Two New England Women

IT is very difficult to establish contemporary epochs. Try as hard as we may, we are not our own posterity ; and even if we succeed in paulo post future speculations, who is to be the wiser ? Not our contemporaries, who refuse to believe us, and not those who come after, who will not care a fig whether we were right or wrong. Nevertheless, we cannot help a little wistfulness as we see ourselves as we think our grandchildren will see us, and there is no emotion quite so agreeable as self-commiseration. Thus we keep on placidly with our several lives, but we carry on at the same time a sub-conscious process of thought which makes us historical to ourselves. The ground beneath our feet may be very substantial, but we cannot resist the impression that New England is slipping from under us. How antique, even now, is the Boston before the great fire ; how charmingly idyllic the Concord of Emerson ; what a tranquil, self-contained place the Cambridge of Longfellow; how primitive are the Maine and New Hampshire of the Rollo books ; how completely a historic figure is Sam Lawson ! Already we begin to say to ourselves, Si Novangliam quœris not circumspice, but in partes Occidentales aspice, and find a reproduction in modified form in the country parts of Michigan or Wisconsin ; better still, see its spirit preserved in a few books.

For one phase of New England life we do not know where to look to find a more perfect image than in Miss Larcom’s A New England Girlhood.1 How recent it is, and how absolutely obsolete ! Nothing brings before the mind so vividly the rupture between the New England of one generation ago and that of to-day as to read these pages, written by a woman in the vigor of her days, who is recalling both the circumstances of her own childhood, and an order of society which has been swept away, not by any cataclysm, but by the rapid movement of two forces, one from within and one from without. One of these days, historians will take very carefully into account the emigration and immigration which are still changing the face of New England, but we think they will find the most violent substitution to have taken place between the years 1840 and 1880.

Miss Larcom’s personal history, as known to most readers, is associated especially with the period of our industrial history when Lowell and Lawrence and other manufacturing centres of New England were alive with the activity of descendants of the English settlers in New England, and no doubt the portion of her reminiscences which is devoted to her years in Lowell will be read with peculiar interest. But the story of her childhood on the Essex coast is not merely an introduction to the account of her young womanhood ; it is a proper prelude to the narrative of the social life in the Lowell mills. That sturdy, self-respecting, honorable community of workmen and workwomen which centred in the towns of New England, when the order of industry was changing from agriculture to manufacture, was the legitimate product of the forces of a great number of village and isolated communities charged with a brave Puritanism. The independent, often solitary life was exchanged for one of greater interdependence and sociality, but the spirit which inhered in the one passed over into the other, and no one can understand Lowell who has not first studied Beverly. Not only so, but, as Miss Larcom most suggestively points out, no one can interpret Wellesley who has not traced its origin back to Lowell. It would be an idle speculation to consider what New England would be to-day, if Ireland and Canada had not discharged their living streams into it, and if an outlet had not been found for the original waters in the prairies of the West; it is more profitable to study, as Miss Larcom’s little book bids us, the growth of those ideas of womanly development which germinated in Lowell, and have fulfilled large promise in so many forms already. We have been so impressed by the value of this book as a contribution to sociology that we are in danger of emphasizing this virtue to the neglect of what, after all, will appeal more forcibly to most minds. It is no light matter for any one, however familiarly before the public, to set forth the record of early life. Miss Larcom has been helped, no doubt, by the very condition to which we have referred ; to the absolute separation, that is, of, her girlhood from her womanhood, so far as circumstance is concerned. As she says, quaintly and charmingly: “ I can see very distinctly the child that I was, and I know how the world looked to her, far off as she is now. She seems to me like my little sister, at play in a garden, where I can at any time return and find her. I have enjoyed bringing her back, and letting her tell her story, almost as if she were somebody else. I like her better than I did when I was really a child, and I hope never to part company with her. I do not feel so much satisfaction in the older girl who comes between her and me, although she too is enough like me to be my sister, or even more like my young, undisciplined mother; for the girl is mother of the woman. . . . Still, she is myself, and I could not be quite happy without her comradeship.”

All this is a matter of consciousness, but the consciousness is strongly affected by external changes, and doubtless Miss Larcom finds it easier to stand off and look at her Beverly childhood and Lowell girlhood from the fact that she does not see them repeated in other children and girls of to-day. Repeated, that is, in their circumstance; for one great charm of her book is in the indirect witness which it bears to the existence of that which is essential in youthful life, irrespective of incident and accident. The girlhood of a princess may be so related as to be wholly a foreign life to a young American ; it might be told so as to make royalty an interesting incident.

Miss Larcom has given a delightful picture of a New England girl a generation ago, but no succession of generations can obliterate the lines which coincide with those of every open-minded child.

The note of sincerity which falls upon the reader’s ear as he hears this harmonious pastorale is most refreshing; the quaint touches which humorously enliven the detailed, homely, genre art have no strain of effect about them ; everything is simple, natural, genuine. Probably the audience for whom the book was written has more or less affected the writer, and has given her a greater freedom of manner; but we suspect it will not be the young who will draw the greatest pleasure from the performance. The reflection of youth is often more interesting to the old than to the young. Nevertheless, the virtue in the book will be appropriated most surely by those for whom it was written. Its appeal is always to the best that is in the reader, and there are noble passages which will live long in the mind, and shape, we doubt not, many ideals of life. Such a one is that in the Preface which is Miss Larcom’s Apology for Poesy. It is too long for us to quote here, and we should be glad to think that our omission sent any reader to the book itself.

What Miss Louisa Alcott would have written, had she set about a deliberate sketch of her early life, we cannot say. An autobiography calls for more studied endeavor, is a more crucial test of one’s judgment of self, than any semi-fictitious narrative of one’s childhood, or even the annotation of one’s early journals. We wish heartily that Miss Alcott had chosen to tell her own story, but, in the absence of it, we must put up with the suggestions contained in her children’s books, and in the unstudied, almost fragmentary memoir 2 which Mrs. Cheney has edited with wise reserve and good taste. There is no fullness in the book, but the reader feels that he is generously treated in being allowed such glimpses of the personality of the heroine as the editor herself has, from records.

Miss Alcott’s life does not seem so far away as Miss Larcom’s, yet it is in a fashion a representative picture of New England girlhood. For a livelier, more detailed account of that phase of New England life which she knew we must have recourse to Miss Alcott’s stories, but the spirit is preserved, nevertheless, in these personal sketches. Shall we say that there is more restlessness, more selfconsciousness, about the Concord child than about the Beverly one ? We will not run the risk of making odious comparisons, though one can scarcely read these two books in succession without instituting a good many interesting comparisons, not so much between persons as between states of society.

Independently, the figure of Miss Alcott is one of painful attractiveness, and her career one which may fairly account for much that is both winning and repelling in her stories. It is not strange that she, thrown so early upon her wits, and wonted to a life which was distractingly full of contradictions between the sky and the earth, — the sky blue, and the earth very miry, — should have taken refuge sometimes in feverish imaginations, sometimes in châteaux en Espagne. Her heroic spirit, chafing at the ignoble hindrances of every-day life, and obliged to find its training, so to speak, after its work had been done rather than through the work itself, was constantly seeking new ventures and trying itself in new forms. Here was a strong, affectionate nature, with powers half understood, restlessly beating against the cage, yet showing almost a fierce solicitude for all its similarly imprisoned companions. The half-views one gets of the home life move one almost equally to tears and smiles ; he is persuaded that if he had known Miss Alcott, he would one day have been impatiently chiding her, another day lost in admiration. The self-sacrifice was unremitting, and yet frequently recognized as self-sacrifice; the power was used recklessly, and yet it was a power. That such sunshine should flood Miss Alcott’s stories seems almost a mockery of her life, and yet no one can read her journals and letters without feeling that the sunshine after all was in her nature. But the pity of it! the broken lights, the unrest, the grasping at realities, the alternate building of glass houses and dungeons !

The book is at once a reproach to the self-indulgent and a warning to young writers. One cannot escape the conviction that great possibilities were lost in Miss Alcott’s career.

  1. A New England Girlhood, outlined from Memory. By LUCY LARCOM. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1889.
  2. Louisa May Alcott; her Life, Letters and Journals. Edited by EDNAH D. CHENEY. Boston : Roberts Brothers. 1889.