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Reappraising the Little Princesses - why Burnett and Alcott still matter in the 21st century


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Many of us develop our love of reading as a child. From bedtime stories to carpet time at school, those precious books often take on a formative role in our lives, teaching us knowledge and skills, as well as morals and values.

Women of Little Women

This was only more the case in the past. Fairy tales were often designed as warnings for children not to wander into the forest, whilst to succeed in the strict Victorian age, stories needed to affirm what girls needed to be; in short, pure, good, well-behaved and passive.

Enter one Frances Hodgson Burnett and one Louisa May Alcott, two writers who share a month of birth as well as a particular style. Their tales for girls are much-loved classics, featuring sisters and orphans, boarding schools and boarding houses. If you want to have a good cry but finish smiling, you could do a lot worse than Little Women or A Little Princess.

Yet these archetypes of the genre have become increasingly problematic as time has gone by. In a world where women strive for equality, determined to prove that anything men can do women can do better, any association with the ‘little’ characters of these novels may well do us more harm than good. These princesses and women live decidedly old-fashioned lives, cheerily accepting their lots with apparently little struggle. Feminists rightly beware such literature.

And yet it seems time for a reappraisal of what Burnett and Alcott were doing. Separated by an ocean and almost twenty years, the similarities in their texts are striking, and not entirely negative. Scratch below the surface and their novels provide many positive role models, for men and women alike, often supporting the feminist cause far more than they undermine it.

Take A Little Princess for example. Here, Sara Crewe, the pampered only daughter of a wealthy man, finds herself suddenly destitute upon his death and forced to work in the exclusive boarding school she once attended. Banished to the attic like an Edwardian Cinderella, she has a good cry – and then she picks herself up and gets on with it.

Never bemoaning her lot, Sara takes to her new life with gusto, never losing her sense of self, believing that she can be a princess whether she is rich or poor, as long as she is good and kind. Her popularity with her fellow students barely diminishes despite her reduced circumstances, showing how good deeds, resilience and a huge imagination can overcome the worst of circumstances – lessons most women striving for equality know all too well.

Similarly, in Little Women, the March sisters never forget how lucky they are in comparison with others. They give away their Christmas breakfast to the Hummels, a poverty-stricken immigrant family, whilst Beth continues to think of others even as her own life draws to a close. Repeatedly, they are urged to be kind and charitable, and many have seen this as simply another way to enforce the passivity of women.

Yet all the girls get precisely what they most desire: Jo achieves her dream of earning a living through writing and having dozens of boys to romp with in her boarding school, whilst Amy marries well, uses her wealth for good and can continue to paint and sculpt to her heart’s content. And whilst Beth dies, she openly admits she never had a dream or desire to follow: a stark warning indeed for women claiming to be content with their lot.

Time and again, both Burnett and Alcott show us women achieving their dreams. In Jo’s Boys, Nan qualifies as a doctor at a time when few women studied medicine, whilst in The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox finds a garden, if not quite a room, of her own.

And yes, many of those dreams are connected with marriage, from Meg’s long-awaited union with John Brooke to her daughter’s joyful reunion with Nat. Perhaps these happy endings are what so many find anti-feminist or problematic, but I’d argue that it is precisely this which we should celebrate in 2018.

Because are we not supposed to be living in a world where we support each other in making our own choices? Just because Meg’s dream is for a happy family and Amy’s is for wealth doesn’t necessarily make them wrong. Having fought for maternity rights and the right to breastfeed in public, it would be intensely wrong for any feminist to deny a woman the right to prioritise a family life over that of a career. Both Burnett and Alcott present women making choices; choices, perhaps, limited by their context, but choices of their own making nevertheless.

Because true feminism is surely celebrating what makes both men and women special. Theorist Luce Irigaray posited the notion of ‘genres’ rather than genders, urging the need to avoid trying to change these, to avoid equating female success with being more ‘man’. Wanting our little women and princesses to burst out of Miss Minchin’s seminary is to deny them the positive characteristics they have: care, kindness, empathy and imagination. Why must the world be more male? Why can’t it be more female?

There are, after all, much worse role models for young women to follow. They moan and complain and refuse other people’s expectations of them. They easily show up the men around them, proving time and time again how strong women can be without destroying anything. In these princesses and women, Burnett and Alcott provided guides for not only Victorian girls, but girls from all times and ages. It’s time to stop criticising such femininity and embrace it instead.

Image by Kurt Magoon via Flickr and licensed under Creative Commons Licensing:

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