New Women Writer-Protagonists: Comparing Louisa May Alcott’s Jo and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne

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Alcott, date and author unknown. public domain, via wikimedia commons.

Alcott, date and author unknown. public domain, via wikimedia commons.

By Tiffany Johnstone

 

It is no coincidence that Canadian Lucy Maud Montgomery’s (1874–1942) Anne of Green Gables (1908) resembles American Louisa May Alcott’s (1832-1888) earlier two-part text Little Women (1868-1869), published as one book in 1880.  Both coming-of-age narratives engage in debates about gender prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Both feature independent female protagonists who must negotiate traditional gender roles and increased opportunities for their sex.  While Little Women and its two sequels (published in 1871 and 1886) follow all of the female members of the March family, they focus on Josephine (“Jo”) March who struggles the most to free herself from gender expectations.  Similarly, Anne of Green Gables (1908) and its many sequels (published between 1909 and 1939) track Anne Shirley whose independent nature conflicts with social expectations.  Jo and Anne have both become iconic characters that are in many ways emblematic of the turn of the 20th century’s New Woman.[1]  Their most obvious and well-known literary predecessor is Elizabeth Bennett from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) who consistently uses her own wit and independence of mind to flout gender conventions.  However, the updated dilemmas for Jo and Anne lie not so much in their independent natures as in their literary aspirations.  In a meta-textual twist, both Little Women and Anne of Green Gables mirror the lives of their authors.  Each represents the struggles of the New Woman through the figure of the New Woman writer, thereby equating female emancipation with increased powers of self-expression.

In terms of subject matter, Alcott and Montgomery either deliberately or inadvertently echo earlier famous 19th century texts by and for women (most notably those by Austen and the Brontë sisters).  They recall these earlier texts by focussing on the emotional and psychological development of independent female characters who somehow manage to challenge social expectations, while also ultimately finding socially acceptance and personal fulfillment in marriage.  In terms of genre, both women can be seen as drawing in key ways on the sentimental novel, which first emerged in the 18th century and which placed a strong emphasis on the value of emotion and the pursuit of ideals of virtue (“Sentimental Novel”).  19th century North American women writers found massive mainstream success in sentimental novels that often contained domestic themes and a hetero-normative focus on marriage.  For example, E.D.E.N. Southworth (1819-1899) was a 19th century American writer who drew on the sentimental genre and whose texts may have been judged harshly by literary critics despite their immense popularity.  Famed American 19th century author, Nathanial Hawthorne (1804-1864) is known to have denounced such popular women writers, referring to them as a “damn mob of scribbling women!” (Qtd. in Berlatsky).  Aside from drawing on the inspiration of the sentimental genre, Alcott and Montgomery also use more contemporary elements of realism through their preoccupation with the details of daily life and less melodramatic emotional extremes and plot twists than those that occur in many sentimental novels.  Both authors acknowledge their own realist turn by parodying Jo and Anne’s interest in the sensation genre, a type of popular 19th-century adventure and crime literature known for featuring graphic and gratuitous scenes of violence and sexuality (“Novel of Sensation”).

Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1832.  She was the second of four sisters and her parents were teacher and transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott and social worker Abby May.  In 1838, the Alcotts relocated to Boston.  Bronson founded an experimental school and joined the Transcendentalists along with philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.  After a year spent in the Utopian Fruitlands community in Harvard, the Alcotts bought a house in Concord, Massachusetts in 1845.  Educated mostly by her own father, Alcott also studied periodically with Emerson and Thoreau, early feminist Margaret Fuller, and novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Like many women of limited financial means at the time, Alcott, in addition to writing, worked as a governess, a domestic, and a teacher.  Financial pressures are said to have led to thoughts of suicide and she described alienation from traditional modes of femininity.  She never married or had children.  While Alcott broke ground as a professional female writer, she also supported her family and even took care of her niece after the death of her sister.

Alcott was a suffragist and the first woman in Concord to register to vote.  In the fight against Black slavery, she, along with her family, was an abolitionist and supporter of the Underground Railroad.  Her first literary success came with Hospital Sketches (1863), her account of working as a nurse during the American Civil War (1860-5).   She received still more acclaim with the publication of the first part of Little Women.  The series was a near-instant cult classic, creating an important source of income for her family, a devoted readership, international acclaim, and approximately nine film adaptations.  Alcott wrote at least 26 complete long works of fiction in addition to many short stories, plays, poetry, and non-fiction throughout her life, and she continued writing until her death in Boston in 1888.

Katharine Hepburn as Jo, 1933. By RKO Radio Pictures (work for hire) ([3] (direct link to image).) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Description publicity still of Katharine Hepburn as Jo, 1933. By RKO Radio Pictures (work for hire) ([3] (direct link to image).) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Little Women series, which defines Alcott’s career, is based in many ways on her upbringing and the character of Jo seems to be at least partly autobiographical.  Like Alcott, Jo March lives in Concord in a household of four sisters with idealistic and anti-authoritarian parents.  The story follows their daily life as they cope with financial and health struggles and the absence of the father in the Civil War, (the latter detail of which was not autobiographical).  The daily lives of women stand at the centre of the text.  Jo’s struggle to find her voice as a New Woman and as a writer is the main narrative arc.  Like Alcott, Jo actively rejects traditional gender roles.  She refuses the marriage offer of a childhood friend so as to focus instead on her career.  Later, she forms a more unconventional relationship with an older German intellectual.  Like her creator’s, Jo’s rebellion further manifests itself in a fervent desire to write fiction.  Her departure for New York for employment as both a governess and a writer is an important symbolic departure from traditional expectations.  Significantly, Jo initially devotes herself to sensation fiction.  Aside from the Little Women series, Alcott employed the sensation genre at times throughout her career, writing many popular thrillers under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard.  However, just as Alcott seems to have made her name with the more realist Little Women, so too does Jo prioritize realism.  Upon criticism that her writing did not ring true, she elects a more realistic portrayal of her upbringing, a symbolic return to her roots that in some ways mirrors Alcott’s loyalty to her family and her career-defining success with Little Women.

Japanese poster for the 1949 film version. By MGM ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Japanese poster for the 1949 film version. By MGM ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jo’s path nevertheless somewhat diverges from Alcott’s.  She marries the German professor and establishes a school.  Her marriage and decision to choose the more traditionally feminine career of teaching signal a more conventional life path than that of the unmarried professional writer.  In setting Jo’s trajectory, Alcott was following a familiar sentimental narrative structure made famous by Austen and the Brontës.  On the one hand, a conventional ending could have been a deliberate appeal to readers and publishers, a more pressing necessity for professional female authors who had to work harder to justify themselves in a male-dominated field.  However, Jo’s fate can also be read as a creative engagement with social pressures that women of her time faced.  Like Alcott, Jo negotiates between traditionally masculine and feminine roles, between the public and private sphere, and between social rebellion and social acceptance.

Alcott had to find a balance between increased opportunities and more traditional roles.  As a popular and trailblazing writer, she helped to legitimize professional female authors even as she demonstrated her own domestic loyalty to and financial support of her family (Chapman and Mills 12).  The woman writer who rebels against and then returns to more traditional domestic gender roles embodies a complicated message, namely the difficulty of gaining a creative voice in public employments while maintaining domestic respectability and authority.

Montgomery, 1897-1901. Anonymous author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Montgomery, 1897-1901. Anonymous author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Born in Clifton, Prince Edward Island in 1874, Lucy Maud Montgomery was raised by her maternal grandparents Alexander Marquis Macneill and Lucy Woolner Macneill in Cavendish.  Her father, Hugh John Montgomery, sent her to live with them after her mother, Clara Woolner Macneill Montgomery, died of tuberculosis shortly before her child’s second birthday.  Like many Maritimers, he then left for the west where he was effectively lost to his daughter for many years.  Their charge later credited the strictness of the Macneills for both loneliness and a strong imagination.  She went to school in Cavendish and in 1893 began studying as a teacher at Prince of Wales College, Charlottetown.  Licensed in 1895, she went the following year to Halifax’s Dalhousie University to study literature.  She seems to have had several romantic attachments and some marriage proposals, all of which she ultimately rejected, preferring to wait for a more suitable candidate and the securing of a reliable income as a writer.  After 1898, she lived mostly in Cavendish with her widowed grandmother who died in 1911.  Between 1897 and 1907, she published over a hundred stories in newspapers and magazines. In 1908, she published Anne of Green Gables, which cemented her literary success.

In 1911, she married Presbyterian minister, Ewan Macdonald (1870-1943).   They moved to Leaksdale, Ontario where he secured a congregation while Montgomery continued to write, while also performing the expected duties of a minister’s wife.  She raised two sons and had an additional stillborn son, an experience drawn upon in the Anne series.  Managing a husband who suffered bouts of mental illness, Montgomery relied on her writing for income and affirmation.  In 1926, the family moved to another small Ontario town, Norval.  When Ewan retired in 1935, they shifted to Swansea near Toronto.  She died in Toronto in 1942 leaving a widower and was buried in Cavendish.  While the official report claimed a coronary thrombosis, a note suggests depression and suicide.[2]

Montgomery wrote nine Anne books and 20 novels.  She also published a memoir, poetry, and hundreds of short stories.  Her Anne books received international acclaim in her own lifetime and, subsequently, films, a spin-off television series, booming tourism for PEI, and a cult literary fan-base.  Even Mark Twain who famously criticized Jane Austen’s books professed love for Anne.  Montgomery was the first Canadian woman to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and she remains one of the most internationally recognized Canadian authors.

Like Alcott’s Little Women, Anne of Green Gables presents uncanny parallels with the life of Montgomery who stated that “Anne is as real to me as if I had given her birth” (Gerson, “Dragged” 151).  The books start with orphaned Anne Shirley’s adoption by elderly rural farmers, sister and brother Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert.  Like her creator, the child is a lonely outcast with a wild imagination and extravagant literary aspirations.  Anne too rejects romantic love at first to pursue independence in education, teaching, and writing.  Like Montgomery before she married, Anne returns to where she grew up.  At the end of the first book she delays going away to school on a scholarship to look after her adoptive mother, a choice that some reviewers and Montgomery herself sometimes found “too conventional” (Gerson, “Dragged” 149).  Anne draws on her upbringing for literary inspiration.  Like her American predecessor Jo, she gives up sensation stories for greater realism and eventually marries childhood friend Gilbert Blythe and raises several children.  Her life, like Jo’s, but unlike that of either author, is bound up in a narrative of  heterosexual marriage and domesticity.

A lobby card for the 1919 film. By Realart Pictures (ha.com) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

A lobby card for the 1919 film. By Realart Pictures (ha.com) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Alcott and Montgomery show the struggles of professional women writers to gain a voice and carve out more independent paths for women.  Despite, and no doubt partly because of, their iconic status as authors of children’s books and popular novels for women, Alcott and Montgomery arguably do not share the same level of literary canonization as several of their male contemporaries.  As literary critic Carole Gerson points out in relation to Canadian women writers, “achieving celebrity is not the same as enjoying canonicity” (Canadian Women in Print 196).  The 20th-century North American modernist backlash against popular literature written by and for women was influential in minimizing the presence of successful women writers in literary canons.  Alcott’s and Montgomery’s struggles with depression demonstrate the personal costs of challenging the status quo.  Their lives nevertheless forecast different options and offer at least a measure of inspiration. Both the Canadian and the American found in their work and in their readers significant comfort and consolation.  In a bravely experimental move, they replace the distanced narration of Austen and the Brontës with a more raw, autobiographical style that re-imagines a New Woman in their image—that of the professional writer—and encourages readers to similarly use their creative powers to invent new modes of identity.  The immense popularity of both Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, and particularly of their protagonists, testifies to how much (especially female) readers sought optimistic new models of female creative agency.

Jo and Anne’s success in combining the domestic and the professional for massive popular audiences was extremely important.  Even contemporary world-renowned Canadian feminist author Margaret Atwood admits that as a young writer, she was struck by how women’s creative freedom seemed often to be equated with self-sacrifice, punishment, and even death (Sullivan).  In the 21st century, this motif continues to darken contemporary literature and film such as the recent film, Black Swan (2010).  Alcott and Montgomery bucked such misogyny.  Despite the recurring dismissal of figures such as Alcott and Montgomery as unrealistic and sentimental on the part of modern critics (Gerson, Canadian Women in Print), these authors re-envision female self-expression as rewarding and powerful.  In their new model, independent women artists struggle and rebel but nevertheless reap personal satisfaction and social acceptance.  The immense continuing popularity of Jo and Anne helped to make un-penalized creative freedom (in women’s art and in women’s lives) a goal for later generations of women.

 

Bibliography

Alcott, Louisa May, and NetLibrary, Inc. Ebook Collection. Little Women and Good Wives. Champaign, Ill.: Project Gutenberg, and Boulder, Colo.: NetLibrary. UBC Library. Web. 28 June, 2013.

Berlatsky, Noah. “That Damn Mob of Scribbling Women!”—An Interview With Bee Ridgway” The Hooded Utilitarian: A Pundit in Every Panopticon. 21 May, 2013. Web. 1 Jul. 2013.

Chapman, Mary and Angela Mills.  Treacherous Texts. U.S. Suffrage Literature, 1846-1946. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011.

Gerson, Carole. Canadian Women in Print, 1750–1918. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010. Project MUSE. Web. 30 Jun. 2013.

– – -. “Dragged at Anne’s Chariot Wheels’: L.M. Montgomery and the Sequels to Anne of Green Gables.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada. 35.2 (1997): 143-159.

Miller, Kathleen A. “The Magic of L.M. Montgomery: Her Life and Works.” Children’s Literature 38 (2010): 254-259. Project MUSE. Web. 30 Jun. 2013.

Montgomery, Lucy Maud. Anne of Green Gables. n.p., 1908. Project Gutenberg Online Catalogue.  UBC Library. Web. 28 June, 2013.

“Novel of Sensation.” The Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. 3rd Ed. 1992.

“Sentimental Novel.” The Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. 3rd Ed. 1992.

Sullivan, Rosemary. The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood Starting Out. Toronto: Harper Flamingo Canada, 1998.

 

 

 


[1] While this term emerged in specific ways in the 1890s, I use it in a more general way to indicate Alcott’s influence in earlier narratives and debates about independent women that helped to lead to more specific New Woman discourses at the end of the century, which then in turn influenced Montgomery’s later texts.  The importance of professional women writers in creating and representing New Woman discourses, particularly in the east coast publishing scene, also indicates Alcott’s earlier influence on such discourses.

 

[2] While Montgomery’s descendants released a note in 2008 that confirmed the author’s depression and suggested that she may have taken her own life, debates continue about whether or not the note was merely a private journal entry (Miller 256-257).