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Chapter 10: In which masculinity is a construct (when girls do it)

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Ahhhh, Chapter 10.

It’s one of the chapters when nothing really happens in terms of plot, but (and you’ll need to excuse me, I’m going to get maudlin) this is one of the few times when the sisters all hang out together without anything Instructive happening, or anyone being nasty (Amy March, I am looking at you).

We get the impression that these girls actually care about each other. How often is that sense-of-happy-sisterhood missing from the other chapters? PRETTY MUCH ALWAYS.

So, yes.

Apparently it is a yearly tradition that the March girls may each take possession of a bit of the family garden plot. Meg is all about beauty, with roses and heliotrope. Jo is practical and curious, trying out new things every year (right now she has planted a zillion sunflowers, to help feed the chickens that the Marches apparently have.) Beth has planted things to please the birds and cats, and Amy has planted things to please herself (even if the bench is “rather small and earwiggy.” Eww.)

And the March girls have cobbled together a secret society, too, because apparently secret societies were fashionable c. 1860. The girls contribute essays and stories and hints, in which they good-naturedly reminded each other of their faults and short-comings. — and this little society must have taken hours out of each week. I spend about three hours just writing this one blog post, after all, and it’s not even hand-written …

Secret societies were very fashionable thenabouts, but (here’s the thing) they were a masculine pursuit. Women were forbidden from joining men’s groups, usually by doctrine (and I imagine this is the origin of the “NO GIRLZ ALLOWED” signs that hang outside so many modern treehouses, eh).

The societies were created for men, by men. Women were excluded as a matter of doctrine as well as practicality — social mores being what they were (and are), it would be Inappropriate and possibly Scandalous for an unescorted woman to hang out with a bunch of men … even if a woman had wanted to join the secret society, she would likely be held back by knowing her reputation would be in tatters afterwards … and that’s assuming she could find a secret society that would admit her company.

Secret societies were a way for middle-class men to escape from women — their presence and their providence, which was the home — and revel in masculinity. Oh the fascinating and mystical secrets that would undoubtedly be revealed in the haze of cigar smoke and scent of mid-price bourbon! Oh the power that could be accumulated in fraternal talks over the billiard table! Oh, to hear the rustle of newsprint and muffled coughs! Retreat into a cloud of smoke and congratulate yourself on being the master of the universe.

For the March girls to play in the country of manhood, they can’t just pin a ribbon to their bodice and scrawl out a quick story; they need to become men — with manly names and manly spectacles and many many descriptions of their masculine selves in the paper. It is “Sir” and “Mr.” and “his manly form”. It is only when the girls assume their own habits and problems that they assume their own genders.

When Meg tumbles down the basement steps, it is Pickwick who

plunged his head and shoulders into a tub of water, upset a keg of soft soap upon his manly form, and torn his garments badly.


Mrs. Beth Bouncer will open her new assortment of Doll’s Millinery next week


N. W. must not fret because his dress has not nine tucks.

Meg (excuse me, I mean Mr. Pickwick!) reads aloud the paper and everyone applauds, and Mr. Snodgrass stands up to plead the case of allowing Laurie into the club:

“Mr. President and gentlemen,” he began, assuming a parliamentary attitude and tone, “I wish to propose the admission of a new member,—one who highly deserves the honor, would be deeply grateful for it, and would add immensely to the spirit of the club, the literary value of the paper, and be no end jolly and nice.”

Jo and Beth want to invite him; Meg and Amy are contrary-minded, arguing that Laurie’s boyishness is not the sort of masculinity they are interested in.

Mr. Winkle rose to say, with great elegance, “We don’t wish any boys; they only joke and bounce about. This is a ladies’ club, and we wish to be private and proper.”

“I’m afraid he’ll laugh at our paper, and make fun of us afterward,” observed Pickwick, pulling the little curl on her forehead, as she always did when doubtful.

Oh no, no! says Jo; he will HELP us! She is afraid (constantly afraid) of being too feminine, too “sentimental”. She needs a man’s presence to control her womanly bent towards femininity.

“Sir, I give you my word as a gentleman, Laurie won’t do anything of the sort. He likes to write, and he’ll give a tone to our contributions, and keep us from being sentimental, don’t you see?”

And everyone agrees that sentimentality is just plain awful, and one boy is better than four girls because his masculinity is not a performance but a god-given RIGHT.

So Jo opens up the closet door, and lo! it is Laurie — who has spent all this time listening to their speeches (and laughing to himself, which is exactly what Meg was afraid of, but nobody mentions that.)

Laurie blames himself because he is the most gentlemanly asshole ever, and Jo points out that SHE is the one who encouraged him to hide in the closet, and Laurie insists it’s his fault, but you’ll forgive me, girls, won’t you?

“I never will so again”

he says. This is a running trait of Laurie: do something bad, apologize: I’ll never do it again! Until the next time anyway.
(Throughout this whole scene, Jo has been gesturing and “clashing” the lid of the WARMING PAN, which must make a racket and also a damn mess, OMFG Jo.)

Everyone is angry at Jo and with damn good reason, because pranks are terrible things, and way to betray everyone’s trust, and this sort of defeats the purpose of SECRET society, and I’m pretty sure no one would have expressed misgivings about Laurie if they knew he could hear them. Of course no one is angry enough to do anything retaliatory like burning her manuscripts (for example) — because Jo is the authorial avatar and her actual wickedness is A-OK I guess?

Laurie introduces himself:

“Mr. President and ladies,—I beg pardon, gentlemen,—allow me to introduce myself as Sam Weller, the very humble servant of the club.”

— although he is fortunate enough to share a gender with his alter ego, isn’t he.

Laurie’s contribution is a mailbox, positioned between their two houses, which will at various times contain

tragedies and cravats, poetry and pickles, garden-seeds and long letters, music and gingerbread, rubbers, invitations, scoldings and puppies

— a boggling assortment of delights.

(Nota bene: in this chapter, Hannah is finally given a full name. She is Hannah Brown! Good job, Hannah!)






blog note: this post was meant for last week, but I was sick last week and you’re getting it now. Sorry about that! I’ll play catch-up on Wednesday with Chapter 11 (“It’s For Your Own Good”) so we don’t get behind.






Little Women available for free online from

Project Gutenberg (text)

LibriVox (audio recording)


Written by jane

November 18, 2013 at 5:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Chapter 2 … in which actual poor people exist

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You recall, O gentle reader, how the March girls were feeling selfishly sinful because they wanted to spend a dollar on themselves, after Marmee had decreed it would be a giftless Christmas? Haha your memory! It turns out Marmee lied (whoops!) and gave each of her children a gift — it’s a copy of the New Testament for each of them. I guess they can’t share.

The girls agree to read a bit every morning to set them on the path of righteousness, and the moral reminder comes in handy right away: “lazy Amy” feels suitably guilty and goes out and spends all her money on her mother (instead of just part). Amy is all of twelve years old when she goes out alone into the frozen morning to buy her dutiful gift, and no one notices that she is gone until she comes back. Just saying.

Here we are introduced to Hannah, “considered by them all more a member of the family than a servant” — the “all” here refers to the Marches, of course. Hannah’s feelings about her position isn’t considered to be worthy of consideration, which sort of puts the lie to the idea that she’s considered a member of the family! BUT WHATEVER LET’S MOVE ON.

The door opens, Marmee enters, and at once she asks the girls to donate their scrumptious Christmas breakfast to a family who is in, you know, actual poverty. (It is quite the breakfast. Buckwheat pancakes, muffins, cream — a carb-lover’s dream. This chapter has a lot of good eating.) The Marches carry food, their servant carries wood, and they all tend to the poor family — who is properly grateful and awkward and amusing and foreign. And lo, the March girls are the happiest people in the city! because they were charitable for a brief period of time! (Hannah gives up her cloak to help the family but either she has been forgotten again or suffering the cold for charity’s sake does not make her very happy. You choose. And the poor Hummel family (who I must constantly remind myself are not actually figurines) — newly fed, newly clothed, “purple hands” newly warmed — could not be nearly as happy as the cheery middle-class givers. I’m sure the Hummel’s happiness was of a different sort than the Marches; no matter how grateful they were for the fire and clothing and food, the Hummels were still desperately poor. (More on this later.)

The March girls had supper the night before and breakfast (bread and milk) that morning, and later on they had lunch and supper again, and in betweentimes they live in a well-lit cozy house with pretty pictures and pleasant people and the comfortable feeling from knowing that the comfort is not transitory but will last and last. (A wonderful feeling, whether or not it’s accurate.) It is just plain EASIER for the Marches to be happy; they have more to be happy about! They have fewer serious worries! The implication, however, isn’t about the connection between happiness and a life of relative ease. It’s about morality. The Hummels aren’t as happy as the Marches because the Hummels have not HELPED anyone. Their happiness is earthly; the happiness of the Marches is spiritual, and therefore, both bigger and better.

Anyway. The happy Marches return home and the girls get ready to perform an Operatic Tragedy for an audience of admiring girls — No Boys Allowed this time, because the girls are dressed in wild costumes made from pickle-jar lids and old leather boots and grey wigs and such. Jo wrote the opera, and it goes on at great length and description, melodramatic and penny-dreadful, and at the end there is ice cream (pink! and white!) and a great big hot-house bouquets for each of the March girls. This is their real reward, then, for their moral fit of the morning — not a spiritual reward but an earthly one after all.

The treat is from their next-door-neighbor, James Lawrence, and his grandson who is just about their age — Laurie! — and he is appealing beyond belief to most young readers. Jo chatted with him a few times “over the fence” but Meg, properly pious, is just appalled by this licentiousness and forbids Jo to make further overtures of friendship — Laurie might be living next door and able to see into their windows (seriously), but he hasn’t been INTRODUCED!

I have no idea of what it takes to be Introduced to someone, if living next door and talking about cricket and cats doesn’t accomplish the necessary. The Victorians liked to complicate things, that’s for sure. Perhaps it was necessary to exchange engraved calling-cards, or present a full family tree, or have some sort of blood work done. WHO KNOWS?

At any rate, this is your weekly reminder that Jo is quite, quite forward and unladylike — although even her unladylike behavior is performed in a ladylike way! Jo does not show her ankles or curse or play pool or flirt or smoke. She is only tomboyish. But she is still young (about fifteen, but it’s hard to pin down ages here), and her parents are sort of hippies, so her behavior can be forgiven if not forgotten.

There is a mild implication here that the March’s poverty (comparative poverty) is what grants the girls their unusual range of freedoms. Jo is a tomboy, Beth has intense social anxiety, Amy devotes herself to art, and Meg suffers from the embarrassment of social climber syndrome. By living on the fringes of fashionable culture, they are less bound to its rules.

As a social outcast myself I can assure my dear readers that the opposite is true. Following the rules is how one gains entrée. Rule-breaking without harsh and swift repercussion is reserved for those who were never in danger in the first place. Only beautiful women are allowed to portray ugly ones.

Anyway. The Marches live in fiction, and fiction does not need to follow the paltry rules of normal social engagement! Far from being EVEN MORE ostracized by the their inability or unwillingness to follow three billion unwritten rules of society, our heroines will be rewarded for it — rewarded all out of comparison to their suffering — just as they were given ice cream and roses in the dead of winter, because they gave up one meal on Christmas morning.



Little Women available for free online from

Project Gutenberg (text)

LibriVox (audio recording)

to err is human; to frog, divine

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Written by jane

August 4, 2013 at 1:32 am

stumbling forward

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Long time no blog! Things that have happened:
my camera broke.
i was sick. a lot of sick. several times.
my computer broke. (I am writing this on a borrowed iPad — a very cool piece of equipment until you need it to be useful)
i turned thirty-two.

Nothing seems very exciting when you are bedridden and miserable, so I didn’t bother to document anything (“life wasteland of broken dreams, etc”)

but we go forward, don’t we. there has been Forward Motion on the sweater front, too, although it’s the back of the sweater really, and you’ll have to trust me on that,

because camera = broken


… as you can see.

Written by jane

July 28, 2013 at 11:05 pm

the ends.

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I am desperately pleased with this sweater. And I don’t know why.

It’s not the most skilled knitting I’ve ever done, or the best-designed garment I’ve designed, or my first time steeking, or the biggest thing I’ve made, or the fastest. It’s not the most of anything.

Except: It is the most I’ve made for another person.

Knitting for others can be (ahem) difficult. Even if they pick out the yarn and the pattern and seem incredibly enthusiastic … the finished object might not match expectations. Swatches lie, yarns misbehave, and optimism overtakes reality. Sometimes we forget that our physical form is not exactly that of the lithe 15-year old in the pattern photograph. You know. Normal things.

So here, I did all the right things. I involved my gift-ee in the process. We talked about yarn weight; she chose the colors; I knit up swatches; I measured and consulted and made her try on half-finished sleeves.

All this took months. From yarn choice to casting on was two months, at least. Plus another few days months for knitting and reknitting and  reknitting, and …

… and still: it didn’t seem very long.

This sweater was my constant companion for half a year. Even before I began knitting I was designing, planning, thinking about shoulder seams and how many steeks I could fit into a single garment (three), and what about the buttonbands, and how am I going to manage the hood. And when knitting began, I carried yarn and needles to my job and knit there.

After a while it grew enormous. Then I took it to my sign language class, where I worked on it beforehand, as my friends and I chatted in English. (It is impossible to hold a conversation in sign language and knit, simultaneously. I have tried.)

I knit in fast-food booths — on sofas — on long car trips — in a rocking chair while the cat slept on my lap … and it didn’t become boring.



It’s my love and my patience and my work.

And all that’s left  is to weave in ends.

Written by jane

May 31, 2013 at 7:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized