Friday, October 3, 2014

Anna’s Whim

Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888)
From Louisa May Alcott: Work, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Stories & Other Writings

Detail from Drifting (1886), oil on canvas by Alfred Thompson Bricher (American painter, 1837–1908). Image courtesy of Barbara Wells Sarudy’s 19c American Women website.
During the early months of 1873 Louisa May Alcott, still overwhelmed by the extraordinary success from the publication five years earlier of Little Women, finally completed Work: A Story of Experience, a novel she had begun in 1861. The book’s publication was greeted by mostly positive reviews, with some reservations. The opinions of many readers were determined by their reactions to the book’s subject matter: “Miss Alcott has dared to touch that troublesome theme—What shall women do?—and has illumined it with the brightness of her own strong sense.” A surprising number of reviewers described the book as earnest—“It is a terribly earnest book,” wrote the columnist in The Evening Post of New York; another writer noted its “earnest tone.” A decidedly hostile critic complained about the book’s emphasis on job and career (“work is the real religion, the idea, the action of the piece, from end to end”) and protested that Work is “the story of a female who was not a woman, married to her choice who was not a man.”

Although the novel sold well at the time (the first printing alone was 20,000 copies), it went out of print early in the twentieth century and was largely forgotten until the late 1970s. In recent decades, note the authors of The Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia, the book has “received positive critical attention for some of the very traits contemporary critics bemoaned,” such as its exploration of the occupational options then available to women and, perhaps above all, “a strong, independent female character who never settles into a purely domestic sphere and whose marriage is only another ‘experience,’ not the telos of her life story.”

While she was writing Work, Alcott was inundated with requests for short stories and essays. The editor of Youth’s Companion offered to purchase, sight unseen, half a dozen stories she had yet not even written, and similar offers poured from other magazines. Almost immediately upon finishing the novel, she wrote “Anna’s Whim” and sold it for the then-considerable sum of $100 to a prominent weekly New York newspaper called The Independent. Combining a love story with a battle-of-the-sexes plot, the tale revisits several of the ideas Alcott tackled in Work, and the central focus is the title character’s “whim”—Anna’s wish that men treat women the same way they treat each other.

Notes: The passing reference to a Mrs. Grundy (page 827) is to a narrowly conventional or priggish person, after a character in Thomas Morton’s 1798 play Speed the Plough. The mad gentleman and Mrs. Nickleby (p. 839) are allusions to Dickens’s Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, specifically when Nicholas’s mother rejects the advances of their neighbor and becomes convinced that he went mad because of her rejection. “Put my fortune to the touch and win or lose it all” (p. 844) is a paraphrase of two lines from the poem “My dear and only love” (1643) by James Graham, Marquess of Montrose.

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