Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson

When Fanny Van de Grift met Robert Louis Stevenson in the village of Grez in 1876, she was recovering from the death of her youngest son. She was married, but had escaped a husband whose philandering shamed her to Europe with her three children. She and her daughter studied art and drawing, in Paris and also during the summers with Stevenson and his bohemian friends. Stevenson was enjoying a healthy summer after a canoe trip and fell in love with Fanny. She was small, practical and intense. Stevenson courted her with stories, writing: “And so we go, step for step, like a pair of children venturing together into a dark room – with both pleasure and embarrassment.”

Fanny realized she would never be a great artist and became worried about morality: her own reputation and that of her daughter. She returned to America, to her husband. Louis, who could not understand why she left, went on a walking trip in the south of France. Fanny tried to reconcile with Sam, her husband, but he hadn’t changed. Becoming ill, she sent Stevenson a telegram. Without approval from his parents or much money, Stevenson set off for America, traveling steerage and then across country by train. When he arrived in Monterey he was starving and again ill.

Their reunion was rocky, but when Fanny realized how sick Stevenson was, she moved him into her Oakland cottage. He had begun to hemorrhage and they both feared he would die. Stevenson felt she was tying herself to a man who couldn’t take care of her. Nonsense, said Fanny [quoted from Fanny Stevenson: A Romance of Destiny, by Alexandra Lapierre]. “What you like most about me is my weak, morbid side; and you’re the only one who sees it. While you, beneath your fragile appearance, you’re a rock!”

When not deeply sick, Stevenson was wild and silly, always working on stories and other writing for publication. Finally Fanny’s divorce was final. Stevenson and Fanny were married and their financial difficulties eased by an allowance from Stevenson’s father. They stayed in the abandoned shacks of a silver mine near Napa for a summer. Stevenson began telling Fanny’s young son Lloyd a story of pirates and treasure.

The Stevensons returned to Europe, but the weather in Edinburgh did not help Stevenson’s lungs. They went first to Davos, Switzerland, to recuperate and then to the south of France. Fanny continued to nurse Stevenson. His father bought them a house in Bournemouth, where they lived for three years. During this time Stevenson was usually bedridden while furiously writing. When he published The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he was suddenly famous.

After his father died, Stevenson took Fanny, his mother, and Lloyd to America. They hoped to get to Colorado, but Stevenson was too ill. Noting that he always seemed to feel better at sea, they chartered a ship, the Casco, and cruised the South Seas. Fanny herself was usually sea-sick, but she would do anything for Stevenson’s health. He began to feel vigorous and happy.

Told that returning to Scotland would be a death sentence, in 1890 Stevenson and Fanny carved a homestead out of the jungle on a Samoan island, with a large house and a cacao plantation: Vailima. Stevenson asked Fanny’s children and his mother to live with them, feeling that he was gathering his clan together. Fanny and her daughter sewed lavalavas from Scottish tartan cloth for their servants, who were considered part of the family.

In the South Seas, the Stevensons’ sympathies were always with the native peoples, rather than with the missionaries and the white traders. Stevenson visited with Chief Mata’afa whose rebellion resulted in his imprisonment, as well as that of many other chiefs who had participated. This did not divide Fanny and Stevenson, but she did have a kind of breakdown while trying to manage too much at Vailima and losing (she thought) Stevenson’s attention. Their interests had begun to divide. Stevenson turned to Fanny's daughter for help with his books and called Fanny “a peasant.”

Stevenson and Fanny’s daughter took her to Sydney for help. Slowly she recuperated and Stevenson realized how important she was to him. He wrote poetry to her and began a novel with women characters in it, Weir of Hermiston. Suddenly, at the end of 1894, he died of a brain hemorrhage at 44. He was buried at the top of the mountain above Vailima.

Fanny and her children could not afford to keep up the plantation. They sold it and returned to San Francisco where Fanny met a last companion, Ned Field, in a bookshop. Fanny was 55. With Ned she built several houses and published a diary, The Cruise of the Janet Nichol among the South Sea Islands, before her death in 1914.

Everything either Stevenson or Fanny ever wrote seems to have been published. I found Nancy Horan’s fictionalized Under the Wide and Starry Sky moving in its telling of how this courageous couple helped each other. Stevenson wrote of his wife:

Teacher, tender, comrade, wife,
A fellow-farer true through life,
Heart-whole and soul-free
The august father gave to me.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Sister Luke

Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story
The story of Sister Luke, told in Kathryn Hulme’s The Nun’s Story [1956], is one of inner struggle and outer excellence so passionate it leaves the reader reeling. Gabrielle, the daughter of a doctor, becomes postulant to a Catholic order of nursing nuns after accompanying patients to Lourdes. Many of them who she believes are dying do not. Their happiness and faith are the real cure.

Gabrielle’s father opposes her entry into the convent, but he has also opposed her marrying Jean because Jean’s mother died insane. Given the religious name Sister Luke, Gabrielle is gradually introduced to the community which runs hospitals and schools, as postulant, then novice, and finally a professed nun. She is awed by the Rule of obedience, learning to drop what she is doing whenever the bell sounds to wake up, to go to chapel, to the refectory and to bed, all done in the company of her sisters. Under the watchful eye of the older nuns and the Mother Superior, she learns to examine her conscience, note her faults and take the punishments meted out.

“One by one the lights in the chapel would be extinguished until there were left only the vigil light at the altar and the shaded lamp that illuminated the statue of the Virgin Mary. When everything else was dark the nuns began to sing. … The awesome antiphon swelled in the dark and expanded it.” This moment, for Gabrielle, made possible the next day.

Eventually Sister Luke is assigned to study at the school of tropical medicines. She longs to go to the Congo, where the Belgians have missions. She is extremely good at recognizing under the microscope the bacterium and viruses that cause various diseases. Other nuns accuse her of pride. Her Mother Superior asks whether she would be able to fail her examinations to show humility. Sister Luke asks “How can I know He would want this from me?” She is told to ask Him. Sister Luke’s whole being rocks with this inner disturbance, but she is not able to fail.

When she is sent to a hospital for the insane instead of the Congo, Sister Luke wonders why. The experience is made memorable by certain violent patients and relationships with her sisters. At last she is posted to the Congo in 1932. On shipboard, she and another sister carry out the requirements of their Rule alongside the very lively life of the world.

The Congo is unlike anything Sister Luke expected. She is soon the nurse requested by Dr. Fortunati for his early morning surgeries (due to heat). He is seen as a genius, but difficult. Her Mother Superior worries that Sister Luke is neglecting her spiritual life, the nurse carrying away the nun. She manages to save a man’s leg when the doctor is not available. And she organizes her black assistants, training them so they become trusted helpers.

At one point Sister Luke gets dysentery and is so sick she is given last rites. She recovers, however, knowing her preparation for death, for which she is congratulated, was a sham. “You are not a nun yet,” she tells herself. She is desperate to learn humility. Going back to her double shifts, she also gets tuberculosis. Most nuns who get it are sent back to Europe, but the doctor arranges a cure, a three-month stay in a second floor aerie where she can rest, eat and become a child again. She learns to live from day to day, finding briefly that she understands what grace is like. She recovers and goes back to her intense schedule. Dr. Fortunati tells her, however, “You are a worldly nun – never will you be what your convent wants.”

Sister Luke is sent back to Belgium in 1939. She works in a tuberculosis hospital as war begins. When she sees Nazi storm troopers dropping out of the sky, she realizes she has hated the Germans since World War I, when they humiliated her beloved father. She also learns of his death assisting refugees as they are strafed by German planes. She begins to assist the lay nurses who are involved in resisting the Nazis, hiding people and deflecting German officers. She realizes she will never make a nun with hatred in her heart. She begins the painful process of leaving the order, certain that “God hates a hypocrite.”

As with many great stories, Sister Luke is based on a real person who became Kathryn Hulme’s dearest friend and partner. Marie Louise Habets was a Belgian nurse who worked with Hulme for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in Germany at Wildflecken, Germany after the war. Hulme has written several books about this work. At first Hulme has no knowledge of Habets’ background as a nun and is surprised Habets is so happy to find work in the UNRRA. She writes in Undiscovered Country [1966]: “Since I knew what a superb nurse she was and how her services would have been welcomed anywhere in her homeland, her remark made no sense to me. But neither, for that matter, did her extraordinary smooth countenance on which life had left no trace of all the suffering she had seen.”

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Treya Killam Wilber

Treya Wilber met her husband Ken in 1983 when she was 36. She had never considered marrying anyone before, and neither had he. They were each quickly sure they had found their spiritual partner. Just before their wedding, a doctor found a lump in Treya’s breast. They spent their honeymoon in the hospital, having it removed.

Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of Treya Killam Wilber [1991] tells the story of the years in which Treya and Ken fought the aggressive, metastasizing cancer which kept recurring. The emotional toll the disease took from both their lives is documented in the book, which includes much of Treya’s personal journals and Ken’s commentary. Treya’s journey, the integrity and courage with she lived, continues to inspire. A few months before she died, her body riddled with tumors, her head covered by a pink scarf, she spoke at a conference. You can see the video of the speech here.

Treya was born Terry Killam in 1946 in south Texas. She writes that she was a high achiever, but constantly retreating to her room to read. She got an M.A. in English, but then veered off toward environmental causes, teaching and skiing in Colorado. She spent three years at Findhorn, a spiritual community in Scotland, leaving to help found a similar foundation in Colorado: Windstar, outside of Aspen. She went back to school at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, studying psychology and East/West philosophies. Friends introduced her to Ken Wilber, a writer and theorist in the new field of transpersonal psychology.

Once married, Treya and Ken bought a house in Incline Village, but there, their partnership fell apart. Ken had given up his own work to support Treya and became ill with a mysterious disease. Though intensively investigating and practicing alternative and holistic treatments, Trey had a recurrence of tumors, chemotherapy and then diabetes. Living between the hope of being cured and having a child, and the brutal recurrences of cancer, they both broke down.

The Wilbers moved back to the Bay Area, and then to Boulder, where Treya was able to have nine months without recurrences. Her intensive work led her to what she thought of as an inner shift, however. Treya had always felt her issues revolved around the pressures of doing rather than just being. She tried to find her way back to “the simple pleasure of being and making, not knowing and doing. It feels like coming home!” She said, “Immediately it came up for me. To stop trying to be a man. To stop calling myself Terry. To become Treya.”

Both Treya and Ken Wilber found themselves in positions in which people without cancer did not know how to react to them. Some “new age” people at this time assumed that people created their own cancers. Treya helped found a Cancer Support Community which didn’t punish people who didn’t get better, but who were deeply involved in their lives and only incidentally in their cancers. She wrote a paper on “What Kind of Help Really Helps,” which was published in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. Ken published a paper in the Journal on how it felt to be a support person, also very difficult.

Treya and Ken went to Bonn, Germany, to try a very aggressive chemotherapy, but it failed to stop tumor growth. They also tried an enzyme therapy with inconclusive results. By this time, Treya believed her cancer could not be arrested by anything. It had metastasized to her brain and lungs. She continued with her intensive therapies, without using pain medication and continued writing as honestly as possible in her journals. She did steroids and eventually surgery to reduce the brain tumors and was on oxygen. In January, 1989, she decided to stop. She wrote one last entry in her journal, “It takes grace, yes – and grit!”

Ken had always told Treya that he had been searching for her for lifetimes, that if anything happened, he would find her again. “You promise?” she asked him again and again. Ken promised. He carried her upstairs, she lay down in bed and within two days, surrounded by friends and family, she passed away.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Gudrun Osvifrsdottir

Though only written down in the 13th century, the story of Gudrun of Iceland and the generations before and after her is based on oral histories of actual people. The Laxaela Saga takes place from A.D. 890 to A.D. 1031, the time of the gradual change from the complex world of Nordic inheritance, voyaging and blood feuds to the coming of Christianity. The version of the saga I reference is a translation by A.C. Muriel Press [1899].

Melkorka with her son Olaf the Peacock
History Museum, Perlunni, Reykjavik

Gudrun is introduced as the daughter of Osvif, a great sage. “She was the goodliest of women who grew up in Iceland, both as to looks and wits. Gudrun was such a woman of state that at that time whatever other women wore in the way of finery of dress was looked upon as children’s gewgaws beside hers. She was the most cunning and the fairest spoken of all women, and an open-handed withal.” She grows up on a homestead at Laugar, a place of hot springs.

At 15 Gudrun’s hand in marriage is asked of her father by Thorvald. Osvif does not ask Gudrun about this, and she does not get on well with this man. Two years later “Gudrun separated herself from Thorvald and went home to Laugar.” She is much friends with Thord Ingunson, but he has a wife who wears breeches instead of skirts. Thord separates from his wife because of this and he and Gudrun marry and live happily together. His ex-wife comes after him with a sword however, and succeeds in wounding his arm to the point that it is useless. Nevertheless, when his mother comes to him to ask his help against a man who has been thieving her goods, Thord goes after them. The man and his sons are angry and raise a great spell-working scaffold. They curse Thord, who drowns in a storm at sea.

Gudrun takes Thord’s death to heart, especially as she is about to give birth to his son, who is named Thord. She allows her kinsman and friend Snorri the Priest to foster the child. She remains at Laugar with her father’s family. She is often at the springs, and so too are Kjartan, the son of Olaf the Peacock, and his foster brother Bolli. These two were the greatest friends. Olaf is bothered by his favorite son Kjartan’s attendance on Gudrun because of his forebodings. When Kjartan and Bolli decide to voyage to Norway, Gudrun asks to go with them. Kjartan refuses, asking her to wait three years for him. But Gudrun will make no such promise.

In Norway, the great King Olaf “was ordering a change of faith.” He would not let several ships go home to Iceland until they had declared their Christian faith. Kjartan and Bolli think the new faith unmanly. They plot against the king, but his spies find out. When Kjartan confesses, King Olaf is lenient to them, seeing that they are true men. The King builds a church that winter and preaches at Christmas. Kjartan and Bolli hear him and Kjartan begins to believe because of the way King Olaf treats him. He and a great number of Icelanders go to the King and are baptized. Kjartan becomes a friend of the king and spends much time with him and his sister Ingibjorg.

Bolli returns alone to Iceland. He tells Gudrun of Kjartan’s friendship for the Norwegian king and his sister and asks for her hand in marriage. Gudrun is most unwilling as long as she knows Kjartan to be alive. Olaf the Peacock, Bolli’s foster father, does not think it a good idea. Gudrun’s father, however, believes she should not refuse Bolli. At last Gudrun is won over and she and Bolli marry.

During this year, A.D. 1000, most of Iceland becomes Christian. When King Olaf of Norway hears this, he lets Kjartan return to Iceland. The king's sister gives him a white linen headdress woven with gold for his love, Gudrun. Kjartan is received in Iceland with honor, but Gudrun is unhappy. When Kjartan and his family come for the autumn feast to Laugar, Bolli tries to give him four wonderful horses, but Kjartan refuses. He is silent and asocial all winter. His sister tells him he should marry Hrefna, and not begrudge Bolli his wife. Kjartan agrees. There is a wedding feast and Kjartan gives Hrefna the headdress.

The families of Kjartan and Bolli are neighbors in the Salmon River area and Olaf and Osvip are good friends, “though there was some deal of ill-will between the younger people.” After a feast at Laugar, Kjartan’s sword goes missing. It is found later, but not the scabbard. The headdress also cannot be found. Kjartan retaliates by riding to Laugar with sixty men and besieging Osvip’s family so they cannot leave the house for three days. Kjartan also interfered in a land purchase Bolli was making. Gudrun is angry at these insults and she and her brothers plot against Kjartan. Bolli tries not to be involved, but Gudrun says if he does not join them, “our married life must be at an end.” Bolli does participate in the ambush, and when he is goaded, he takes up his sword. Kjartan throws away his weapons, saying, “I am much more fain to take my death from you than to cause the same to you myself.” Bolli strikes, but then lifts him up and Kjartan dies in his lap.

Olaf the Peacock, Kjartan’s father, is much dismayed, but he brokers a peace settlement and does not allow anyone to take up the blood feud against Bolli. Kjartan is buried in a newly consecrated church. But Olaf lives only three years after Kjartan’s death.

Gudrun's Spring, Iceland
Bolli and Gudrun set up a stately house and a son is born to them, Thorleik. But Kjartan’s mother is still angry at Bolli. She stirs up her sons and they attack and kill Bolli while he and Gudrun are at his sheep pen. Gudrun asks Snorri the Priest to exchange houses with her, as she can no longer live next to Olaf the Peacock’s sons. She and her family move to Holyfell. Shorty thereafter her third son, Bolli, is born.

Despite Christianity, Gudrun broods for ten years. She then urges her sons to revenge Bolli’s death. They are still too young and, with Snorri’s help, she finds a leader. The men kill Helgi Hardbienson, who had dealt Bolli his death blow. Later, when Gudrun’s sons still have hard feelings against Olaf’s sons, Snorri the Priest tells them the blood feud must stop and brokers a peace.

Snorri advises Thorkell, who has spent his life on the sea, to settle down and marry Gudrun. He does this, and “between Gudrun and Thorkell, dear love now grew up.” They too had a son, named Gellir. But Thorkell did not live long either. When he goes to Norway to get timber for building, his ship is broken up and he is drowned.

“Gudrun now became a very religious woman. She was the first woman in Iceland who knew the Psalter by heart. She would spend long time in the church at nights saying her prayers.” Her sons go voyaging and return very wealthy. When Snorri dies, he gives his manor and holdings to Bolli, who becomes a great and beloved man. Gudrun becomes the first nun and recluse in Iceland. “By all folk it is said that Gudrun was the noblest of women of equal birth with her in this land.” When her son asks which of her husbands she loved the most, she says, “To him I was worst whom I loved best.”

This complex tale has a great sense of the real lives of people who lived a millennium ago. “Gudrun is one of the most remarkable female characters in all of literature,” writes Frederick Turner in Epic: Form, Content and History [2012], “with her breakthrough at the end into a new mode of tragic Christian consciousness.”

Monday, November 27, 2017

Prudence Sarn

"When you dwell in a house you mislike, you will look out of the window a deal more than those that are content with their dwelling. So I, finding my own person and my own life not to my mind, took my pleasure where I could.” Prue, the heroine of the book Precious Bane, published in 1924 by Mary Webb, as she becomes a young woman, finds that the harelip she was born with, is the bane of her existence. People think her unattractive, even a witch.

Prue, however, who tells her story herself, sees amazing things around her and can describe them in words. The visible world of her village, fields and lake are laid out for the reader to imagine, and animals, birds and dragonflies fill this world with sounds. This, as well as the fact that Prue tells the story with the insights she has into it, makes the book a delight. Prue wonders whether the blessedness she feels comes as a result of being cursed. Without the disfiguring harelip, she thinks, “I should never have known the glory that comes from the other side of silence.”

Prue lives with her brother Gideon and mother on an isolated farm in Shropshire. After their father died, Gideon took on the mastery of the farm as a consequence of being the ‘sin-eater’ at his father’s wake. He has ambitious plans to become a personage in town. He wants to have a big house, servants and silver plate. In the meantime, he drives his sister and his mother to work very hard. He puts most of the land into wheat, because it is fetching good prices.

Prue goes along with all of this. She works hard, takes care of her mother as best as she can, and tries to get Gideon to take pleasure in the girl whom he loves, the blonde and beautiful Jancis. Prue’s been told by everyone that no one will have her. Gideon wants her to learn to read and write and figure, however. Prue finds in their attic a haven where she can write things down and cultivate her spirit, among the colorful stored apples and pears.

When the weaver, Kester Woodseaves, comes to make into cloth the yarns the women have spun for Jancis’ coming wedding, Prue recognizes him as the man she would most like to have for her own. He is a diffident man, living alone. When he tries to stop a bull-baiting and takes on the dogs himself, Prue saves him from a particularly terrifying bulldog. But she hides from him. When her mother calls him to their own house, Prue finds her work in the far fields, though she imagines him working in her attic.

Gideon keeps putting off his wedding, making an enemy of Jancis father. When it finally comes near, after a bountiful harvest in which the whole community helps, Jancis comes riding in like a golden queen on the ricks piled high with wheat. Gideon and Jancis begin to act as if they already married, but two days later, her father sets fire to the ricks and the harvest is lost. Gideon denies Jancis, her father is taken to jail, and she and her mother are run out of the neighborhood.

Sad days follow. Prue and Gideon’s mother is doing poorly. He is worried she will always be a drain and never well. He makes her believe she would rather be dead than alive, and gives her some foxglove tea, which kills her. Jancis returns with the baby born to her and Gideon, but Gideon will have none of it. She walks into the lake and begins haunting Gideon, as does his mother. Thus haunted, he too drowns himself in the lake.

Left by herself, Prue decides to leave the farm. The weaver, Kester, has gone to London to learn more complicated weaving, and writes her a suggestive letter. But when she hears from him no more, she takes all of her animals to market to be auctioned off. Her enemies gang up on her, however, suggesting that the deaths on her farm are due to her. They put her in a ducking stool to be tried for a witch. Prue is terrified. But when she comes up for air, there is Kester Woodseaves looking down from his horse. He wrestles with the men and carries Prue away. She tells him he should have a beautiful woman, but he leans down and kisses her on the mouth.

The highlights of this story do not do justice to it. I suggest you go straight to your public library and get a copy.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Sarah Hemings

Imagined portrait of Sarah Hemings
As a 14-year-old girl, Sarah Hemings was sent with Thomas Jefferson’s younger daughter Maria to France. Sarah was the enslaved half-sister of Jefferson's wife Martha who had recently died. In Paris, Sarah learned to speak French and Jefferson bought her dresses so that she could accompany his daughters to parties. He also paid for her to be quarantined and inoculated against smallpox. Sarah enjoyed the lavish life she lived in the Jefferson household at the edge of the Champs Elysées and told her children stories about it.

In France, Sarah and her brother James (who was training to be a French chef de cusine) were technically free. They could have stayed and remained free. According to Madison Hemings, her son, Sarah used this knowledge to bargain with Jefferson when he was called back to the United States. In an interview conducted in 1873, Madison Hemings says, “To induce her to return with him, Jefferson promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. In consequence of his promises, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia.” She was pregnant by Jefferson at the time.

After returning to Monticello in 1790, Sarah Hemings no longer appears in the obsessive records Jefferson kept of his accounts. In a comprehensive history of the Hemings family, The Hemingses of Monticello [2008], Annette Gordon-Reed unearths much about this unusual family, all descendants of Elizabeth Hemings, a slave woman. Sarah is seen to be Jefferson’s concubine, though no one will talk about it, least of all Jefferson.

Sarah’s first child dies at birth and her second did not live long. She remained at Monticello, surrounded by other members of her family who were treated with particular benevolence by Jefferson. Her brothers took part in Jefferson’s political life, living with him in Philadelphia, New York and finally Washington. Jefferson returned to Monticello as often as he could. Sarah’s work was to mend, sew and take care of his personal belongings, as well as care for her children, born into slavery as their status in Virginia legally followed that of their mother.

Jefferson kept Sarah part of his private life, but their relationship was exposed to the public by James Callender in a Richmond newspaper in the middle of Jefferson’s first term as president. She was called “Dusky Sally,” and other names, but none of it changed Jefferson’s relationship to her and her family, and he was elected to a second term as president, despite the innuendo. Sarah’s last child was born in 1808, just as Jefferson was about to leave the presidency and retire to his mountain.

After his death in 1826, Jefferson’s debts were too much for his daughter Martha to bear. Monticello was sold, along with most of his slaves. Before his death Jefferson did free his four children by Sarah: the first two, Beverley and Harriet, slipped away to Ohio to live as white people (they were 7/8th white) and the last two, Madison and Eston, were noted in his will. Sarah Hemings was informally freed by Martha, Jefferson’s daughter, and she lived the rest of her life in Charlottesville with her son.

As Gordon-Reed says, “Hemings and Jefferson lived in a world obsessed with family connections. Kinship ties were enormously important to enslaved people who tried hard to defend them against the depredations of slavery. Blood and family were important to white Virginians as well, but they added the component of racism to the equation.” Gordon-Reed details the benevolent society Jefferson tried to build on his mountain, noting that no matter his kindness, and the Hemings family’s reciprocal care for him, it was still based on master and slave relations.

“The few reports of Sally Hemings give the impression of a sweet and reasonable person,” says Gordon-Reed. Her story, as told by her descendants, is of someone who worked within the confines of her situation while loving Thomas Jefferson. It was clear she lived in a monogamous relationship to him. All of her children resembled him. As an older person, she handed down a few of his possessions, a pair of spectacles, an ink bottle and a shoe buckle, as well as her stories of living in France as a young girl. To acknowledge the intimacy of these particular American forebears, which has only happened in the last ten years, is important. To acknowledge that many of our ancestors have lived in varying relationships to each other, is to widen and deepen our understanding of the human family.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Amy March Laurence

Samantha Mathis, Christian Bale, Little Women, 1994
The story of the four March sisters told in Little Women [1868-1869] by Louisa May Alcott is very well known in America, partly because several movies have been made of it. The book is particularly popular for its depiction of Jo, the second daughter whom Alcott modeled after herself. Upon rethinking and rereading this very lively book, I have come to appreciate Amy, the youngest, whose artfulness succeeds as well as Jo’s outspoken brashness.

The sisters are taught that, though they are poor, “we’ve got father and mother and each other,” as Beth says on the very first page. They were once well-off, but the family lost its money and the girls struggle with envy of their friends, sibling rivalry and overcoming their failings, just as any modern kid does. Alcott’s program is to show, as Jane Smiley writes, what education can do: “Getting ahead is not her purpose – attaining self-control and acting in accordance with the Christian virtues of modesty, self-reliance, charity and hopefulness are the goals she sets for all the girls.”

Jo is willful, ambitious and a tom-boy, writing stories and plays for the sisters to act out. Meg is swayed by her more affluent friends, even after she marries for love. Beth loves music, but after an illness, comes to accept the fact that she will not live long. Amy, the youngest, is also headstrong and ambitious, but she uses sweet and tasteful methods to gain what Jo tries to achieve through honesty and outspokenness.

Amy is vain, proud of her golden curls, but she is sad that her nose doesn’t come to an aristocratic point, and that she must wear her cousin’s ugly clothes to school. In fact, when she is punished by having her hand hit with a ruler, Marmee takes her out of school. The girls’ parents do not believe in corporal punishment and shaming. When the girls sit about one afternoon, building “castles in the air,” Amy’s is “to be an artist, and go to Rome, and do fine pictures, and be the best artist in the whole world.”

Growing older, Amy makes an effort to provide an outing for her drawing class of twelve as a thank you to the girls who have been nice to her. The family pitches in to help, but only one of the girls comes and Amy feels foolish. When she helps at a charity fair, she tries to be unselfish and is rewarded finally by Jo convincing Laurie, the March’s amiable and handsome neighbor, and his friends to come and patronize her table. Jo praises her, but Amy says, “You laugh at me when I say I want to be a lady, but I mean a true gentle-woman in mind and manners … I want to be above the little meannesses, and follies, and faults that spoil so many women.”

When Amy convinces Jo to come calling with her (Meg is now married and Beth in poor health), Jo embarrasses her by telling wild stories. Echoing her mother, Amy tells Jo, “Women should learn to be agreeable, particularly poor ones; for they have no other way of repaying the kindnesses they receive.” Amy is rewarded when Aunt Carrol asks her to come on a family European tour, though Jo had longed to go.

Jo cannot agree to marry Laurie, because she feels more like a sister to him. It makes Laurie very unhappy. He goes to Europe, meeting Amy there in Nice. He is moping and Amy gives him a dressing down, calling him “Lazy Laurence.” Laurie is surprised Amy is considering marrying Fred Vaughn. “One of us must marry well,” she says. “In time I shall become fond of him.” Laurie says he understands, but says, “Quite right and proper as the world goes, but it sounds odd from the lips of one of your mother’s girls.”

Amy misses Laurie very much when he leaves however, and refuses Fred. Laurie reminds her of home, and when Beth dies, he comes to Vevey to comfort her. They recognize their love for each other and agree to “always pull in the same boat.” They are married and return home. The story ends happily with an apple harvest a few years later, when Meg, Jo and Amy all have children and Jo has started a school for boys with her German professor.

The economics of our modern world certainly differ from those in 1868, since women have won for themselves places in every field, the right to vote and (nearly) equal pay. But the question of feminine power is just as alive now as it ever was. Do women achieve their aims more by Jo’s methods or Amy’s? It is still true that some women have more money, and some women are blessed with a great deal of talent, hardly ever in the proportions anyone expects.

Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women from incidents in her life and that of her sisters, as well as the progressive principles of her unique parents, Bronson and Abigail Alcott. The girls learn from the mistakes which their parents freely allow them to make. The morality of the book reflects the classical belief that selfishness turns in on itself, whereas kindness to, love and respect for others is our only hope of happiness. This transcends whether a person is a man or a woman, of course. But the fact that Little Women shows us four different kinds of femininity makes it ever interesting.