large extended family is eager to meet her.
But all seven of her cousins are boys! Oh, what is a poor, sheltered little flower to do?
Worst of all, when her new guardian – her uncle Dr. Alec – shows up, he turns out to be so eccentric that he wants her to run (the un-lady-like horror)…to wear loose-fitting scarves and dresses of bright colors (not the belt that held in her petite waist)…to eat plenty of healthy, wholesome food…to work with her hands…and overall to fill out her small frame, rosy up her cheeks, and draw her out of herself so that she can become the healthy, confident, caring young woman she was meant to be.
Boys and Girls and
One of the things that first struck me on this re-read was the beautiful portrayal of healthy male-female relationships.
When I first read this book, Rose’s 13/14 years was older than my 11/12, but her personality is me to a T. Dreamy, fond of stories, sensitive, earnest, eager-to-please…and yet given to small vanities and selfish notions.
The seven boys, on the other hand, are everything real flesh-and-blood lads are…rowdy, energetic, always acting out adventures (pirates, wars, etc.), prank-ish, loud, macho, and dismissive of what they view as weakness.
They also – horror of old-timey horrors – tumble over themselves to treat Rose like a princess. They dress her up when it’s cold, carry her when she twists her ankle, bring her presents from their frolics, always accompany her home when she’s visiting after dark…in short, all the “toxic masculinity” that makes girls feel like pampered little queens.
True, they tease her for what they see as her weird girlish notions…but she also has remarkable power over them to make them desire virtue and honor.
It’s Rose who gets the two sixteen-year-olds to give up smoking – and to make up after they quarrel. It’s Rose who keeps the lads so busy visiting her that they can’t get into trouble with “bad company.”
It’s boys and girls as they were meant to be…each inspiring the other to be gentlemen and ladies.
They all have their own faults…that’s what proves they’re human. But with the boys pointing out the girl’s silly vanities…and the girl objecting to the boys’ destructive self-indulgence…they can each grow into better men and women.
And that’s the whole point!
Alcott’s Shocking Counter-Culture
Among Dr. Alec’s scandalous notions is that corsets are bad for women’s spines…their dresses should allow them to walk freely and actually keep their necks warm in the winter…that girls can learn physiognomy just as well as the boys…and that good old housekeeping is a much more useful and noble skill than all the painting and music lessons money can buy.
If Ms. Alcott thought the “old-fashioned virtues” were out of fashion in her day, what would she think now?
In our defense, 4H Clubs are teaching girls sewing when their grandmothers didn’t (or couldn’t), and if people weren’t baking a lot of bread during the 2020 quarantine, I don’t know where all the yeast went to.
A major thematic thread in the novel parallels Rose (rich, pampered, orphaned) and Phebe – an orphanage foundling who has just joined the Campbell household as a maid.
While both girls are about the same age, and both have lost their parents, Phebe’s cheerfulness through adversity, hard-working body, and practical sense all inspire Rose.
And just so, Rose’s generosity, compassion for everyone around her, and her eagerness to adopt Phebe as a sister all touch the “lower class” girl.
Thus Ms. Alcott paints a comparison between the girl confidently making her way in the world, and the girl blessed with all the comfort money can buy…who still can’t escape loneliness, sickness, or petty feelings.
A Philosophy for the Ages
Dr. Alec’s scandalous notion is that using your lungs for laughing…your legs for running…your mind for learning and thinking…and your hands for helping others will make you both healthy and happy – and that being happy and healthy are more important than being fashionable or “successful.”
Some Plain, Wholesome Bread Would Do Us Good
There are some, I suppose, who would roll their eyes when one of the aunts longs that her boys could read books—
“in which the English should be good, the morals pure, and the characters such as we can love in spite of the faults that all may have.”
Though it may seem like a thesis for what Ms. Alcott was trying to do in her own work, no one can argue that she didn’t succeed.
Rose has the simple, silly faults that most girls her age would…and her boy cousins are more careless and selfish than they are wicked. All the (main) characters display the kind of “pure morals” that lead to orderly lives, strong relationships, and fulfilling adulthoods.
They are characters that any eleven-year-old like me can strongly resonate with…while inspiring me to be kind, gentle, considerate of others, and all the other things that turn children into mature adults.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have my children read a hundred Eight Cousins than that series about a self-centered, back-stabbing, “wimpy” kid.
Author portrait from Wikipedia.