Storybook Heroines Grow Up
October 17, 2015
Several of my favorite childhood storybooks featured heroines of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who were aspiring writers. Most of these heroines all but gave up writing as they grew up, and even seemed to do it proudly, as if renouncing their fondest dreams was an essential part of maturing. For example, Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery’s plucky Canadian orphan, started a story-writing club with several of her schoolmates, only to “outgrow” it. As she told her guardian, Marilla, “The story club isn’t in existence any longer. We hadn’t time for it … it was silly to be writing about love and murder and elopements and mysteries.”
That is hardly the way to mature as a writer. One of the sequels in the Anne series, Anne’s House of Dreams, covered her early years of marriage to her longtime sweetheart, Gilbert. When asked by a visiting journalist if she still wrote, Anne said airily, “Oh, I do little things for children. I haven’t done much since I was married.” She goes on to deny that she ever had designs on a “great Canadian novel.”
Many years later, at a college reunion, Anne runs into an old rival for Gilbert’s affections. This woman, Christine, is a childless widow who appears to have sacrificed everything for her career as a book editor and publisher. She mocks Anne for having abandoned a once-promising writing career, instead raising six children. This story line suffers, in my opinion, because Christine is too bitchy to be believable. Her attempt to flirt with Gilbert is doomed to failure, since he isn’t a complete fool. Montgomery could have gotten some real drama into the story by making Christine a nice person and a real temptation to Gilbert. However, that would undercut the didactic purpose of the story, which was to lecture young girls that Anne’s life was rich and full, and Christine’s was empty.
Louisa May Alcott was another author who pushed this lesson for girls, in Little Women and its sequels. Unlike Montgomery, Alcott never married. She couldn’t afford to give up her writing career, even if she had wanted to. Her father, also a writer, didn’t earn enough to support his family, so Louisa had to do it. Yet her alter ego, Jo March, did give up a budding career as an author when she married a professor and devoted her energies to helping him establish a school for boys. This suggests that Jo’s chosen life was Alcott’s true ideal.
In the last installment of the series, Jo’s Boys, Jo’s older sister Meg sighs that everything would be perfect in her world if only her daughter Josie, Jo’s namesake, would give up her dream of going on the stage. It’s a judgment on herself, Meg confesses, for having worried her own mother by entertaining the same ambition as a young girl. Josie is set straight when she meets a theatrical idol of hers, who advises her to “go back to school and finish your education. That is the first step, for all accomplishments are needed, and a single talent makes a very imperfect character.” Only after she has developed the attributes a woman should have, Josie is told, should she consider pursuing a career.
I’m forced to conclude that young girls of past eras who aspired to unconventional lives lacked role models, at least in literature. There was no one urging them to “lean in,” not even the most successful authors. Montgomery reportedly married under pressure, and suffered from an uncongenial match, but fortunately she had already established herself as an author. She needed the writing as a crutch against the depression that afflicted both her and her husband. As for Alcott, she wraps up Jo’s Boys by trying to have it both ways for her young heroines. The two ambitious cousins, Bess and Josie, are said to have “won honors in their artistic careers, and in the course of time found worthy mates.” Alcott doesn’t explain how this is possible in that long-ago era, well before women were encouraged to try to “have it all.” Ironically, two popular and beloved authors felt compelled to warn girls against following their lead, or at least taking the pursuit too seriously.