The Art of Femininity in Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom

Illustration from first edition of Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins, 1875. (Public Domain/via Wikimedia)
Two children’s classics raise a proposition worth considering: Women have a decided influence over men.

Little Women is so beloved (quite deservedly) that many readers forget Louisa May Alcott’s other delightful stories for young people. Jo’s Boys continues the treasured story of the March sisters, An Old-Fashioned Girl is charmingly quaint, and Jack and Jill is sweet and tinged with sadness. But among her most interesting works is the two-book series composed of Eight Cousins (1875) and Rose in Bloom (1876). Beginning when our protagonist is 13, these books tell the tale of Rose Campbell, orphan and heiress.

After her father dies, Rose is sent to live with her guardian, kind Uncle Alec, in a mansion located in close proximity to her many aunts. To her horror, she is also thrust into the midst of her seven boy cousins, with all their antics and lively ways. Alcott has an amusing way with her characters, and her pen paints them remarkably well. Each aunt, uncle, and cousin, no matter how small a role they take, is clearly drawn. Growing up, my friends and I would quote morbid Aunt Myra, telling each other we “had one foot in the grave.” Tall, dark-haired Phebe, a servant and later Rose’s companion, has a voice like a bird and the noblest of natures. And Mac, or the “Worm,” as his cousins dubbed him (on account of his always being stuck in a book), is a humorous mix of awkwardness, boyish fun, and patient lover.

Eight Cousins deftly takes important relationships and weaves them together. The first relationship (or set of relationships) concerns the boys. Rose is terrified of them at the beginning, and she also expresses her fear of horses, boating, and the like. The “Campbell spirit” is strong within her, though, and she soon becomes as active and fun-loving as the rest. This is due in large part to the second theme, which is her relationship with her Uncle Alec, a medical doctor. Her guardian after her father’s death, Alec is a noble man, blessed with gifts of generosity, kindness, cheerfulness, and most importantly, wisdom. He rescues Rose from the many kindly, though overpowering, interferences of her aunts and strives to form her character and her mind to seek truth and beauty, as well as to strengthen her in body.

In Rose in Bloom, our heroine has matured into a young woman, fresh from two years abroad with her uncle and adopted sister, Phebe. Her cousins also have grown up, though some more than others, and she reenters the family fray with some trepidation and plenty of determination. Rose is not a perfect girl by any means, and she is inclined to be vain and pleasure-seeking. She is aware of her faults, however, and is determined to conquer them with the help of her beloved uncle, and to learn to use her great wealth wisely. (Modern readers must suspend their discomfort with the idea of cousins courting each other, for that drives the plot of the book.)

A trademark of Alcott as a writer, in my mind, is her frequent use of classical and literary allusions. Hebe, Apollo, Una and the Lion — all these and more make appearances throughout her books, and these stories are no exception. Prominent in Rose in Bloom is her use of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. Alcott uses this myth, a treasured favorite of my own, to develop the love story in the book. Poets are quoted often, as well as lovely old songs. The song “The Birks of Aberfeldy” features in both books, and ties in beautifully to the Campbells’ proud Scotch heritage. These references speak to a different era, and rather than making the books feel outdated, they help to elevate them and give them added meaning and depth.

In the preface to Rose in Bloom, Alcott writes:

As authors may be supposed to know better than anyone else what they intended to do when writing a book, I beg leave to say that there is no moral to this story. Rose is not designed for a model girl: and the Sequel was simply written in fulfillment of a promise; hoping to afford some amusement, and perhaps here and there a helpful hint, to other roses getting ready to bloom.

Though Alcott insists no moral tale be read into these books, one of her “helpful hints” is worth considering. This proposition is rather fraught in our day and age, but it is simply this: Women have a decided influence over men. Rose is told very directly that her cousins admire and respect her, and that, while she is not responsible for their actions, she does have a role to play in their behavior. With often sweet, sometimes comical, and occasionally sad results, Rose sticks by her cousins, striving to encourage them through both word and deed. From agreeing to sacrifice a personal vanity (her hard-won earrings) in a deal with her older cousins to persuade them to give up smoking, to firmly distancing herself from another cousin (who is in love with her) when he won’t stop making bad decisions, Rose tries to help those around her reach their full potential.

These matters may seem silly to our modern sensibilities, or even offensive. Pause a moment and hear Rose: “Thank you: I don’t want admirers or slaves, but friends and helpers. I’ve lived so long with a wise, good man that I am rather hard to suit, perhaps; but I don’t intend to lower my standard, and anyone who cares for my regard must at least try to live up to it.” Is Alcott claiming female moral superiority? Rankling readers with her seeming preachiness? No, indeed.

The writer Carrie Gress, in her book The Anti-Mary Exposed, seems to be agreeing with Alcott:

Women are called to ‘contain’ others, not just to hold onto them, but to improve them and let them go again, now healthier, stronger, and better prepared for the journey. The time-honored symbols of women — vessels, ovens, ships, and so on — represent containing something, transforming it, bringing people to safety. These are not unimportant things, but truly the elements that help people grow into their full potential.

This story isn’t meant to chide men, however. Rose has her own faults to conquer and is encouraged in her own growth of virtue by her Uncle Alec, her Aunt Jessie, and by the well-meant teasings of her cousins. The wisdom and support of her family strengthen Rose in her resolve to better herself and better love those in her life.

These are profound questions for a book so intent on not having a moral! Alcott’s seeming preachiness may annoy some readers, but her way is tender and meant encouragingly. Written in a light, lyrical style, both books are filled with the joys and sorrows of family life and of growing up. With endearing characters, lovely scenes, and maybe a bit of a moral to chew on, Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom will enchant readers old and new.

Sarah Schutte is the podcast manager for National Review and an associate editor for National Review magazine. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, she is a children's literature aficionado and Mendelssohn 4 enthusiast.


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