Monday, July 18, 2011

Play's the Thing: Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott

This is close to the way I imagine the bower of lilacs near the Victorian mansion in Alcott's book.

Louisa May Alcott is rightly renowned for Little Women, but as a child and later as an adult reading out loud to my young daughter, I found Alcott's Under the Lilacs to be the most charming "chapter book" for children--rivaled only by Anne of Green Gables. The story concerns two little girls, Bab and Betty, who live with their widowed mother in a small house next to an empty mansion, and what happens one spring when a runaway circus boy, Ben, and his trick dog, Sancho, are found in the carriage house and a lovely young woman, Miss Celia, and her sick younger brother, Thorny, come to spend the summer in the mansion. What happens is tons of fun for all!

Miss Celia's mission is to bring her convalescing brother back to life. She espies in Ben, Bab, and Betty just the right sort of people to help her do it, and Under the Lilacs offers a glimpse of how children created their own fun in the time before summer day camps and organized sports for children, not to mention television, video games, phones, movies, and all the other hyper-stimulative gadgets and toys that youngsters have at their disposal today.

Bab tugged away at the bow Miss Celia gave her.

She hands over one of the rooms of the mansion to the kids and gives them her rag bag and needles and thread, after which they designing and sewing flags to festoon the house's big porch. "A spell of ship building and rigging followed the flag fit," as Thorny let the children use his array of large toy ships and boats. "These gifts led to out-of-door waterworks, for the brook had to be dammed up that a shallow ocean might be made....

Thorny, from his chair, was chief engineer, and directed his gang of one how to dig the basin, throw up the embankment, and finally let in the water till the mimic ocean was full; then regulate the little water gate, lest it should overflow and wreck the pretty squadron of ships, boats, canoes, and rafts, which soon rode at anchor there. Digging and paddling in mud and water proved such a delightful pastime that the boys kept it up, til a series of a waterwheels, little mills and cataracts made the once quiet brook look as if a manufacturing town was about to spring up where hitherto minnows had played in peace and the retiring frog had chanted his serenade unmolested.

Miss Celia also organized jaunts to unknown spots in the countryside: "It really was quite exciting to start off on a bright morning with a roll of wraps and cushions, lunch, books, and drawing materials packed into the phaeton, and drive at random about the shady roads and lanes, pausing when and where they liked. Wonderful discoveries were made, pretty places were named, plans were drawn, and all sorts of merry adventures befell the pilgrims."

In the midst of all these adventures, each child enjoyed growth and development as part of the process of encountering obstacles, losses, or new challenges.

Louisa May Alcott--child delighter.

There is evidence from Harriet Reisen's Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women that Alcott modeled Miss Celia on herself. It was the recollection of one of Louisa's schoolmates that "Louisa was the foremost of her sisters and the ringleader of the group," Reisen reports. The schoolmate also recounted a performance Louisa put together for one of her sister's birthdays. "She concocted a satisfying bill of fare out of dubious romantic legends--vaguely Gaelic, Germanic, and Native American.... Louisa stole the show as Alfarata, an Indian girl who like Louisa 'was swift as an antelope through the forest going.'"

Another playmate of Louisa's recalls that in the summer that he was 14 years old, he and the Alcott sisters played outside all day, blissfully unsupervised. "We christened a favorite nook, a beautiful rocky glen carpeted with moss and adorned with ferns opening upon the water's edge, 'Spiderland.' I was the King of the realm, Anna [Alcott] was the Queen, and Louisa the Princess Royal." He also noted that Louisa's mother Abby Alcott also participated in their play, "No matter how weary she might be with the washing and ironing, the baking and cleaning, it was all hidden from the group of girls with whom she was always ready to enter into fun and frolic, as if she never had a care."

Louisa May Alcott's childhood, we know and as Reisen relates, was not blissful but rife with poverty that served up brown bread, oatmeal, and apples for most meals. But Louisa May Alcott surely remembered the best of her playtimes and re-created them in her novels, albeit properly embellished. She, as did other authors of beloved children's books such as L. M. Montgomery, wrote her dreams so that we could dream them too... and hopefully give our children a taste of such marvels.

It takes so little to make a child happy, it is a pity grown people do not oftener remember it and scatter little bits of pleasure before the small people, as they throw crumbs to the hungry sparrows.
Under the Lilacs, by Louisa May Alcott

Dancing in the Rain

1 comment:

Jodi said...

I'm running out the door to work, but I'll be back to read these delicious looking posts.