Book recommendations for autumn: Elizabeth Goudge

The Eliots of Damerosehay

A beautiful trilogy about a family in Hampshire in the 30s-70s, with very beautiful autumn sequences, and the first book starting in autumn. The second, The Herb of Grace (in the US called Pilgrim’s Inn), is my personal favourite out of all her books, and can be read as a stand-alone.

A City of Bells

Set in Torminster, which is very much Wells, in the early 20th century, the place of Goudge’s own childhood, this book portrays all the seasons beautifully, but with the beautiful book shop and the microcosm of the Cathedral Close, its focus on literature and the artistic temperament, and the warmth of the (found) family, it’s very much an autumn read. (You might also like to revisit Torminster in Henrietta’s House and Sister of the Angels, both sequels being children’s books and focusing on the delightful Henrietta!)

The Dean’s Watch

Set in an unnamed city in the fens that very much resembles Ely, in the 1870s, with its grand Cathedral, quaint merchant streets and dirty slums, this is a story of hope, kindness, and a very unlikely friendship. The misty atmosphere of autumn and winter is nearly tangible and very, very beautiful.

Towers in the Mist

After Wells and Ely, the Goudge family moved to Oxford, another city with another Cathedral. In many ways less happy there, she could still not help musing about the way it must have been a long time ago. Set during the reign of Elizabeth I. this tale of love of family and learning beautifully captures the spirit of this old and well-beloved city.

The White Witch

Oxfordshire in the 17th century, a wise woman torn between her loyalty to the different sides of her family and her dearest friends, and an interesting set of different characters on various sides of the English Civil War. This is a very atmospheric book, full of mists and herbs and smells.

The Little White Horse

I wasn’t sure whether to include this book, as it is very much a spring book, her most famous work, and in some ways untypical for her style. But it is also in many ways a Gothic romance, in some ways its opposite, and so cosy, and so rich in descriptions of places and foods and comforts, with a dark forest and lovely manor house, that it just suits autumn so well.

What to read in Spring

Reading by the Window by Charles James Lewis

Of course, it is not quite spring yet, but the smell in the air and the hustle and bustle of the birds and bees, the blooming snowdrops and crocuses, assure us that the season of freshness and renewal is near. Spring is a lovely time for strolling about the countryside and working in the garden, but it’s also a sweet and peaceful time to read a good book. 💐

🌸 The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge is a book of renewal and second chances, of crisp clean air, and the cold sweet spring.

🌸 Linnets & Valerians, also by Elizabeth Goudge, is as sweet as honey and strawberry jam, as colourful as a bluebell wood in morning sunshine.

🌸 All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot evokes the wonderful, sweet, yet harsh reality of the beginning of the year, of the freshness of the lambs, and the icy winds.

🌸 The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame is a book of many seasons, but especially of springtime. Just messing about in boats,  there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

🌸 Thrush Green by Miss Read is just one lovely day—and May Day, indeed!—in a sweet English village, with blossoming trees and cottages with thatched roofs.

🌸 Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne (or was it ther-Pooh?) is ever-delightful. Who would not want to spend a lovely spring day in the Hundred Acre Wood?

🌸 April Lady by Georgette Heyer does not only have a springlike name, it’s sweet and funny and romantic, and a quick and gentle read.

🌸 The Mystery of the Clockword Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine is a sweet and charming mystery for young girls as much as everyone else, set in Edwardian London.

🌸 The Nature of Spring by Jim Crumley is not a novel, but a beautiful and real account of the ways and workings of nature in the beginning of the year.

🌸 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis is a book of Christmas and winter, but even more so of Easter and spring. And of course, it is simply wonderful.

On Jill

I have to say something about Jill.

I think there’s two very precise reasons for her unpopularity.

The first is, how real and relatable she is. She behaves very natural, very much like a child in her situation would, and she feels very, very real. I’ve seen many posts by people who don’t like her who actually admit they relate to her, and I am sure there are far, far more who wouldn’t realise it. Not all the things Jill says or does are good, but all of them are absolutely plausible things for her to do, given her situation and background and age.

Jill’s nine years old in The Silver Chair. She went to the same school as Eustace and appears to have been raised by parents with a similar mindset as the Scrubbs, though while Eustace was pampered, Jill was encouraged to be more tough and active. She was raised without any religion or definitive moral compass (no, I do not mean that being brought up secularly meant being raised without morals; I am only talking about the context of Jill’s life)—her premise was, in short, pretty much the same as Eustace’s. And definitely different to the Pevensies’.

Which brings me to the second reason (these two blend in each other). Jill didn’t behaved perfectly, and she better—but she never behaved bad enough to undergo a significant change/redemption, nor did she behave well enough to be liked for just who she is.

When all Pevensies went to Narnia they already were, in a way, rooted there. Lucy had met Tumnus, Edmund had been enchanted by the witch, and Tumnus had been caught. The Pevensies met the Beavers, and they learnt of Aslan. They all were raised with a strong sense of duty, and Lucy was naturally faithful and open. Edmund behaved badly lately, and was then enchanted, but he received the same upbringing as his siblings. Peter and Susan were significantly older and more mature than any of the other children who went to Narnia.

Eustace was also only nine years old, and he behaved horridly, but he had his cousins, at least, and he grew immensely through his experiences in Narnia, while being led by others, and finally meeting Aslan.

But Jill? Jill had and knew nothing. A nine year old girl, bullied in a boarding school. Coming, most likely, from a similar background as Eustace, but still behaving much friendlier and nicer than him. (Actually, really friendly. Jill was a nice girl. People like to claim she wasn’t but that’s not true.) A boy she vaguely knew to be rather nasty all of a sudden told her of a magical world. They suddenly went there. She showed off, he fell down. She met a lion and couldn’t know who He was, yet after a while trusted him. She had to.

And later on? She trusted those who were nice to her, she was arrogant, she forgot things she ought to remember. She did all the little bad things that all the other children did, but they were not so dramatically bad and then redeemed as they were with Eustace and Edmund, nor were they simply accepted as every person’s right to not be perfect all the time, as with the other three Pevensies.

(I am not going to bring up Caspian, Shasta/Cor, and Aravis—children who were brought up in Narnia have an entire different set of things to their advantage or disadvantage.)

Jill is kind and courageous and plucky, but she has to navigate through Narnia with very little help—because Eustace can’t really help her, and all the Narnians who do (or don’t) are complete strangers to her, and she has to decide whether to trust them or not, and whether to agree with them or not, and she often decides wrong.

Lucy has a natural gut feeling about that, which isn’t unrealistic, because some children really have that. But I am sure that Lucy knew just as well who to trust back in England. Jill never really learned how and who to trust, and knew that people could be horribly cruel. But she was also a very small child with the natural desire and ability to trust. So, yes, she trusted the wrong people for the very shallow reasons that a child with no proper guidance has for trusting people. She also disagreed with people she deservedly trusted (like Puddleglum) for the natural shallow reasons that most children just can’t bear negativity or restraint too long.

She had no spiritual love for Narnia, not at first (though it developed greatly later on) and simply had to make her way through a strange landscape, without being granted the sense of magic and hope and special-ness that the Pevensies and even Eustace, had he accepted it from the beginning, were granted.

Jill was also whiny and, though never unfriendly or rude, odd-mannered and impatient. She was always supposed to be tough, and she was physically tough, but she was also emotionally sensitive, and very lonely. She had no friends, and she had a lot of fear, and absolutely no sense of home or safety. She cried several times in the book, which is an absolutely normal thing, even when one isn’t a child, even when one isn’t in a terribly dangerous situation, even when one isn’t constantly worried about one’s own decisions. And even though Lewis went so far as to excuse her for it, which shouldn’t even be necessary, there’s many posts on the internet saying how annoying she is for crying.

And her behaviour is typical for someone who is naturally friendly, but never learned proper manners, and who has a limited self-control; combined with that very certain air of someone who is used to being picked out to be the disliked one, not bullied for a certain thing but chosen because she was, in some way, particularly suitable for being a victim. Both the original “reason” as well as the… results of such don’t leave a person so quickly. They stuck with Jill and it shows.

But there’s another thing to Jill. A constant inner struggle. Not short moments of temptation, no a shocking experience to better her. From the very moment she steps into Narnia, until the moment she leaves, she thinks about what she does wrong, what she does right, with a great deal of denial thrown in—a denial she is often conscious of, and often not. A way from good but flawed, to, well good but flawed, though better, and more aware, and very willing to learn. A gradual, seemingly insignificant development, which began very early, and never really ended, and of which she was aware, and with which she didn’t really know what to do, and which she didn’t always want—until she understood, at least a bit.

And I think all this makes it so difficult to like her for many people. She’s incredibly human without being an obvious heroine, or even an anti-heroine, she is constantly developing, with interruptions and regressions, but with no clear redemption arc of any sort, never stops making mistakes, never stops learning from them; she behaves like a normal child would do in a difficult situation, and she has to face very specific difficulties under very specific conditions which, in that way, never happened to any of the other children.

And yet—she learned to love Narnia and Aslan so much. She spent years in England just to prepare herself for another visit to Narnia. She learnt nothing of (religious) faith in England, yet proceeded to believe in Aslan as much as she could, she kept a loyalty to Narnia and made friends with the other Friends of Narnia for years after her visit there, even though her connections to Narnia were the loosest of all the children, and she had to wait for her return much longer than any of them (not counting Digory and Polly, of course!). She never gained as much of the insight as the Pevensies and Eustace, and Digory and Polly, had, never really had a relationship to it that resembled theirs, but stuck to Narnia with all her strength.

And people hate her.

Armchair Vacation

It’s late July, and most of this summer was, and will—and should—be spent at home. Fortunately, reading books is a fabulous way to let one’s imagination wander a bit further, and I thought I’d like to make a list of ten lovely summer reads. That is…ten or so, since I don’t keep strictly to stand-alones.

The Eliots of Damerosehay: The Bird in the Tree, The Herb of Grace—aka Pilgrim’s Inn—and The Heart of the Family by Elizabeth Goudge

A beautiful trilogy, although the second book can be (and often is) read as a stand-alone. The books take place over all seasons, and the second ends with a particularly glorious Christmas celebration, but there is an air of summer about them, throughout them; captivating and uplifting, they make wonderful companions for long days with misty mornings and sunny evenings.

(And as for Elizabeth Goudge, one of her Torminster books, called Henrietta’s House, is a pure high-summer-read, a delightful little gem for all ages.)

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper, the first in The Dark is Rising Sequence

The only one that could be regarded as a beach read, being set during the summer holidays in Cornwall. But it’s an adventure, not only for children, that will make one feel instantly at home in the story, and the village of Trewissick. It’s also the first in a series of five, followed by winter in Buckinghamshire, spring in Cornwall, autumn in Wales, and finally, summer again, this time in Wales. A perfect blend of myths and nature.

Summer Lightning, a Blandings novel by P. G. Wodehouse

Wodehouse is a promise of hilarity, and his Blandings novels are particularly charming. This one in particular is pure bliss—false identities, tangled-up romances, scandalous memoirs, and prize-winning pigs are all one needs for lighter, but very intelligent reading. It doesn’t matter if you’ve read any other Blandings novel before, as it stands really well on its own, and it’s really great fun from start to finish.

Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder by Evelyn Waugh

In some ways an autumnal read, though of course no book is strictly bound to any seasons, and it is in its tone and theme similar to the aforementioned Eliot chronicles, which also feature the colder seasons very much, and yet draw much from summer. And Brideshead, you see, the book, and the Castle, have an air of summer about them, the first part in particular, the fruit always ripe…a warm breeze that returns with the final twitch upon the thread at the end of that glorious book.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis, the third, or fifth, of The Chronicles of Narnia

If you’ve been to Narnia before, and now wondering what book to read, you might consider to return for a while, and why not on such a beautiful ship? But in case you’ve never been to Narnia before, then let me assure you that the first time has an incredibly loveliness. No matter if you’ll start with The Magician’s Nephew—a lovely summer read by itself; and my favourite book in the world, or with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—a wonderful classic, perfect for summer as much as for Christmas—you will soon enough find yourself on deck of the Dawn Treader.

Miss Buncle’s Book by D. E. Stevenson

A novel about a woman who wrote a novel about a woman who wrote a novel…or something of that sort. A hilarious account of small town life, whimsical characters, and an endearing woman who is convinced that she’s got no imagination, and yet writes a bestseller which causes all sort of agitation. Miss Buncle’s Book can be read as a stand-alone, but it’s actually the first of a lovely trilogy, being followed by Miss Buncle Married and The Two Mrs Abbotts—and technically also the vaguely related The Four Graces. All of them make wonderfully light-hearted, yet intelligent entertainment. And it’s got one of the loveliest proposals I’ve ever read.

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

A classic tale, beloved by readers of all ages. Perfectly appropriate for summer as much as any season, with nature seen through Anne Shirley’s large grey eyes, translated into Lucy Maud Montgomery’s beautiful prose. No matter if you’re revisiting, or taking your first glimpse at Green Gables and Avonlea, you are sure to be enchanted by an imaginative, spirited girl with red hair, and her dream world on Prince Edward Island.

The Corinthian by Georgette Heyer

A perfectly silly romance novel, and a perfectly sweet adventure. Georgette Heyer means fun, and this tale of two people—a man strongly suspected of being a dandy, and the sweetest polly oliver—who travel the country together to avoid having their upcoming and unwanted marriages. Their journey is interrupted by nuisances such as theft, murder, and annoying acquaintances, and in the end, they both find that they have fallen in love with someone unexpected—that is, unexpected to them, though not to the reader.

Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones

The first Chrestomanci novel, and though one might argue that The Magicians of Caprona is an even sunnier read, and just as recommended for sure, it is, in my opinion, inherently summer-y. There’s castles and gardens and berries and tea and no school (though class, of course, but it’s magical and much better than school, and Cat doesn’t have to write with his right hand) and scrumping apples, and colourful dressing gowns, and even a dragon, so you see, one’s got to read it.

And finally

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

Technically not a book, but one can read it very well, and it naturally belongs in the summer. Madness and magic, love and lust, a good deal of humour, and beautiful language, all in a delightfully quick read. It’s always great fun, and a good place to start for those who are curious, but reluctant about reading Shakespeare. And even if one doesn’t get to see it on stage, it does let one’s imagination wander and conjure up enchanting pictures.

And remember: drink a lot of water, eat lots of fresh fruit, stay at home if you can, and always put on a mask in public.

Literary Soundtrack: Linnets & Valerians

One of the most enchanting little books one could possibly imagine!

Linnets & Valerians—also published as The Runaways—by Elizabeth Goudge is a perfect read for early summer; a children’s book for all ages, made of beautiful prose, everyday magic, and strawberry jam. I couldn’t recommend it more, and I couldn’t resist making a little playlist for it. It’s such a sweet, and such a beautiful novel, full of forests and flowers and animals and birds and bees and music and adventure. 🌿

The Lark Ascending

I Believe in Springtime

English Folk Song Suite

The Sky and the Dawn and the Sun

Narnian Lullaby

Jupiter Hymn

Morning has Broken

All Things Bright and Beautiful

The Trees They Grow So High

The Ash Grove

The entire Playlist on YouTube

Nylons and Lipsticks and Invitations

The Problem of Susan is frequently talked about and usually boiled down to the same wrong arguments its built on, which have, by sensible and insightful readers, been disproven again and again, only for it all to be rolled up again.

I think of it myself, periodically, and often write a few words on the subject, sometimes respond to comments that bother me in particular. It still baffles me to find how many people still believe in the misconceptions, at best, and sheer lies, at worst, that have been made up on the subject.

Of course, the problem has to be tackled at the root. So many people argue about why Susan had been “kicked out” of Narnia, overlooking a simple fact that makes all these discussions completely superfluous: Susan has never been kicked out of Narnia. She has not been denied her way to the Real Narnia, she has not been sent anywhere else. Susan simply did not die. At least, not when her siblings did. Because she had dropped her faith in Narnia.

Of course this is usually equated with a general lack of religious faith, with which I cannot agree, and which is considered either a sign of her downfall or liberation. But it is altogether unclear in what religious context the Pevensies saw Narnia and Aslan—at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, at the very least, Lucy and Edmund had no definite idea of Aslan’s true identity. Unlike Eustace and Jill the Pevensies were raised Christian, not in any specially devout manner, it seems, just like normal British children of their time, and it’s difficult to say in what way they related their very tangible experiences in Narnia to more abstract religious teaching. It is not even unlikely that Susan, as the sensible, grown-up one of them, was a regular, though not particularly spiritual, church goer, while the other three might have considered, at first, nothing in our world as fulfilling as Narnia. This is just one possibility, and it could easily be entirely different, but the popular idea that Susan had all of a sudden become an atheist while her siblings were Good Little Christians is not in the least plausible, especially how one of Susan’s defining characteristics as she grew out of Narnia, was her desire to completely conform to society. Near The Last Battle, of course, the other Pevensies and Friends of Narniaknew who He was, but Susan had since then lost touch, and might even have considered the suggestion of their “old games” true nature to be blasphemous.

And then, of course, the old talk of Femininity and Sexuality. Both of these bother me dreadfully, in different ways each.

The Femininity, because it’s such an important argument used in the entirely wrong place. It’s odd how nowadays women are regularly shames for being feminine or liking feminine things, how in fiction, especially children’s’ fiction, all good examples for girls to look up to are supposed to reject all things associated with femininity—that is an extremely important problem to discuss, but in the case of Susan, it’s entirely out of place. This mindset usually employed by modern pseudo-feminists, and sadly way to common, but The Chronicles of Narnia were written in the 1950s and traditional femininity was encouraged. These books stand out today just as they did sixty years ago in the way girls of very different sorts are treated as absolute equals to each other and to the boys. That aside, Susan was shown to be very feminine and interested in beautiful things that are commonly associated with femininity in her years as a Queen of Narnia—the difference was just that she had not denied and forgotten what she knew to be true, nor had she valued these things above it.

And Sexuality—exclusively brought up by people who have misfortune of lacking all reading comprehension and common sense. The idea that nylons and lipsticks and invitations were a metaphor for sexuality is the most absurd idea imaginable. There is not the least indication, either from the books, nor from the historical context regarding the connotations of these things. They are wordly things, modern things, grown-up things, but by no means of a sexual nature. The specific use of these things are another reason why C. S. Lewis is so frequently accused of being sexist, but in the end, it was merely a rather simple collection of things that were popular at the time—were it Peter who had lost his faith in Narnia, then it might have been football and cars and wristwatches. And there was never an issue with these things to begin with—they were a symbol for the new life Susan had began, a grown-up life in the most shallow and immature way, in which there was no more room for Narnia and Aslan.

But what should be a much greater point of discussion is Susan’s deliberate rejection of Narnia. She might have considered it an old game—but what had made her do so? Was it her way of protecting herself from grief and worry, a way to cope, or was it out of sheer disinterest? Was it much less a personal thought of Susan, and an example for the way people so often teach themselves not to believe in what they know is real and true, a symbol of Lewis’ own overcome atheism?

But taking out all literary analysis and focusing only on Susan’s inner life and the unusual workings of Narnia, I have my own theory on the matter. It is so noticeable that Susan entirely forgot about the reality of Narnia, even though she had been there when she was far too old to forget about it. If she had been ten years younger, then she might have mixed up her vague memories with imagination and play. But Susan’s rejection of the experiences of her teenage years border on an actual amnesia, which indicates a deeper reason. The aforementioned grief and sorrow aside, I think there is a rather magical reason to it.

The Pevensies had forgotten about their life in England sometime during the fifteen years in which they ruled Narnia. They remembered Narnia upon their return, perhaps, because it seemed so much nearer to them, much more real and important, so they didn’t forget—whereas Susan, after some time, began to feel about Narnia the way they all had felt about England. It mattered less, and its magic, an effect perhaps drawn from the Wood between the Worlds, made her forget as though it was only imagined.

Of true importance is only this: Susan had, by the end of The Last Battle, still a long way ahead of her, and many sorrows and difficulties to face. But it was also an open way, and I am sure it led to the Real Narnia, in the end, despite all the curves and crossroads and dead ends it contained.

The Man under the Umbrella

I am well aware of Friedrich Bhaer’s unpopularity, but I don’t understand it. I am aware of it, because it has been so often stated and explained; I don’t understand it because nothing of it makes sense—personal preferences aside, everyone has a right to like (or dislike) whoever they want, after all.

“Me wants me Bhaer!”—Tina, the daughter of Mrs Kirke’s French maid, said as she flung herself into the arms of this controversial character, and her words express my own feelings perfectly.

The accusations are numerous: Bhaer was merely an afterthought, to screw the readers, he is unattractive and boring, suppresses Jos own freedom as a writer and forces her to express herself in a posh manner, and of course, he isn’t Laurie.

But we’ll start in the beginning. Little Women has originally been published in two parts: Little Women and Good Wives. Later editions often put them together, but the distinction between the two books is an important point in the discussion of Friedrich Bhaer.

After Little Women first came out, Louisa May Alcott received several letters from readers who asked about the further lives of the March sisters, and especially about whom the little women would marry. Ms Alcott was not delighted by this question, and of her character’s being reduced to the subject of matrimony, as was rather usual back then, and which, in return, brought many modern readers to the conclusion that marriage by itself were a sign of a lack of liberation in the heroines and could therefore not correspond with Ms Alcott’s own intentions.

In particular the still popular wish, that Jo and Laurie should become a couple and marry displeased the authoress. But that does not make the insinuation that Friedrich’s part was caused by mere spite true.

Criticism of Friedrich Bhaer comes from those who would have liked to see Jo with Laurie, as well as those would have preferred her to remain unmarried. An argument for the latter is that Louisa May Alcott herself has never been married, and that Jo was based on her in many respects. But Little Women is no direct autobiography and contains many elements that didn’t happen as described in the lives of the author and her sisters. The common attempt to equate Jo and Louisa cannot succeed. The Marchs are obviously based on the Alcotts, but they are not them. But this awkward mingling of real person and fictional character is applied nearly exclusively to Jo.

The desire for an unmarried role model is common and understandable, especially as many readers identify with Jo and often think differently about these things than the 19th century audience—although it cannot be denied that the marital status of a novel’s heroine continues to receive a great deal of attention.

But to say “For this reason I would have preferred Jo to stay unmarried,” would be a better choice than, “Jo was never really supposed to marry, it’s only in the book because Louisa May Alcott has been pushed to do so. Jo is in truth single!” But in truth Jo doesn’t exist, only Louisa, and in the book, Jo married, and she did so because the author wanted her to.

The question, whether a marriage of Jo and Laurie would have received as much rejection, nowadays, I mean, because even those would prefer Jo to be single, seem to rather tolerate Laurie than Friedrich. But this is not supposed to be a comparison of both men—I like Laurie a lot, and I would not have had any issue had he and Jo become a couple. But they didn’t: Jo didn’t want it, Louisa didn’t want it, and in the end it turned out that Jo and Laurie could continue their wonderful friendship, though in a matured way, and still find a different sort of love each.

The notion that it was a sign of conformation or even submission, shows a completely incorrect understanding of the societal context of the story’s time. It may come from the cliché of the young woman who has to marry a boring old man, and who liberates herself by eloping with a brooding young rake; or from the good social standing of Germans, especially German academics, in contemporary America.

But Friedrich is, according to all economical and societal standards of that time, no reasonable, let a lone conforming choice—not within the story, and not from the point of view of the then audience. To claim that his character had been created because of societal pressure is completely incorrect.

Friedrich is poor; the idea that older men used to be preferred was based on the fact that they usually had build an existence (or increased it) and this promised financial security. To prefer a poor, older man over a young, very rich man, who still had the prospect of becoming even richer, was no decision made of reason, and not at all understandable for onlookers.

Beyond that, Friedrich had a very bad position as a German. German immigrants were a fairly large minority in America back then; most of them were poor, and even more so very unpopular. One must not forget that the Hummels, from whom Beth contracted the scarlet fever that later led to her death, were Germans, too. But the Alcotts liked Germans—and so did, apparently, the Marchs. Louisa May Alcott’s parents were transcendentalists and felt very drawn to German culture, in particular literature. Louisa May Alcott was born in the same year that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe died. She loved Goethe and visited his house in Frankfurt—thought she didn’t have time to go inside. It is obvious that Friedrich is a character whom she liked to write and who came very close to her personal literary ideal.

But what is much more important: Friedrich supports, respects, and values Jo.

It brings me nearly physical discomfort to read what’s claimed about Friedrich and his attitude towards Jo and her writing. That he would belittle her, keep her from writing, push her to betray herself and lose her way. Yes, even the fact that Jo writes in later years, is read as a rebellion and secret disobedience towards Friedrich.

It’s a mystery to me, how one could read a book and interpret it in such a twisted manner. It seems that, whenever Professor Bhaer appears, some readers throw all reading comprehension overboard. To think Friedrich had condemned Jos own stories and asked her to write what he considered “higher literature” is complete nonsense. And so is the idea that he had asked (or forced) her to stop writing altogether.

Friedrich knew that Jo wrote and was very enthusiastic about it. He also had reason to assume that she published stories in papers, but he could neither be sure about that, nor about what sort of stories they were. He saw a magazine of the sort, for which she hadn’t written anything, and criticised this sort of stories (and their title illustrations) in general, especially their accessibility for children, without referring to Jo’s own stories, as is commonly maintained.

He did worry however, that Jo, due to a lack of money, protection and experience, could possibly write for exactly this sort of paper, and, rather impulsively, made an effort to dissuade her. Jo argued that one could earn money that way, and Friedrich, a poor man, mind you, remarked that one should rather sweep dirt in the streets.

One can—and should—not deny that Friedrich wanted to influence Jo in this matter. But I’ll have to remark two things: For once, I don’t see what’s wrong about that. He didn’t take the decision away from her, which he neither could nor would do, he simply stated his opinion—an opinion she valued from her own free will. Jo wouldn’t have changed anything, had she not agreed with him. Jo was stubborn and headstrong, and would not even have her nearest and dearest change her mind. She wouldn’t have read her story with Friedrich’s eyes, if she hadn’t truly agreed with what he’d said. That aside, it’s Friedrich’s right to tell his opinion, regardless whether Jo or the reader liked it or not. The idea that a “good” man in a novel always has to tell the heroine what she wants to hear, is a horrible, pseudo-feminist trend, which goes hand-in-hand with the idea that a person (especially a woman) would betray themselves (herself) through learning and growth. Anyway—to claim that Friedrich oppressed Jo, and that she would let him do so, is an insult to both of them.

Secondly: Friedrich has not once talked degradingly about Jo’s own stories. He hadn’t read them, couldn’t even be sure whether she had published any. He also never criticised that she wrote. His criticism was directed towards a specific genre, one could even say business or even milieu, which he thought would be harmful to both Jo and her work. He wanted Jo to write, but he didn’t want her to do it only to earn money, instead to write what she truly wanted. Jo’s first reaction was to write an overtly moralist, sermon-like story, but with time she balanced it out and found her way (back) to what she truly liked.

Here, too, the criticism describes the absolute opposite: Friedrich never wanted Jo to stop writing what she liked. He wanted her to start. At that time, Jo cared more about her income than her own development and expression, which did her no good, and of which Friedrich couldn’t approve.

Later on, Jo wrote neither secretly, nor in rebellion—she wrote as she liked, and Friedrich always supported her.

Friedrich also didn’t consider (commercial) writing to be unsuitable for a woman, and wanted Jo to get published and be successful as a writer. He even took her to a symposium of famous writer, which in the end disillusioned and sobered Jo, but which also helped her not to feel intimidated by the so-called Greats. Friedrich, too, would not be intimidated and, reserved as he normally was, argued ardently for his convictions, which impressed Jo persistently.

Friedrich did not make Jo more womanly. In fact, Jo and Friedrich liked and respected each other’s characteristics and peculiarities that were often seen untypical for their respective gender. Jo became, as she grew older, less boyish, but that was partly due to her increasing maturity, as she mostly left behaviours behind that would also not have suited a grown man, and on the other hand, because her appreciation of other women had grown—Jo had, after all, the tendency to take men and “manly” things more seriously.

Friedrich liked and loved Jo just as she was. But he also supported her development and growth. And it’s funny that this of all things is so often criticised, even condemned, even though it is what Little Women is largely about.

No character in Little Women is perfect. Not Friedrich, not Jo, and nobody else either. But Jo is often seen as a perfect heroine, and her development as self-betrayal. But one cannot rob a book of its own essence to modernise it. The notion that Jo could only be a good role model if she would never think or act differently than she did at the age of fifteen, because all maturity, all learning, were a sign of submission and an antiquated world-view is a dreadful way of thinking by itself. But if one happens to be of that opinion, then one should also stand by it rather than selling it as the author’s own belief.

That aside, it seems that nobody is allowed to criticise Jo. No other character, and no reader. Her sisters have all been degraded cruelly, but Jo has to be considered perfect, just as she is. She is the representative of all strong girls and completely infallible, or else valuable only through her faults. That is the common opinion—though not the writer’s, who considered her protagonists mistakes, and her development, and to acknowledge them, very important. That does not make her a lesser character or a bad role model for young girls—on the contrary, it makes her human, and gives her room to grow.

Transcendentalism was an important influence for Louisa May Alcott, although she did not at all view or take it uncritically. Growing up is the central point of this novel, and, although I am sure that Jo would have managed to do so very well on her own, Friedrich was a great help for her, to look forwards, and to become a big woman, while always staying true to herself.

And, at last, the romance. I’ll say three things:

Every person feels differently. The interaction of romantic and other feelings, and the cognition of them, is highly individual, and Jo and Friedrich have found what is just right for themselves.

The chapter Under the Umbrella can be re-read over and over again. Those who have forgotten just how romantic Jo and Friedrich are, should read it again.

Thou is often a subject of criticism—and perhaps the most painful one of all. What is presented as Friedrich’s attempt of shaping Jo to his demanding ideals, is nothing but his way of approaching her. For thou is viewed quite wrongly nowadays—it’s old-fashioned, and thus often seen as posh or dusty, and as a distanced form of address. But the English you is much rather comparable to the German Sie, which is formal and impersonal, and used by strangers and people whose connections are merely business-like. Thou on the other hand, is Du, the informal, personal and intimate form of address, used by friends and family. It is also to be noted that children are always addressed Du, while children address all adults, aside from family and friends, with Sie, which indicates the adults’ authority. This is was much stricter in the 19th century, and through initiating thou, Friedrich opened towards growing intimacy, while raising Jo on the same level as him, a grown woman and his equal. It is a loving and respectful gesture.

Literary Soundtrack: The Dark is Rising

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper is a wonderful book, although it is not quite as well-known as it should be. It is the second, eponymous, volume in a remarkably beautiful middle-grade series, influenced by nature, season and local mythology.

This little playlist shall capture the atmosphere of this book, the snow and the wind, and the long dark nights of Christmastime. The protagonist, an eleven year old boy named Will Stanton, comes from a musical family, is an Anglican choir boy—a charmingly unusual trait for the hero of a fantasy novel!—and traditional Caroling and Wassailing, as well as the use of music as a means of magic, make an important theme.

The melodies of Greensleeves and Good King Wenceslas in particular are highlighted and involved in the story.

Here blows, despite, or maybe because of, my excitement for the beginning of Spring, the last, cold Winter wind.

John Rutter’s Suite Antique: Prelude

Fantasia on Greensleeves

In The Bleak Midwinter (Holst)

Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind

The Sheep Beneath The Snow, The Cutty Wren, St. Stephen’s Day

Good King Wenceslas

What Child is This (Variation of Greensleeves)

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

Please To See The King (The Wren)

In The Bleak Midwinter (Darke)

The entire playlist on YouTube