I extended my time with Louisa May Alcott by picking up two new-to-me titles: Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom. Together, they tell the story of Rose Campbell, an orphaned girl who goes to live with her father’s estranged family. Her legal guardian is her bachelor Uncle Alec, who gets much advice and interference from an assortment of aunts and great-aunts (aside from Alec and Old Mac, the uncles are all dead or shipped offstage for the majority of both books.) Eight Cousins opens with a shy and sickly Rose arriving at the ‘Aunt Hill’ from the boarding school where she’s been parked for the year following her father’s death. The school was doing its darnedest to make a fashionable lady of Rose, and she is accordingly high-strung, tight-laced, weak and frightened. Uncle Alec, a doctor (and the author’s mouthpiece), has his own notions about child-raising, and makes a deal with the Aunts: give him one year to raise Rose as he sees fit, and at the end of that time, if she isn’t greatly improved in health and heartiness, he will turn her over to them.
Naturally, Uncle Alec’s ideas are all excellent for Rose: he takes away her corsets so she can breathe enough to take exercise in the fresh air; her forbids her coffee and sweet rolls, substituting milk and plain brown bread; he arranges her training in the domestic arts, and in medicine, when she shows an interest in his work. He encourages her to join in the boisterous adventures of her seven boy cousins–riding, skating, sailing, playing soldiers, etc. He also nurtures her inclination to generosity, allowing her to ‘adopt’ Phoebe, a housemaid her own age. This sounded like a potential disaster to me, but Rose isn’t toying with Phoebe; she genuinely regards her as a sister, and sees to her education and eventual place in society.
Rose in Bloom picks up a few years later, when Alec, Rose, and Phoebe return from an around-the-world tour. Rose is now nineteen, a beautiful young woman about to come into the fortune her father left her. The whole town expects her make the best match she can (several of those rambunctious boy cousins are lining up to be considered for the honor) and settle right down. Rose, however, has seen a bit of the world, and intends to use her good fortune to help others. She isn’t going to settle into marriage and family until she makes her mark on the community as a philanthropist–and experiences a little of the social whirl she has denied herself until now. Her experiments meet with varied success–as do the romantic suits of the Campbell boys. Only one can win the prize, after all, and there are pitfalls and heartbreaks on the way to happiness for our Rose.
If I had read these books when I first discovered Alcott’s work, they might well be as dear to me as Little Women and An Old-Fashioned Girl. As it is, I enjoyed them–I’m pretty much always willing to let Louisa May bend my ear with her notions of modern womanhood–but I’m not likely to revisit Rose Campbell the way I do Jo March and Polly Milton. Rose’s author did quite well by her, and I’m content to leave her ensconced in her happily-ever-after.