Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott

Eight Cousins cover

I loved reading the Louisa May Alcott books that most girls read when they were 10 or so, when I was that age anyway. I’m not sure how popular they are with youngsters nowadays, but back then I was under the impression that she had only written, Little Women, Good Wives, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. So when I saw some bloggers mentioning Eight Cousins over the years I thought it was one I’d like to get a hold of, but I never did trip over a copy in a secondhand bookshop. I only resort to the internet for books in desperation.

So how lucky was I that my blogpal Jennifer @ Holds Upon Happiness sent me a copy in a parcel of books that she sent me as an unnecessary but much appreciated thank you, especially given the price of postage nowadays?

Anyway, to the book. Eight Cousins was first published in the US in 1875. As in most children’s novels down the ages both of Rose Campbell’s parents are dead and she’s sent to live at the ‘Aunt Hill’ with six aunts and seven boy cousins. As you can imagine Rose is very despondent at the recent loss of her father, and her new home consisting of so many elderly aunts unused to girls isn’t really what she needs to comfort her. The aunts in turn feel that Rose isn’t like any other child they’ve known and they feel like they have been given the care of “a very low-spirited butterfly”.

Even being allowed to poke into all the rooms, cupboards and chests in the old mansion hasn’t perked Rose up at all. The invitation to Phebe another girl Rose’s age to come and play with her has been a failure, just as well really as Phebe seemed to be a bad influence.

Just when everyone was beginning to worry about Rose’s health and one aunt was predicting her early death, Rose is saved by her Uncle Alec’s attention and being able to romp around and have fun with her seven boy cousins. But when Rose regains her health and strength it’s the turn of her character for some attention from Alec, and although Rose has been left comfortably off with the death of her father Alec suggests that Rose might do worse than to study the art of housekeeping, a womanly accomplishment that no girl should be without.

So begins Rose’s domestic education with each aunt teaching her the ins and outs of their own accomplishments. It’s not exactly what Rose had hoped to be learning but the tasks set by the aunts and the time they spend with Rose are sources of pleasure for all concerned. Her male cousins make sure that Rose has plenty of fun which some of the more snooty members of their society might not approve of and in turn Rose has a hand in improving her cousins.

Eight Cousins is 145 years old now and was aimed at young girls who are now long dead, but really the exploits of the children in the book are there to show right from wrong morally – which doesn’t change. I think this sort of book is what taught me to be a decent human being, well a mixture of that and Scottish Calvinism, although looking around I suspect that being a decent human being doesn’t have much cachet nowadays!

Thanks Jenny!

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

It is ages since I read this book, in fact I had just begun reading it when we were told by a surveyor that our old house was in need of damp preservation work, all unsuspected by us – I swear those damp meters are far too sensitive! It was a fraught time and on reflection I should probably have given up on this book at that time and started on something jollier. I’m just going to write about some of my memories of it from way back. I think this one was one of my Classics Club Spin books, but life and house moving got in the way.

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne was first published in 1851 and I imagine that it might have been required reading for some American students in schools, and that can be a real off-putter. I know that I’ve read at least one blogger who hated it but I went from thinking – this is dragging a bit and not as good as The Scarlet Letter to deciding that actually I was enjoying it and I ended up thinking that it is better than The Scarlet Letter, despite the fact that it was nothing like I expected it to be. The Scarlet Letter is really a fairly straightforward and old tale but there’s a lot more to this one.

I’m drawn to books which feature houses, especially if the house has been written with as much character and presence as any of the human characters. The house in this book certainly has presence but not in a good way. It’s full of dry and wet rot, the roof is covered with moss and it even has weeds, or should I say – flowers in the wrong place – growing out of the front gable roof. It’s dark and depressing and an unhealthy place to be, and its owner is a scowling old lady who doesn’t want anything to do with anyone.

That’s not the sort of attitude to have if you want to start up a small business, poor Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon has sunk so low (by her estimation) that she is forced to open a cent shop in her front parlour. It’s not going to be a success as she really thinks that she’s above everyone else, she’s living in the past and remembering when her family was one to be reckoned with in the community. The Pyncheon family is much reduced in size and the only other family member still living in the neighbourhood is Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, a wealthy, greedy man who wore out his poor wife in less than four years – “she got her death-blow in the honeymoon and never smiled again.”. Really the mind boggles!!

Hepzibah’s brother Clifford has just been released from prison where he has been for 30 years, convicted of a crime which he didn’t commit and it’s not long before Jaffrey begins to hound him for information on where some fabled family riches are secreted.

The whole book is lifted by the arrival of Phoebe, a young cousin who luckily has none of the Pyncheon family characteristics, she’s a sunny, happy soul and quickly becomes popular in the neighbourhood, helping to make the shop successful and there’s romance in the air too.

I enjoyed this one and I think I might even reread it sometime in the distant future, when I can concentrate on it more and don’t have builders clambering around in my own house. The setting is of course Massachusetts.

You can see images here of the original house with seven gables in Salem, MA and read about it here. I’d love to visit it but it’s just too far for me to contemplate the journey.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I decided to gird my loins, pluck up all my courage and such and get down to reading Moby Dick early on in the year, I’ve been putting it off for years. I inherited an ancient copy of it but that hasn’t surfaced since our house move so I read it on my Kindle – in about five days! That’s what you can do when the weather keeps you stuck in the house. I read every word of it too, no skim reading for me.

Well just call me a twit because all that I knew about Moby Dick was that it was about a whale, it never occurred to me that that would obviously mean it was about whale hunting, not a thing which appeals to me at all.

It all started off so well with the author explaining exactly how the word whale should be pronounced – huale. It is a difficult thing to put down in print but you know what he means and I’m completely with him on this – no ‘wh’ sound should be pronounced ‘w’. Let’s face it, that makes for all sorts of unecessary confusion such as whether/weather – which/witch – whales/Wales – where/wear – what/watt and such. It’s an English thing to pronounce ‘wh’ and ‘w’ the same and I can clearly remember when I was being taught to read that it was important to make that ‘wh’ sound.

This is a writer that I can relate to I thought and I did find it interesting. Ishmael is keen to join a whaling ship although he knows he won’t get much in the way of pay and he might be away for as long as three years. He finds a bed in a rough looking inn and has to share a bed with Queequeg which is a scary prospect because Queequeg is a tattooed cannibal with sharpened teeth. But the two of them end up getting on very well, mainly because Ishmael recognises that Queequeg is a man that he can learn a lot from and Queequeg is happy that Ishmael has no prejudices against him. In fact the lack of prejudice is the best thing in the book with the make up of the crew of the ship which they both end up joining being like a league of nations.

Unfortunately Melville decided to dredge up every bit of history and writing about whales that he could get his hands on, from the bible, Shakespeare, letters, historical documents, reports from monks, if it mentioned whales he pulled it out from somewhere, what can I say – he needed an editor. He even mentioned the monks at Dunfermline (in that abbey which I blogged about a few days ago) eating whale/porpoise balls, presumably ‘meatballs’ (don’t tell IKEA). Descriptions of different sorts of whales and what we would nowadays call dolphins, their habits and habitats.

It all got quite tedious, in fact if about 60% of the book was filleted out of the middle of it then I think it would be an improvement. It did get a bit more interesting when they actually got down to whale hunting but only from a historical perspective as you can imagine, the thought of harpooning whales is disgusting and being told that their bodies often have multiple harpoons already embedded in them from previous hunts is horrific.

Captain Ahab doesn’t appear all that much. He’s obsessed with Moby Dick because in a previous encounter with the great white whale, Moby Dick relieved him of one of his legs from below the knee. In an act of vengence Ahab uses a whale bone as his lower leg instead of the more usual wooden ‘peg leg’. I think that J.M. Barrie might have based his Captain Hook on Ahab.

Nantucket seems to have been where the best whalers came from and a lot of them had originally been Quakers, but those who took up whaling were Quakers with a vengeance, which I found amusing.

But of course whale hunts still take place, with the Japanese and some Scandinavians insisting on keeping it going as it’s a traditional occupation, and of course lucrative, while the rest of us are out there trying to save beached whales who have got into trouble on our coasts.

I took a few notes of bits which I liked early on when I was optimistic about the book:

There was Queequeg, now certainly entertaining the most absurd notions about Yojo (his god) …. and Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.

When the landlady thought that Queequeg had killed himself: Betty, go to Snarles the painter, and tell him to paint me a sign, with – “no suicides permitted here, and no smoking in the parlor,” – might as well kill both birds at once.

I did think as I was reading it that Melville must have some Scottish blood in him because he does use the word ‘wee’ quite a few times and he mentions Presbyterianism a lot but it would seem that it was the Dutch form of Presbyterianism.

Anyway, that’s Moby Dick ticked off my bucket list. I read this one as part of my Classics Club challenge. The book was first published in 1851 and it apparently spent quite a long time in the wilderness before someone decided that it was an American classic.

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Just after somebody in the blogosphere mentioned reading these books I saw this omnibus in a charity shop, so I thought it was the perfect time to see what they are like, better late than never as I missed out on them as a wee girl. I think that Judith Reader in the Wilderness said that she particularly enjoyed On the Banks of Plum Creek.

The writing is quite simple and repetitive (apparently that’s the secret of Agatha Christie’s success) so it’s perfect for young readers. I suppose I really mean girls because I can’t imagine boys being interested in the books. The Ingalls family consists of Ma/Caroline, Pa/Charles and their three daughters Mary, Laura and baby Carrie.

Little House in the Big Woods is set in Wisconsin in a very remote area where there are no other houses, roads and people but the place is teeming with animals, including wolves and bears and life is good for the Ingalls family although it has to be said that their diet is meat heavy! But Pa isn’t happy when more people move into the area and he decides to move his family West. There’s a lot to learn from this book – how to make and colour butter, make cheese, make a straw hat – all sorts.

So in Little House on the Prairie the wagon rolled and they crossed the Mississippi and headed across the prairie to Indian country and after some adventures Pa eventually decided on what he thought was a good spot to build the new house. In no time flat that house was built and if only I had the logs, the land and the strength I think I could build one too, I’ve certainly learned how to do it! Unfortunately Pa has built the house right beside an Indian trail. The locals aren’t happy and they let the Ingalls know about it with nights of war whooping and dancing. Before they lose their scalps Pa decides to move on again when he hears that the government won’t help to move the Indians away. So they have to leave that lovely house with real glass in the windows. It was at this point that I decided that Ma must be just about the most placid wife and mother in fiction. I might have killed Pa/Charles.

In On the Banks of Plum Creek the family has travelled across Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and a long way into Minnesota and at the end of the journey they end up living in a house which was dug into the creek bank, a bit of a come down and thereare hard times ahead for the family.

If I had read these books when I was about 9 or 10 I think that I would have inhabited the pages. I really identified with Laura which I hadn’t expected because I had remembered her as being an annoying whining character in the tv series. In fact I think that’s the reason that I didn’t read the books originally. She’s a feisty tom-boy, happy playing in the creek and I laughed when she finally decided to sew a patchwork quilt, because she wasn’t happy doing a simple nine patch one like her sister Mary. She had to go for a more complicated design, and I know that feeling so well, and then I get into a fankle and wish I had started off with an easier thing and worked my way up to the difficult one.

As an adult the whole make-do-and-mend way of life really appeals to me and I like to think I would have coped with being a pioneer. But then again there were the Indians, wolves, bears, grasshoppers, heat, snow – so maybe not then. The howling gales from all directions I do cope with!

I think there are more books in the series so I will read them if I can. Has anyone read any others?