…Mr. Shaw said, looking at the three bright faces at the tea-table, “I guess Polly has been making sunshine for you to-day.”
“No, indeed, sir, I haven’t done anything, only dress Maud’s doll.”
And Polly didn’t think she had done much; but it was one of the little things which are always waiting to be done in this world of ours, where rainy days come so often, where spirits get out of tune, and duty won’t go hand in hand with pleasure. Little things of this sort are especially good work for little people; a kind little thought, an unselfish little act, a cheery little word, are so sweet and comfortable, that no one can fail to feel their beauty and love the giver, no matter how small they are. Mothers do a deal of this sort of thing, unseen, unthanked, but felt and remembered long afterward, and never lost, for this is the simple magic that binds hearts together, and keeps home happy. Polly had learned this secret.
She loved to do the “little things” that others did not see, or were too busy to stop for; and while doing them, without a thought of thanks, she made sunshine for herself as well as others. There was so much love in her own home, that she quickly felt the want of it in Fanny’s, and puzzled herself to find out why these people were not kind and patient to one another. She did not try to settle the question, but did her best to love and serve and bear with each, and the good will, the gentle heart, the helpful ways and simple manners of our Polly made her dear to every one, for these virtues, even in a little child, are lovely and attractive.
I wonder why it is that Louisa May Alcott’s sermonizing never, ever bothers me. How does she get away with it? Honestly, every time she starts dishing out the morals, I eat them up and keep coming back for another helping.
Passages like the above would perhaps make lovely blog entries, but to stick them in the middle of a narrative? How preachy, how heavy-handed! I would never dare, myself, to impose a tidy little sermon upon my readers in the middle of a story—much less to do it on every other page. Alcott, however, gets away with it. It is, in fact, part of the appeal of her work: the sweetly idealistic portraits of how very good people, and life, can be if only we uphold the few simple principles which she humbly endeavors to lay out for us.
Am I just an easy mark? These lines—”Little things of this sort are especially good work for little people; a kind little thought, an unselfish little act, a cheery little word, are so sweet and comfortable, that no one can fail to feel their beauty and love the giver, no matter how small they are. Mothers do a deal of this sort of thing, unseen, unthanked, but felt and remembered long afterward, and never lost, for this is the simple magic that binds hearts together, and keeps home happy“—so completely express my beliefs about what my role in this household ought to be (one in which, regrettably, I so often fall short) that I found myself reading them over and over, trying to fix them firmly in my mind and heart. I have read entire books which attempted to convey the same message and did so far less effectively than these two sentences—perhaps because of the very thing for which I have just poked fun at my friend Louisa: because she served them to me in the context of a story about characters I care about and am deeply interested in.
And I don’t even think An Old-Fashioned Girl is one of her better books. Little Men, Eight Cousins, Little Women, and Rose in Bloom are far superior. In those books, story is the driving force; the characters are complex and real and prone to adventures either hilarious or heart-wrenching. The folks in An Old-Fashioned Girl are really just prototypes of people Alcott wants us to think about. Here’s Fanny, the spoiled, frivolous rich girl, empty of mind and heart, and filled with sullen despair because of it. Here’s Polly, the hardworking, cheerful, earnest poor girl, bravely making her way in the world and winning hearts as she goes, a poster girl for the benefits of simple, wholesome, Bronson Alcott-style living. See which one is happier? See which one spreads joy wherever she goes? See which way of life is better? Come on board!
Alcott’s genius is that she makes me say, “You bet, count me in!”—every—single—time.
Don’t Miss This One
Hephaestus, Probably, Because He Always Seemed Kind of Sweet
Borage, waiting for bees
Highlights from 2005 (Jan-Mar)