I was already 30 pages in when I realized I’d already read “Eight Cousins”, many, many moons ago. I vividly remember two scenes in particular, but in my mind they became part of “A Little Princess” (I confused my orphans…): the scene where Uncle Alec creates placebo pills from brown bread, and him puting together Rose’s room, full of exotic objects from his travels. Why these two in a book full of other events? No idea.
“Eight Cousins” is about Rose Campbell, a 13-year-old who shortly after becoming an orphan is put under the guardianship of her Uncle Alec. He’s a doctor and temporarily away at sea, so until he returns Rose goes to live in “Aunt Hill”, the home of many aunts, great-aunts and seven male cousins. When we first meet her, Rose is a treated by the Aunts as the frail and delicate creature every Victorian young woman should be. However, when Uncle Alec comes back, he begins a long process towards a happier and healthier Rose, using very unorthodox methods (he was ready to burn her corset!).
The story is pure Alcott in it’s gentleness and focus on strong messages for young people, but it felt rather more outdated than “Little Women” and its sequels. In those famous works, she seem to be writting for both adults and children, but this one comes across as more infantile. The moralizing and sentimentality in “Eight Cousins” (full of “little dears” that go to “little beds”, with a “little cups of broth”) became too much Tell and not enough Show. Here’s when the best Aunt tries to dissuade her sons from reading “popular stories”:
“A boot-black mustn’t use good grammar, and a newsboy must swear a little, or he wouldn’t be natural,” explained Geordie, both boys ready to fight gallantly for their favourites.
“But my sons are neither boot-blacks nor newsboys, and I object to hearing them use such words as ‘screamer,’ ‘bully,’ and ‘buster.’ In fact, I fail to see the advantage of writing books about such people unless it is done in a very different way. I cannot think they will help to refine the ragamuffins if they read them, and I’m sure they can do no good to the better class of boys, who through these books are introduced to police courts, counterfeiters’ dens, gambling houses, drinking saloons, and all sorts of low life.”
Still, Uncle Alec’s theories about what a young girl should eat, dress and be taught was radical for its time, and still refreshing noew. He forbade corsets and tight belts, he recommended lots of fresh air and exercise, and defended that every girl should be educated on how to handle her financial affairs and (this was surprising!) how her body works.
“Do you think that is a good sort of thing for her to be poking over? She is a nervous child, and I’m afraid it will be bad for her,” said Aunt Myra, watching Rose as she counted vertebrae, and waggled a hip-joint in its socket with an inquiring expression.
“An excellent study, for she enjoys it, and I mean to teach her how to manage her nerves so that they won’t be a curse to her, as many a woman’s become through ignorance or want of thought. To make a mystery or terror of these things is a mistake, and I mean Rose shall understand and respect her body so well that she won’t dare to trifle with it as most women do.”
I’ve added “Rose in Bloom”, the sequel to “Eight Cousins” to the wishlist.