Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Marmee Time

I decided to use all of this free time to read the Harry Potter series. Racing through the first four fairly quickly, I stalled at HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX. I don't know why; it's really good. But for some reason, I felt like I needed a break from Harry and the gang, so I went out and bought a copy of LITTLE WOMEN.

It's really strange, but I feel as if that was my very first time to read the book. I've read abridged versions before, and in tackling the unabridged versions, I confess that I've skimmed pages and skipped over chapters. This time, I read the whole thing, and it was most pleasurable. It was Reading Coma reading, and, as everyone knows, it doesn't get much better than that.

I was in the mood for some 19th century literature. One of my New Year's Resolutions (#7) is to be more restrained, and if I was remembering correctly, the March family was a fine model of restraint. There are several homilies, delivered by Marmee, about keeping one's temper and tongue under strict control. She practices what she preaches though: in several scenes, she's "folding her lips together," as Jo/Louisa May Alcott puts it.

I can really feel that I'm getting older, because this time, when I read the book, I really got into the character of Marmee. I paid attention to her dynamic within the family and to the interaction between her and her children as well as her and her husband. This seems like a really big change from when I read it several years ago. If I read it again in several more years, I wonder if it'll change as drastically for me.

Another element that really stuck out for me this time is the element of thrift. As anyone knows that even has a nodding acquaintance with LITTLE WOMEN, the March family is poor. Even though Meg and Amy complain some about not being able to afford fine frocks, the tone seems to be presenting the poverty as voluntary and desirable, and the thrift somewhat competitive. For all their restraint, the Marches seem to be taking their poverty and gleefully exhulting, "Yeah, we're poorer than YOU! In yo' face! In yo' face!"

Although the Modern Library edition that I read has several avoidable typos, it's also got a splendid wealth of notes to explain now-obscure 19th century references, a nifty little introduction by Susan Cheever, and critical essays written at the turn of the century, in 1920, and in 1949. I thought the first one, the G.K. Chesterson essay, was the best one. Although he can't restrain himself comparing Alcott to Austen (with Austen coming out better, of course) he warmly praises the "Under The Umbrella" chapter with all its strange clumsiness because it seems so real-life.

The 1920s essay was by a woman whose name I didn't recognize (or subsequently remember) and I found her criticisms silly and unfounded. I can't imagine why her frothy little article was resurrected for this volume. The third essay was by her most respected biographer, Madeleine Stern, and while it was a favorable essay, I can't remember the exact gist of it. The book also contains a list of questions for a reading group, which is one of my pet peeves, but they are mercifully brief.

Would it be too shallow to mention how much I love the copper-colored spines on the Modern Library books? Seeing them all lined up at the bookstore makes me a little funny in the head.

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