Monday, January 12, 2009

Under The Lilacs

I sometimes end up without anything to read in the house. That is the time to dig through the books in the basement and in the garage and so on. All addicts know what I'm talking about.

Anyway, I found Louisa Alcott's Under The Lilacs in one of those places. A dreadful Victorian children's book, full of moralizing and warped class values, all tied together with unrealistic characters and a silly plot. But of course I read it.

In the chapter called Ben's Birthday (Ben being the waif whose rehabilitation is the point of the book), the children have an archery competition. The boys don't really want the girls to take part, and are rather astonished with the performance of Bab (a girl) who has been practicing very hard. Indeed, the last stage of the competition are between the two archers doing best: Ben and Bab. Bab decides to let Ben win:

"I want to beat, but Ben will feel so bad I 'most hope I sha'n't."
"Losing a prize sometimes makes one happier than gaining it. You have proved that you could do better than most of them; so, if you do not beat, you may still feel proud," answered Miss Celia, giving back the bow with a smile that said more than the words.

So Bab shot her last arrow without focusing and Ben won. Then he offered to let Bab wear the winner's pin or brooch:

"I think it would be fairer to call it a tie, Bab, for it really was, and I want you to wear this. I wanted the fun of beating, but I don't care a bit for this girl's thing, and I'd rather see it on you."
As he spoke, Ben offered the rosette of green ribbon which held the silver arrow, and Bab's eyes brightened as they fell upon the pretty ornament, for her "the girl's thing" was almost as good as the victory.
"Oh no; you must wear it to show who won. Miss Celia would n't like it. I don't mind not getting it; I did better than all the rest, and I guess I should n't like to beat you," answered Bab, unconsciously putting into childish words the sweet generosity which makes so many sisters glad to see their brothers carry off the prizes of life, while they are content to know that they have earned them and can do without the praise.

So she wears the pin and asks Ben to forgive her for losing his dog (which she really didn't lose as the dog chewed through the string and snuck away), and he forgives her:

"Not a bit of it; you are first-rate, and I'll stand by you like a man, for you are 'most as good as a boy!" cried Ben, anxious to deal handsomely with his feminine rival, whose skill had raised her immensely in his opinion.

Interesting, is it not? It calls to my mind one time when another student (drunk) introduced me to someone as a "girl who was even smarter than the average man!"

It has been argued that Alcott knew what she was doing in these stories, that she was a proto-feminist writer and that the way she wrote her stories was the most her times allowed, and that may well be true. But to me her books (and other girls' books of the same era) tell a different story, the story about how much work has always gone into the turning out of conservative women.