Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Book Club: Work

Louisa May Alcott was not a great writer.

There, I said it.

Young girls have been swooning over Little Women for years, but there's a reason Alcott doesn't show up in college-level Women in Lit. or Intro. to Lit. classes.

She violates that number-one rule of good writing: Show. Don't tell.

Alcott is all tell.

The book club just finished reading Alcott's Work, and the author herself confessed it wasn't a terribly successful novel. Published in 1873 and set from the 1830s to the 1870s, Work is a didactic novel that follows the working life of a young woman, Christie Devon.

Still, I'm glad I read it and towards the end got almost engaged in it. In the spirit of a book club, and because I'm not crazy about the novel, I'm going to discuss it randomly, with dots. There may be spoilers.
  • Sprinkled throughout the novel are references to lots of popular artists (Turner) and literature (The Abbot, Jane Eyre) of the day. It's possible to use the novel to get a sense of what the average person would be reading and what the affected person would aspire to enjoy.
  • I learned a new word: "Fleshings," which were flesh-colored tights. A few years ago, I saw a Civil War theatrical in which a woman appeared in a flesh-colored body suit. I was never entirely convinced of the accuracy of of such a thing, but Christie appears on stage in a "Red tunic, tiger-skin over shoulder, helmet, shield, lance, fleshings, sandals, hair down, and as much cork to your eyebrows as you like" (36).
  • I think there's a reference to something like shape-note singing: "Then everybody did sing; not harmoniously, but heartily, led by an organ, which the voices followed at their own sweet will. At first, Christie wanted to smile, for some shouted and some hummed, some sat silent, and others sung sweetly; but before the hymn ended she liked it, and thought that the natural praise of each individual soul was perhaps more grateful to the ear of God than masses by great masters, or psalms warbled tunefully by hired opera singers" (206) (See what I mean about telling, not showing?)
  • Christie never attends, but there's several references to people getting ready for a German. My edition (1977) wasn't footnoted, but I know they're talking about dancing (228, 230, 233, 234)
  • I ran across one of my favorite lost phrases: "Ef she loves the man, take him: ef she don't, give him the mittin and done with it" (326). To give a man the mitten means to break up with him.
And now for the needlework bits:
  • As Christie leaves the farm and sets out to make her own way in the world, her Aunt Betsey asks "How are you on't for stockin's, dear?" and commences to knitting a pair (6).
  • Some of the actresses in Christie's troop seem to crochet: "Damsels of unparalleled beauty, according to the text, gaped in the faces of adoring lovers, and crocheted serenely on the brink of annihilation" (40).
  • As Christie works as a governess, one of the old ladies at the resort "spun endless webs of gay silk and wool."Miss Tudor is characterized by "her mild twaddle and eternal knitting" (74).
  • Several people knit their brows. Just kidding--but if you ever do a google book search for knitting, you'll find lots of distracting references to brow knitting.
  • As Christie packs charity packages at her church, she packs "four knit hoods" (340).
  • The Quaker lady with whom Christie finds refuge, Mrs. Sterling, uses a knitting-sheath (240).
  • Christie has worn herself into a nervous breakdown with sewing piecework, but is not much of a knitter. In fact, Mrs. Sterling offers to "set up a sock" for Christie, who decides to darn instead (241). The offer is presumably to cast-on and join for working in the round, making it easier on a novice knitter to make a sock.
  • The Sterling home is a haven to Christie and she enjoys sitting by the fire "while the old lady knit swiftly, and David read aloud" (241); "the busy needles never stopped their click, and the sonorous voice read on without a pause" (243).
  • On Christie's birthday, Mrs. Sterling presents her with "what looked very like a pile of snow-flakes in her arms" (257). It's a "light wrap" or "fleecy shawl" that the old woman has knitted as a birthday gift (258).
  • Later, during Christie's pregnancy, Mrs. Sterling knits "delicate little shirts . . . in spite of failing eyesight" (409).
And finally:
  • SPOILER: Because I am a geek and read the introduction before beginning, I knew Christie was going to have a daughter. I spent a shameful amount of time near the end trying to figure out exactly when she was going to manage to have sex with her husband, considering they married mere hours before he mustered out to fight in the Civil War.


Rachel said...

You just gave me the BEST idea.

passementarie said...

I to wondered when the heck they had time to have sex. Though not a great book, I did really enjoy it. I think it gives some good insite into 19th century daily life.

7-letter Deborah, never a Deb said...

I'm glad I read it. I just kept thinking it could be so much better if it weren't so didactic. What's the next book?

passementarie said...

yeah know what you mean. We were talking how it would be so much better if she actualy went into the details of the jobs she did and left out some of the searching for God stuff. The next book is A Modern Instance by William Dean Howells

passementarie said...

Ok some members of the book club are big wusses and think they need a break from our "chalenging" books. So we are skiping A Modern Instance and are moving to Hester for November.

7-letter Deborah, never a Deb said...

I actually read AMI back in '91 for a class, but I think I've purged my copy. It's certainly not much in my memory. What is Hester?