I hadn’t even heard of this novel by Louisa May Alcott until the ladies over at Bonnets at Dawn decided to do a readalong of it a few months ago. I thought I had worked my way through most of her oeuvre when I was a kid, and while I was aware she had written adult novels, somehow my radar had completely missed this one.
Work was one of Alcott’s adult novels and apparently Alcott had started working on it, put it down for several years, then when Little Women was a huge success, publishers were scrambling for anything with her name on it, so she quickly finished this one and sent it off. Unfortunately, it definitely feels rushed.
The book is about a young girl named Christie. I don’t think we ever learn exactly how old she is when she sets off from home, but she’s about 18, her parents are both dead and she’s living with her aunt and uncle. She gets along with her aunt, but her uncle is constantly holding it over her head that he’s paying for everything and she’s eager for independence (I can totally relate). She’s had some marriage proposals from some of the local farmers, and they’re nice enough, but she’s not in love with any of them and she doesn’t want to settle for a man she merely likes just because he has a successful farm. So off she goes to see if she can make her own way.
She has a string of odd jobs, including servant, actress, companion, governess, and seamstress. I hadn’t realized it when I was reading it, but apparently Alcott herself held pretty much all of these jobs at various points throughout her life and this book is largely autobiographical.
While Christie is working as a governess, she gets courted by Mr. Fletcher, the brother of the woman who hired her. He’s an invalid, but a very wealthy invalid and is looking for someone to take care of him in his old age. He decides Christie will do just fine, and Christie is almost ready to accept him, even though she doesn’t love him. She does feel sorry for him, knowing he’s in a lot of pain, but he also tends to be very grumpy because of the pain he’s in, and that makes him harder to deal with. Finally, Fletcher admits he had seen one of Christie’s performances when she was still working as an actress and he threatens to reveal her “secret.” Christie is less upset by the threat than by the idea that Mr. Fletcher could do something so awful and think it would induce her to marry him, so she resigns immediately.
She goes to work in a kind of sweatshop sewing clothing and befriends another woman named Rachel, who sits apart from all the other girls, but Christie manages to bully her way into friendship with Rachel. Then it’s revealed that Rachel is a “fallen woman” (we aren’t told exactly what she did) and so she’s fired and the girls are warned that, if they associate with Rachel, their characters will also be called into question and so they’ll have to be let go. Christie refuses to abandon her friend, so she ends up basically doing freelance seamstress work, but Rachel leaves her to go off on her own because she doesn’t want to taint Christie’s reputation with her presence, although she’s thankful for Christie’s support and does send her gifts every now and then.
I really appreciated this section because it pointed out how hard it was for women: one mistake and they’re out in the cold and there’s absolutely no chance for redemption. Rachel points out their hypocrisy in their claims to be Christian while refusing to help a woman in need, but her logic leaves them unswayed.
Christie has a really hard time trying to take in work on her own. She’s behind on her rent, and one of her customers refuses to pay for a large rush job just when Christie most needs the money. So she’s wandering about town in desperation and about to throw herself in the river when who should show up, but Rachel herself! She takes Christie to the house of another woman who turns out to be named Mrs. Wilkins. She offers Christie a place to stay for as long as she needs it and Christie is happy to help out around the house and look after the little ones as payment.
Once Christie is feeling better, Mrs. Wilkins takes her to a local preacher who helps women find work. He takes her to a Quaker florist, named David Sterling, who lives with his mother. The preacher informs Christie before she arrives that Mr. Sterling has suffered some great tragedy in his life, but he doesn’t elaborate on what that tragedy is. So Christie starts doing work around the house without any idea as to what this guy’s past really entails, which of course means she reaches all sorts of romantic conclusions in her head.
At this point, the feel of the book changes a lot, and if I were publishing it, I would label the following, “Book II.”
As Christie gets to know Mr. Sterling, she falls in love with him and Alcott drops all sorts of hints that they’re going to end up together, but before either of them can make a move, Kitty, a girl who used to work in Christie’s position returns, claiming sanctuary from her violent father or something. She’s young and coquettish and clearly throwing herself at Mr. Sterling. Christie can’t bear to watch the spectacle, so she asks the preacher to reassign her.
She ends up staying with the preacher, helping him care for the poor. But he also hosts regular soirees in his home and invites local intellectuals and prominent members of society and who should show up but Mr. Fletcher himself! Except he’s no longer an invalid, he’s much stronger and healthier and more attractive, but Christie still recognizes him right away and he recognizes Christie. He still has feelings for her, even though they’ve been apart for months, maybe even a full year. So he launches another attempt at winning her over, and despite the fact that he’s grown as a person and is much more deserving of her love, Christie still doesn’t love him back and decides it would be unfair to marry him when she’s still in love with someone else. Mr. Fletcher takes the rejection much better this time. He’s still disappointed, but he didn’t lash out like he did the first time, and honestly, you feel really bad for the guy.
Then who should arrive home, but Rachel! It turns out Rachel (who’s name is really Lottie), is Mr. Sterling’s tragic story, but it’s not romantic at all. She’s his sister and it turns out her “downfall” had to do with leaving home with another man and living with him for a while, but then he dumped her and left her to deal with the ramifications. Of course, we can guess that none of this affected his reputation, familial relationships, or ability to hold down a job, but when Mr. Sterling heard about his sister’s ruined reputation, he refused to let her come back home, and he’s been regretting that decision ever since. That’s his big tragedy.
But somehow Lottie found her way back home and everyone’s happy to see her. Kitty ends up marrying some other guy and Mr. Sterling comes to see Christie, explain about everything that happened with his sister, and propose to her.
Most books would have ended here, but not Alcott. She decides to start the Civil War, and have Mr. Sterling (and Mr. Wilkins) enlist to fight and Christie enlists as a war nurse. Mr. Sterling dies shortly before the war ends, and Christie makes it to his side just in time to say goodbye. She (understandably) sinks into depression, but it soon becomes evident that she’s pregnant and so she has something to keep her going. She also takes over her husband’s florist business and shares his pension with his mother and sister, since they’re all still living under one roof.
As sad as this ending is, I appreciate that Alcott doesn’t give us the expected, “and then they lived happily ever after and Christie never had to work again”, because I feel like that would have really defeated the purpose of the book.
Then Christie is summoned by her uncle, her aunt having died by this point and her uncle doesn’t know how much time he has left and Christie is his only living relative. They manage to reconcile before he dies and he leaves her everything, which enables her to live comfortably and become an activist for women’s rights.
Overall, I think I liked this book, but it did feel very disjointed and disorganized. I don’t think Alcott had a clear idea of what she wanted before she started writing and it does feel very hastily thrown together. I’m still glad I read it, because there’s so much that I could relate to. While it can be inspiring to see fictional characters succeed, I also think it’s worthwhile to see them fail so we know that failure is OK and it happens to just about everyone at some point. It doesn’t mean things won’t get better, because just when things are at their worst is usually right before they turn around. In that sense, I think this book was just what I needed at the time I read it.
What did you read this week? Anything else that left you underwhelmed, even if it was by a beloved author?