Little Women and its sequel Good Wives are on the horizon. I am in theory reading along with Dolce Bellezza, as are, I hope, many people, although I will be on vacation the week following Christmas, just when DB plans to write about the novels. I will catch up, I promise, at least if whoever is hogging the library copy, probably some ten year old who can hardly appreciate the book the way I will and should surrender it for the greater good of book blogging, ever returns the dang thing. So it will likely not be until January that I write about who I think Jo should marry and which of the characters I most want to slap, which I understand are the key interpretive difficulties of the novels.
In preparation, I read Louisa May Alcott’s earlier little memoir Hospital Sketches (1863), a surprisingly humorous account of her one month as an army nurse (she contracted typhoid and had to abandon her service). Rob Velella, proprietor of The American Literary Blog, twittered that Hospital Sketches is a better book than Little Women. I don’t remember Little Women well enough to say, but Hospital Sketches is a good book.
A sample of Alcott’s humor, from a Chapter V, “Off Duty,” where we get to see a little bit of wartime Washington, D. C., including the new Capitol building, the statuary (“rather wearying to examine”), the army mules, and the free-range pigs:
Pigs also possessed attractions for me, never having had an opportunity of observing their graces of mind and manner, till I came to Washington, whose porcine citizens appeared to enjoy a larger liberty than many of its human ones. Stout, sedate looking pigs, hurried by each morning to their places of business, with a preoccupied air, and sonorous greeting to their friends. Genteel pigs, with an extra curl to their tails, promenaded in pairs, lunching here and there, like gentlemen of leisure… Maternal pigs, with their interesting families, strolled by in the sun; and often the pink, baby-like squealers lay down for a nap, with a trust in Providence worthy of human imitation. (V, 71-2)
Although Alcott often reminded me of Mark Twain (this is before Twain had published anything of significance), her model is Charles Dickens. Hospital Sketches is packed with references to Dickens. I in fact concealed one of them in the ellipses above, where young pigs are not only compared to Mrs. Peerybingle from The Cricket on the Hearth (1845) but Alcott actually includes a close paraphrase of a Dickens passage about neat stockings. Not only is the tone that of Dickens, but so is some of the language.
Hospital Sketches, in the edition I read (Belknap, 1960), is only 84 pages long. The editor, Bessie Z. Jones, fills it out with a fascinating essay on military nursing before and during the Civil War. That is the heart of the novel, of course, Alcott’s work as a nurse. I should write something about that. Dickens is again relevant.