Women’s Circles Broken: The Disruption of Sisterhood in Three Nineteenth-Century Works
The author of the following work, Meagan Hanley, wrote this multi-part post as her graduate thesis. Her focus was works of literature by female authors, one of whom was Jane Austen. We thought that the entire essay was wonderful, and so, with her permission, we wanted to share it with you.
LITTLE WOMEN’S UTOPIAN COMMUNITY
Little Women introduces another sisterhood—that of the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. They along with their mother Marmee, are struggling through the American Civil War era while their father serves as a chaplain at the warfront. At the start of this novel, the girls are just that—literal girls who are not quite old enough to seriously consider marriage, but it still looms large in their reality. Readers are invited into their circle of mishaps and imagination, secrets and fights. Much like Rossetti and Austen, Alcott drew inspiration from her relationships with her own mother and sisters. Like the March family, there were four Alcott sisters—Anna, Louisa, Abigail (May), and Elizabeth. Anna the eldest most closely resembled her counterpart Meg in the novel as the nearly perfect mother figure. Jo was modeled on the author herself; Elizabeth was Beth, and May was Amy. The Alcott girls had a very unusual childhood because of their father’s interest and involvement in the American Transcendentalist movement; he was as absent emotionally as the March patriarch was literally.
In her preface to Jo’s Boys, Alcott makes it clear just how much her characters were based on their real-life counterparts when she apologizes to her readers after the death of her sister May and her mother: “To account for the seeming neglect of Amy, let me add, that, since the original of that character died, it has been impossible for me to write of her as when she was here to suggest, criticize, and laugh over her namesake. The same excuse applies to Marmee” (Alcott). Alcott and her mother were incredibly close; Abigail May passed her temperament and vitality to her daughter. “Frederick Llewellyn Willis wrote that his cousin Louisa Alcott was ‘full of spirit and life; impulsive and moody, and at times irritable and nervous. She could run like a gazelle. She was the most beautiful girl runner I ever saw. She could leap a fence or climb a tree as well as any boy and dearly loved a good romp’” (Reisen). Obviously, Alcott was not quite the calm and acquiescent daughter that her father hoped and expected she would be. Each year on her birthday he wrote messages to her, most often ending with a tone of disapproval and lecturing:
‘The good Spirit comes into the Breasts of the meek and loveful…Anger, discontent, impatience, evil appetites, greedy wants, complainings, ill- speakings, idlenesses, heedlessness, rude behavior…drive it away, [leaving] the poor misguided soul to live in its own obstinate, perverse, proud discomfort.’ It was a familiar lecture…and one Louisa always responded to with tearful discouraged pledges to do, and be better. What she could not do was change the situation or free herself from it. (Reisen)
In many ways, since she remained unmarried, it was her own father and not a potential husband who checked his daughter’s female utopian community by his constant insistence on their moral and personal deficiencies.
Alcott’s father used John Bunyan’s allegory Pilgrim’s Progress to train his daughters. It is easy to see its lasting influence on her as she also used it as the framework for Little Women. In the preface to the novel, she adapted Bunyan’s allegory for her young female readers:
Go then, my little Book, and show to all
That entertain and bid thee welcome shall,
What thou dost keep close shut up in thy breast;
And wish what thou dost show them may be blest
To them for good, may make them choose to be
Pilgrims better, by far, than thee or me.
Tell them of Mercy; she is one
Who early hath her pilgrimage begun.
Yea, let young damsels learn of her to prize
The world which is to come, and so be wise;
For little tripping maids may follow God
Along the way which saintly feet have trod (Alcott)
By personifying her book, Alcott gave it the charge to train its young readers, which was not necessarily what she wanted to do as an author. Her book that hid much more in its “breast” suggests that Alcott hoped her young readers would discover more in its pages than that which appeared only on the surface. Throughout the novel, the chapter titles also echo Pilgrim’s Progress—with the first chapter titled “Playing Pilgrims” and later “Amy’s Valley of Humiliation,” “Jo Meets Apollyon,” and “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair.”
The effect that Bronson Alcott had on his daughter is evident in other ways in the novel. When Mr. March writes letters of encouragement and reprimand to his daughters, Jo immediately struggles with his request:
‘I’ll try to be what he loves to call me, ‘a little woman,’ and not be rough and wild; but do my duty here instead of wanting to be somewhere else,’ said Jo, thinking that keeping her temper at home was a much harder task than facing a rebel or two down South. (Alcott)
Here it is clear that for Jo to “do her duty” as a woman, she would have to completely change her personality, but Jo never quite reaches this goal she sets for herself. The fact that Jo struggles constantly with balancing who she knows she is with who she is expected to be shows how Alcott drew strongly from her own reality and imagined a better world for the March sisters than the one she experienced herself.
Alcott treasured extremely close relationships with her sisters and other female friends throughout her life. Despite fashioning Little Women after her own life with her sisters, Alcott struggled in the novel to define a new and different place for women even as the book itself transformed into a space for her readers to inhabit, learn, and challenge what they knew. Elaine Showalter writes in her introduction to Little Women:
The death of her sister Lizzie in 1858 and her confidante Anna’s marriage the same year to a neighbor, John Pratt, were parallel traumas. Anna’s wedding signaled the breakup of a sustaining sisterhood. ‘I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe,’ Louisa wrote defiantly…Many of her essays explored the possibilities of a single life for women, or a sustaining community of women artists and professionals, and she often criticized the problems caused by early marriage and wedlock: ‘Half the misery of time comes from unmated pairs trying to live their legal lie decorously to the end at any cost.’ Yet in other stories and novels, including Little Women, Alcott tried to imagine genuinely egalitarian marriages in which women could be strong and loving, and in which they could continue to work and create. (Alcott)
Alcott’s own decision to remain unmarried is telling of her thoughts on the subject. In the late 1800s, it was not a popular or beneficial option; but just as generations of writers have noted about Austen, if she had been married, none of her novels would have existed. It was within the worlds of Alcott’s novels that she attempted to create communities where women could exist apart from men’s overwhelming influence.
Regarding utopian women’s communities in these works, Little Women lends itself as the clearest example. The March family home is simultaneously a “good place” and “no place” as the meanings of the Greek words imply. With Mr. March away, the home is quite literally a woman’s utopia; however, this is complicated by the fact that it is through his absence that Mr. March is “allowing” the utopia to exist. Kathryn Manson Tomasek writes of this phenomenon in her essay “Searching for Feminist Utopia in Little Women”: “While Mr. March is away serving as a chaplain in the Civil War, his potential presence gives the March family the legitimacy they need to function independently as a community of women” (Tomasek). His return signals the official end of the utopia they had crafted in his absence.
Tomasek mentions: “When women imagined their own utopias, they often employed a vision that combined the gendered meanings of autonomy with a gendered plan for complementarity between women and men” (Tomasek). This thinking was the impetus behind Bronson Alcott’s failed experiment at Fruitlands when Louisa was a young girl. Bronson Alcott’s transcendental communal adventure espoused equality between men and women, but as Tomasek mentions, it actually relegated women even more to the home as they were forced to do all the work while the men were in the field. Because Fruitlands was a utopia envisioned and carried out by men, it fell short of being a utopia for the women. The “complementarity” that Tomasek writes about was lacking completely. At a young age, Alcott was given responsibilities to care for her siblings and even the men in Fruitlands when her mother was absent. For Alcott, the March family in Little Women was perhaps the better version of what Fruitlands could have been if it had been planned by women instead of by men.
Of the three works considered in this thesis, Little Women is also the best example of women’s spaces and community. It is the one that has the most concrete physical spaces in which the sisters live, grow, and learn together. Readers feel as though they are invited into the March family, which is why generations of young girls have loved the novel—they are immediately a part of the community the novel creates. Unlike Pride and Prejudice, where a reader’s entrance coincides with the intrusion of men; in this novel, readers are welcomed into the women’s community before the men arrive. With the first few pages, Alcott takes the time to describe the sisters’ appearances. Interestingly, however, she begins their introductions by describing the space they inhabit:
As young readers like to know ‘how people look,’ we will take this moment to give them a little sketch of the four sisters, who sat knitting away in the twilight, while the December snow fell quietly without, and the fire crackled cheerfully within. It was a comfortable old room, though the carpet was faded and the furniture very plain, for a good picture or two hung on the walls, books filled the recesses, chrysanthemums and Christmas roses bloomed in the windows, and a pleasant atmosphere of home-peace pervaded it. (Alcott)
Already we know that this space is safe, comfortable, and female-centered. It is also worn, well-loved, and well-lived in. A few pages later, we feel the warmth of the fire and see the girls rearranging their home when Marmee returns at the end of a long day:
Mrs. March got her wet things off, her hot slippers on, and sitting down in the easy-chair, drew Amy to her lap, preparing to enjoy the happiest hour of her busy day. The girls flew about, trying to make things comfortable, each in her own way. Meg arranged the tea-table; Jo brought wood and set chairs, dropping, overturning, and clattering everything she touched; Beth trotted to and fro between parlor and kitchen, quiet and busy; while Amy gave directions to every one, as she sat with her hands folded. (Alcott)
In this introductory space ruled by the benevolent and wise Marmee, we see a completely female community, unhurried and untouched by male intrusion, where each woman has her own place and particular burden to bear.
However, in this female community, the sisters use their imaginations to create their own versions of male-dominated professions, which is something Stephanie Foote points out in her article “Resentful Little Women: Gender and Class Feeling in Louisa May Alcott”: “the novel tends to present scenes in which facsimiles of the world are assimilated into the March household—the girls create their own post office, their own newspaper, and stage their own private theatricals” (Foote). The sisters create the Pickwick Club, so titled because of their love for Charles Dickens; their club “publishes” the Pickwick Portfolio newspaper. Quite distinct from Austen’s early nineteenth-century focus on letters and the private sphere for women, this progressive space Alcott creates is a replica of the male-dominated public sphere. Alcott spends a fair amount of one chapter describing the details of the Pickwick Club meeting space:
[They] met every Saturday evening in the big garret, on which occasions the ceremonies were as follows: Three chairs were arranged in a row before a table on which was a lamp, also four white badges, with a big ‘P.C.’ in different colors on each, and the weekly newspaper called, The Pickwick Portfolio, to which all contributed something, while Jo, who reveled in pens and ink, was the editor. At seven o’clock, the four members ascended to the clubroom, tied their badges round their heads, and took their seats with great solemnity. Meg, as the eldest, was Samuel Pickwick, Jo, being of a literary turn, Augustus Snodgrass, Beth, because she was round and rosy, Tracy Tupman, and Amy, who was always trying to do what she couldn’t, was Nathaniel Winkle. Pickwick, the president, read the paper, which was filled with original tales, poetry, local news, funny advertisements, and hints, in which they good-naturedly reminded each other of their faults and short comings. (Alcott)
Even as this is a literal space occupied by a community of women, it is by description a community of men. Alcott even uses masculine pronouns when referring to the girls’ assumed male identities. She also reprints the full newspaper, taking the time to tell her readers that the paper “is a bona fide copy of one written by bona fide girls once upon a time” (Alcott). By allowing the March sisters to borrow the trappings and names of men—specifically male characters from a book written by a famous male author—Alcott gives them agency and intelligence. These girls are no longer simply sitting idly by a fireplace knitting; rather, they have transformed their female utopian “nowhere” into a space that is not only recognized but also “inhabited” by men.
Auerbach has written multiple essays about both Pride and Prejudice and Little Women. In one essay, she writes that:
Little Women …is one of America’s most beloved celebrations of childhood, its rather perfunctory concluding marriages giving a twilight flavor to the enforced passage into womanhood proper. But the darting adult wit of the one [Pride and Prejudice] and contagious nostalgia of the other treat a similar process: the passage of a bevy of sisters from the collective colony of women presided over by their mother to the official authority of masculine protection. (Auerbach)
As mentioned earlier, Alcott herself had initially not wanted the March girls to grow up in the novel. Auerbach quotes a letter Alcott wrote to a friend stating that “publishers are very perverse & wont let authors have their way so my little women must grow up and be married off in a very stupid style” (17). Instead of writing only about how girls grow up to be wives, Alcott instead focused on the strong connections among sisters. Auerbach again reinforces this fact:
Louisa May Alcott gives her matriarchy the dignity of community but forbids its final amalgamation with the history it tries to subdue. For this ‘happy end’ the family is not enough; though with love or coercion it can train its daughters in the art of waiting, it cannot be both new woman’s colony and new wives’ training school. Its vacuity and its glory lie in the netherworld it establishes between them. (Auerbach)
In Little Women, Alcott created a space where girls could be happy together in a utopia between childhood and marriage within the sisterhood that Alcott envisioned as an alternative to marriage and dependence on a husband.
Besides Mr. March, the presence of one other male in the story is vital to the plot—Laurie, the March sisters’ young neighbor. Laurie watches wistfully from his window as the girls play; he longs to be a part of their utopian community. However, when Jo catches him at his spying, he responds with embarrassment and emotion:
Laurie colored up, but answered frankly, ‘Why, you see I often hear you calling to one another, and when I’m alone up here, I can’t help looking over at your house, you always seem to be having such good times. I beg your pardon for being so rude, but sometimes you forget to put down the curtain at the window where the flowers are. And when the lamps are lighted, it’s like looking at a picture to see the fire, and you all around the table with your mother. Her face is right opposite, and it looks so sweet behind the flowers, I can’t help watching it. I haven’t got any mother, you know.’ And Laurie poked the fire to hide a little twitching of the lips that he could not control. (Alcott)
Quite the opposite of the March family, for Laurie, it is the absence of women—not men—in his life that causes him to crave entrance to the utopian community. When we first meet Laurie, he and Jo are nearly the same age—fifteen years old. It is difficult not to wonder if Laurie had other motives for spying on the March girls. Jo does not seem to understand the effect that Laurie will have on her family when she wholeheartedly welcomes him into their utopia: “We’ll never draw that curtain any more, and I give you leave to look as much as you like. I just wish, though, instead of peeping, you’d come over and see us. Mother is so splendid, she’d do you heaps of good, and Beth would sing to you if I begged her to, and Amy would dance. Meg and I would make you laugh over our funny stage properties, and we’d have jolly times” (Alcott). The acceptance of Laurie into the March family shatters the way things had been.
Laurie’s first intrusion into the sisterhood begins with the Pickwick Club. Jo, speaking as “Mr. Snodgrass,” proposes that Laurie should be allowed to join “as an honorary member of the P.C.” (Alcott). Amy votes against it, saying that “this is a ladies’ club, and we wish to be private and proper,” while Meg worries that “he’ll laugh at our paper, and make fun of us afterward” (Alcott). This is the first moment that male influence causes a disagreement among the sisters—no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. With a man’s intrusion, they devalue themselves, and their male artifice immediately transforms back into a “ladies’ club.” Before the girls can decide against welcoming Laurie, Jo reveals that he has been hiding in the closet the entire time, “flushed and twinkling with suppressed laughter”—which is exactly the reaction Meg expected of him (Alcott 105). The sisters call Jo a “traitor,” although Laurie is secured as a new member before the end of the page and admits the trick was his idea. However, his admittance is sealed by his gift of a post office between their houses, of which Alcott writes “how many love-letters that little post-office would hold in the years to come!” (Alcott). Already with his initial presence in the community of women, Laurie has planted the seed that will grow into marriage and a permanent separation of the sisters.
Laurie is seemingly introduced as Jo’s potential love interest, and many readers through the years have been disappointed on that front. When Jo refuses his proposal, she gives reasons for wanting to keep his friendship. She loves him as a friend and brother but not as a lover and husband: “’I don’t believe it’s the right sort of love, and I’d rather not try it,’ was the decided answer” she gave him (Alcott). Laurie is upset by her refusal, but throughout the novel, he is a potential love interest for each of the sisters in turn. Minogue mentions this in her dissertation: “First, gossip has it that Meg has her sights set on him to secure her financial future; then Jo believes that Beth is pining away for him. In time, Laurie suffers rejection by Jo and acceptance by Amy as he makes the latter his wife” (Minogue). After suffering Jo’s rejection and taking some time to grow up, “Laurie decided that Amy was the only woman in the world who could fill Jo’s place, and make him happy” (Alcott). It is strange later though when Laurie explains his marriage to Jo:
‘Jo, dear, I want to say one thing, and then we’ll put it by forever. As I told you, in my letter, when I wrote that Amy had been so kind to me, I never shall stop loving you; but the love is altered, and I have learned to see that it is better as it is. Amy and you change places in my heart, that’s all…You both got into your right places, and I felt sure that it was well off with the old love, before it was on with the new; that I could honestly share my heart between sister Jo and wife Amy, and love them both dearly. Will you believe it, and go back to the happy old times, when we first knew one another?’ (Alcott)
Even as he makes his request and explanation, it seems obvious that Laurie has not fully moved past his love for Jo. He wants to go back to the utopia he remembers from their childhoods. Interestingly enough, it is Jo who reminds him that it is impossible to go back to “the happy old times.” Too much has changed, and Laurie has been a massive part of those changes whether he admits it to himself or not.
Besides men causing the central plot action and disruptions in both novels, the two novels—Pride and Prejudice and Little Women—share many similarities, a primary one being the multiple resemblances between the central characters of Elizabeth Bennet and Jo March, both of whom are the second oldest in a family of all daughters. Both of their older sisters are more stolid and dignified with few changes to their usually calm temperaments; Meg March is calm, careful, and concerned with propriety, while Jane Bennet is so timid and steady-natured that Mr. Darcy is convinced she does not even care for Mr. Bingley. Jo and Elizabeth each act differently from what their societies expect of them. Mary Ellen Minogue addresses this in her dissertation, “The Sororal Relationship in the Nineteenth-Century Novel: Potential and Power,” when she writes:
Primary to both works is Austen’s and Alcott’s homage to the rebel-type;
Elizabeth and Jo are the irrefutable cynosures of their respective works. They break away from the sororal crowd and establish themselves as unique females…Paradoxically, the diametrically opposed responses of both ‘rebels’ are underscored by sororal fealty. Elizabeth is as devoted to Jane as Jo is loyal to her sisters…As a kind of prescient feminism, sororal devotion foreshadows the mutual support among women encouraged at the close of the nineteenth-century. (Minogue)
In Minogue’s opinion, sisterhood is the chief and most important relationship for both Jo and Elizabeth. No matter what or who else they may be, the connections with their sisters are what give them their strongest sense of identity and belonging. No matter what or who else they may be, the connections with their sisters are what give them their strongest sense of identity and belonging.
As in Pride and Prejudice, marriage is the fulcrum that disrupts the harmony among the women. Jo March laments to her mother in Little Women when she hears of Meg’s engagement: “I knew there was mischief brewing; I felt it, and now it’s worse than I imagined. I just wish I could marry Meg myself, and keep her safe in the family” (Alcott). There is a definite sense of loss that comes hand-in-hand with marriage—a sense of separation from other women and relegation to a life of isolation as a wife and mother. Again, Minogue wrestles with this as she writes “Second-born Jo clearly emerges as the character who most readily internalizes condemnation of patriarchal hegemony as it impacts sororal cohesiveness. Jo views any prospect of Meg breaking from the sororal fold via marriage as potential destruction of the March sisterhood” (Minogue). When Meg first brings up the topic of men and marriage, Jo is taken aback: “Jo stood with her hands behind her, looking both interested and a little perplexed, for it was a new thing to see Meg blushing and talking about admiration, lovers, and things of that sort. And Jo felt as if during that fortnight her sister had grown up amazingly, and was drifting away from her into a world where she could not follow” (Alcott). It is this world full of courtship and marriage that begins to pull the sisters apart.
Marriage is not the only strain on the bonds among the sisters. As we know, Beth’s death is the most tragic fissure in the novel. However, it is central to note that Alcott saw marriage as a total disruption of sisterly community. As Auerbach writes:
The inclusion of young love among these upheavals implicitly defines it as more of a tearer of sisterhood than an emotional progression beyond it; and the equation between the departures of marriage and death continues in the last half of the book, where Beth’s wasting illness and death run parallel to the marriages of the rest of the sisters. (Auerbach)
Alcott herself felt this strongly in her own life. When her older sister was married, her description of the event in a letter could be exactly what Jo would have written after Meg’s wedding: “’After the bridal train had departed, the mourners withdrew to their respective homes; and the bereaved family solaced their woe by washing dishes for two hours and bolting the remains of the funeral baked meats’” (Auerbach). In none of these three works is marriage viewed as synonymous with death, but, for Alcott, the loss of a sister to a new husband was equal to losing her completely.
Jo’s character development is probably the most noticeable and drastic of all the characters. We meet a fifteen-year-old tomboy and say goodbye to a matronly and calm wife, mother, and teacher. At the end of the novel, all three surviving sisters sit with their mother and families and discuss how happy they are. Jo is not surrounded by women, but by a family of boys. Jo had to go through many difficulties to get to this sense of idyllic harmony, and it has in many ways replaced the women’s community from the start of the story. In Jo’s Boys, everything is different from the start. Oddly enough, Alcott decides to introduce Jo and Meg as “Mrs. Jo” and “Mrs. Meg,” allowing them to keep their identities as women by not tagging on their married names but still adding the title “Mrs.”
However, it is in Jo’s Boys, that we see one of the most autobiographical parts of Alcott’s story displayed in Jo’s life. Jo has become a devoted wife, mother, and teacher while allowing her writing to fall to the side until she has a “long illness” and:
Confined to her room, Jo got desperate over the state of affairs, till she fell back upon the long-disused pen as the only thing she could do to help fill up the gaps in the income. A book for girls being wanted by a certain publisher, she hastily scribbled a little story describing a few scenes and adventures in the lives of herself and her sisters, – though boys were more in her line, – and with very slight hopes of success sent it out to seek its fortune. (Alcott)
These sentences describe almost exactly Alcott’s experience in writing Little Women— even to the details of the publisher requesting a story for girls. It also echoes the original preface to Little Women in which she invokes Pilgrim’s Progress and the allegorical quest narrative by personifying her book and its mission.
Another fact worth noting is that Jo only turned back to her writing when she was alone, away from the busyness of teaching and mothering. By writing about her sisters,
Jo is able to reconnect with the sisterhood that was lost through either death or marriage. Many critics have been disgruntled by the ending of Little Women which seems to show Jo content with only the domestic life of a wife and mother. The novel has followed her for fifteen years, and she is thirty-years-old when she, Meg, Amy, and Marmee close the novel with their conversation. However, a closer reading of the final paragraphs reveals a bit more:
‘Yes, Jo, I think your harvest will be a good one,’ began Mrs. March, frightening away a big black cricket that was staring Teddy out of countenance.
‘Not half so good as yours, Mother. Here it is, and we never can thank you enough for the patient sowing and reaping you have done,’ cried Jo, with the loving impetuosity which she never would outgrow.
‘I hope there will be more wheat and fewer tares every year,’ said Amy softly.
‘A large sheaf, but I know there’s room in your heart for it, Marmee dear,’ added Meg’s tender voice.
Touched to the heart, Mrs. March could only stretch out her arms, as if to gather children and grandchildren to herself, and say, with face and voice full of motherly love, gratitude, and humility…
‘Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!’ (Alcott)
Instead of focusing on the fact that all four women are relegated to the domestic sphere in the end, it is more important to realize that the novel closes with the absence of men and the gathering of women. It is Marmee, the matriarch of the March family, who opens her arms wide, encircling her remaining daughters in the remnants of the community they created and hold together despite marriage and male intrusion.
The third and final work to be discussed in this thesis is different from the first two most notably in its literary genre. “Goblin Market” as a poem inevitably has more constraints when it comes to creating a strong sense of community among women, but Rossetti succeeds in fashioning a vibrant and complex story of sisterly love, separation, and commitment between Laura and Lizzie. The literal space filled by the poem is much smaller than that of the novels, but even in this constrained space, the strength of women’s community is evident and escapes the potential boundaries set by the poem’s length.
(Part four, “GOBLIN MARKET”: SUFFERING SISTERS, will be published next week)