In the first half of this book, country girl Polly Milton pays a visit to her wealthy city friend Fanny Shaw. Polly, an unsophisticated 14-year-old, is utterly out of her depths in Fan’s frivolous world, but she does her best to enjoy it while avoiding its worst snares. She is presented with temptations and dilemmas, and is usually carried through them by the strength of her good morals. She’s not perfect, and she does a few things she regrets, but she is generally a model girl. She comes through the experience fairly unscathed, and does a lot of good for the unhappy Shaw family along the way.
The second half skips ahead six years, when Polly is moving to town to set herself up as a music teacher, both to ease the financial burden at home and to help her younger brother through college. She is as self-determined as ever, and won’t accept any help from the Shaws beyond their referrals for students. She is determined to make her own way–and again, we celebrate triumphs and suffer disappointments with her. These, of course, carry much heavier consequences than those of her girlhood; Polly has to grapple with some seriously adult situations. And when the Shaws’ comfortable world comes crashing down around them, it will be sweet, sensible Polly who sees them through the crisis.
The author has a lot to say about the dissipated nature of “today’s youth” and uses Polly’s adventures to make her commentary. She delivers little lectures and morality plays on honesty, thrift, modesty, filial duty, self-sacrifice, the value of education, and so on. All of which makes it sound vile and preachy, I know, and I simply HATE to be preached to. But An Old-Fashioned Girl is the most treasured book of my childhood, the one that influenced me more than any other–more than Little Women, or Anne of Green Gables, or all the Little House books put together. Of all the bright, strong heroines in those stories, Polly Milton was the one I admired the most. I don’t know if I can say that I emulated her, but I understood her isolation in Fan’s crowd of fast girls, ostracized as I was by the mean girls at school. Her preference for reading over parties, for one true friend over several superficial acquaintances, for honesty over artifice–it all resonated with the 9-year-old me who first encountered it. Moreover, when Polly is in a quandary, she goes right to her mother for support and advice; when she’s tempted to do wrong, she has only to imagine how disappointed her mother will be to keep to her path. That, I absolutely understood: my own gentle mother was the highest authority in my young life; I never feared any punishment more than incurring her disappointment.
I can’t say how many times I read the book when I was young, but I can visualize even now the shelf it sat on at the public library, I checked it out so often. When, a few years ago, I suddenly had the urge to read it again, I looked around until I found an edition with the same illustrations as that beloved copy–and if I could find it in a green library binding just like the one our library had, I would treasure it always. I just loved the book that much. I carried its lessons with me, and I have no doubt that as I faced the challenges of a very much more modern young womanhood than Alcott could have dreamed of, Polly’s example of staying true to herself helped me do the same.
The book is quaint in many ways, as a novel written to improve the morals of young people in 1869 must be, but it’s also surprisingly modern. The scene that sent me searching it out as an adult was the one in which grown-up Polly introduces Fan to her new friends:
Polly came to know a little sisterhood of busy, happy, independent girls, who each had a purpose to execute, a talent to develop, an ambition to achieve, and brought to the work patience and perseverance, hope and courage. Here Polly found her place at once, for in this little world love and liberty prevailed; talent, energy, and character took the first rank; money, fashion and position were literally nowhere; for here, as in the big world outside, genius seemed to blossom best when poverty was head gardener.
There’s also Polly’s landlady, Miss Mills, an independently well-off spinster who uses her fortune to help others. Her rescue of tragic Little Jane is a section that makes me weep every time, despite knowing how well Jane’s story turns out. Although the book does culminate in the pairing off of “everyone I can lay my hands on”, as the author puts it, there are several examples of happy, fulfilled, unmarried women in the book.
What saves the book from preachy dullness and makes it relevant to girls born a century or more after its writing is the fullness of Polly’s character. We see inside her head and heart, and understand that she’s not Miss Polly Perfect–she suffers petty jealousies and tempers, she has her vanities–but she works to overcome them. She makes mistakes, but she owns up to them and learns from them. She fights with her friends, and she makes peace with them. She’s an excellent model for young women, even today, when mores have changed so radically, because she’s all about being true to what her own set of values tells her is right. She doesn’t give in to peer pressure; she doesn’t let society’s notions of what’s proper keep her from her doing what she wants to do; she seeks to do good in the world and improve the lives she touches. I hope she will continue to guide the development of young women for generations to come.