REVIEW: Louisa May Alcott – Jack and Jill / An Old-Fashioned Girl

(Project Gutenberg e-books, originally published 1880 / 1870)

I read these two books back in 2011, having downloaded them for the holidays. I’d read An Old-Fashioned Girl once before as a teenager, if I recall correctly, but hadn’t read Jack and Jill before. I do enjoy Alcott’s ‘March family’ books, and hadn’t remembered her writing being quite so preachy.

Jack and Jill (1880) is set in a small town in New England, and details the life and struggles of a group of young people, the main characters being Jack Minot and Jane Pecq (usually known as Jill). One winter the children all go coasting in the meadow, but Jill’s insistence on doing a particular ‘run’ leads to an accident for her and Jack: Jack breaks his leg but Jill is bedridden for some time due to injuring her back. It’s overtly moralistic, with Jane learning patience and good behaviour in a Katy Carr kind of way, with Mrs Minot acting as an able-bodied Cousin Helen.

There’s also interludes with some of the other children, who have their own struggles with life – Merry, for example, who loves beauty and nature, but whose family are hard-working farmers who have little time or patience for prettifying things; or Jack’s elder brother Frank’s obsession with steam engines which nearly causes a serious accident. Or Molly Loo, who has to become mother to her younger brother in the face of indifference and neglect from her father – too busy – and housekeeper Miss Bat.

Like Little Women, in which Jo is turned from a tomboy to a young woman in adversity, so Jill is squeezed into the acceptable mould of young womanhood by her accident and Mrs Minot’s take on life (which includes the importance of not doing too many lessons, doing healthy chores, and limiting ambition). One of the things which particularly annoyed me about this book was the way Mrs Pecq, Jill’s mother, is edged out of the picture during her daughter’s convalescence. Although Mrs Minot takes Jill into her own house out of kindness, and Mrs Pecq is grateful for care that she could not afford herself, it still struck me as wrong that the love and care which Jill’s mother evidently feels for her daughter seems to be replaced by the kindness and care Mrs Minot gives to an adopted daughter, whilst also employing the mother as a housekeeper. There’s no indication how Mrs Pecq really feels about this, though she appears grateful for a steady job and Jill’s care, or even any indication in the narrative that it’s anything but a good thing for everyone.

Altogether it struck me as far more reactionary and anti-feminist than Alcott’s other books; Mrs Minot’s disdain for schooling, towards the end of the book, also comes as quite a shock to this reader (though to be fair, she’s proposing it both for her two boys and Jill), and it’s implied strongly that Frank’s hard studying and college ambitions are too extreme.

An Old-Fashioned Girl (1870) isn’t nearly so bad, and there’s entertaining contrasts between the life of the wealthy Shaws in Boston and the poor Miltons, embodied in Polly Milton’s visit to stay with Fanny Shaw in their city home, and then, six years later, in their different reactions to hardships. There’s a summary on Wikipedia, but beware of spoilers.

Alcott was obviously concerned, in this earlier novel, about the unhealthy attitudes of young people towards love and admirers, with even young Maud (who’s six or seven at the start of the book) and her set requiring a ‘beau’, and the loveless betrothal of Tom (Fanny’s brother) and Trix. It touches a chord with our modern concerns at the increasing sexualisation of young people, particularly girls. Alcott portrays the destructively gossipy side of girls in a pack very well, as well as the effort of will it takes to stand out from the crowd to do what is right.

Also a concern is that wealth – unearned wealth, in particular – is very bad for people, leading to selfishness, extravagance and breaking down affectionate bonds between brothers and sisters and children and parents. Polly’s ‘old-fashioned’ ways point this distance, though it’s clear that Mrs Shaw is not a good influence on her children as Polly’s mother is on hers. Alcott is also concerned with practical philanthropy, and shows how Miss Mills, with whom Polly later boards, and the rich Davenports support the poor and working classes (especially women) in their different ways. Polly’s an appealing heroine, since she’s not merely a ‘good’ girl, and does struggle with envy of the things the Shaws’ riches bring Fanny, such as her clothes and dances, and she is sometimes discontented with her lot. Still, when she has the chance to make a good marriage, she doesn’t take it, even though she likes the man.

Oh, and I find funny the idea Alcott seems to have that a young man’s maturity is signalled by him growing a beard (it happens to Tom, and to Mac in Rose in Bloom, and to Laurie in Little Women, if I recall correctly). There’s evidently more to life than shaving, gentlemen.

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4 Responses to REVIEW: Louisa May Alcott – Jack and Jill / An Old-Fashioned Girl

  1. Jenny says:

    I know there are problematic aspects of Jack and Jill, but it still is one of my favorite Alcott books. I love all the things they get to do when they’re sick. And how they rig up the telegraph thing. And how they have such a lovely Christmas.

    Meanwhile, I had never noticed that about growing a beard but you are SO RIGHT. Huh. Weird.

    • Ela says:

      I certainly didn’t fling the book from me in disgust, and there was lots to enjoy in it, but I did feel rather… manipulated at the end of it.

  2. Kellen says:

    Well, given what Alcott reportedly said of her books, she no doubt would have agreed with your assessment. But as she was writing for a living, I don’t blame her for writing what she knew would sell. I’ve always wondered what she could have produced if she’d written something simply for herself.

    • Ela says:

      That’s certainly true, and I wouldn’t blame her at all for that, particularly since the public at the time might not have accepted a novel not focussing on children or girls from her – or any woman. She could certainly create interesting and memorable characters, and I’ve enjoyed most of her books – it’s just that ‘Jack and Jill’ struck me as more overtly moralistic than many of her other books. And I’m sure I’m reading it with a 21st century viewpoint, too, which would have been entirely strange to her and her readers.

      Many thanks for your comment!

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