Chapter 9 of Little Women, “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair,” that is where I want to spend my time today. Bunyan describes Vanity Fair as the place where “all such merchandise sold, as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts, as whores, bawds, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls, precious stones, and what not.”
I can see why Pilgrim’s Progress has fallen out of favor as a children’s book. Still that is just what Alcott’s chapter is about: Meg, the oldest sister, visits a marriage market, a fair where husbands are captured and wives are bought. A party with the wealthy Moffats in Boston, I mean.
Meg’s sisters join her for the first few pages, as they pack her trunk and prepare her clothes. The chapter is nothing but folds, silk, pins, ribbons. Meg, sixteen, unworldly, and poor, only has one dress that is presentable at a fancy party; that is the crux of the action. “My silk stockings and two pairs of [spick-and-]spandy gloves are my comfort,” she says, but that does not last.
That one functional dress is enough to escape Vanity Fair for one party, but a second does her in. Her friends supply her with an appropriate dress, a blue silk “so tight she could hardly breathe” that is so revealing that only a frill and rose-bud bouquet “reconciled Meg to the display of her pretty white shoulders.” She feels “’so queer and stiff, and half-dressed.’” She wrestles with her dress’s train:
Meg smiled and relented, and whispered as they stood waiting to catch the time, "Take care my skirt doesn't trip you up. It's the plague of my life and I was a goose to wear it."
"Pin it round your neck, and then it will be useful," said Laurie, looking down at the little blue boots, which he evidently approved of.
It was not until this point that I realized that Alcott was serious – that the shoulder-revealing dress was not unwise but immoral, not necessarily in its display of flesh but in its encouragement of the sin of vanity. The dress is so dangerous that despite Laurie’s sarcasm, Meg finally throws herself into the party, dancing wildly and drinking champagne to the point of illness (“She was sick all the next day”).
A surprisingly jolly chapter, but all in the service of setting an example about how girls should and should not find husbands (not at balls, not in questionable dresses).
Speaking of jolliness, the rich Moffats, the mother and father – this is a curious little detail – are a “fat, jolly old gentleman” and a “fat, jolly old lady.” The latter at one point “lumber[s] in, like an elephant, in silk and lace.” Only one other character in the novel is fat, the wealthy Aunt March. Or two characters, if you count her poodle, “a fat, cross beast” (Ch. 19). Not every rich person in the book is fat, just most of them.
I keep forgetting to mention it, but Amanda at Simpler Pastimes is hosting a Classic Kiddie Lit Challenge this month, with a George MacDonald Princess and the Goblin readalong at the end of the month. I have vaguely considered running a project. Some fun! Once I hit publish I will register Little Women over at her place.