No-one’s that perfect

16 May 2016

“Nobody in real life is such a goody-goody as that Marmee” was what Gloria Brooks told her ten-year-old daughter, Geraldine, when she gave her a copy of Little Women. When she wrote March (Fourth Estate, 2005), Geraldine Brooks conjured a more nuanced version of Abigail Alcott and her husband Bronson than the impression created by their daughter Louisa May Alcott in her fictitious version of their family life in Concord, Massachusetts.

Bronson/March is depicted as a man of strong conviction serving as a chaplain to a Union regiment during the American Civil War.  His opposition to slavery had developed during his time as a itinerant peddler in the south. There is a interesting sub-plot concerning a beautiful and accomplished slave he meets and falls in love with during a stay at a plantation house, where he sells the owner a book and stays to discuss philosophy and literature over dinner. She returns later in the narrative as a nurse in a Union hospital where (coincidentally!) March is taken after sustaining terrible injuries in an effort to protect slaves from Confederate guerillas.

Using the somewhat contrived device of fictional letters written to his wife and daughters back in Concord, the author traces March’s personal history in non-sequential episodes, from travelling peddler to prosperous business investor. One of the ventures he becomes interested in is a pencil manufacturing business run by John Thoreau and his son Henry.

He falls in love with the vivacious Margaret Marie Day (nicknamed Marmee) and he hurries their nuptials, after a brief passionate courtship, followed barely nine months later by the birth of their first daughter. Marmee is indeed no goody-goody! She also has a violent temper that is usually roused by those who oppose her strongly held opinions on slavery and John Brown’s crusade.

March’s musings on his relationships with other transcendentalists like Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, his family’s role in the Underground Railroad and his investment in John Brown’s scheme in Ohio, which led to his (March’s) family’s impoverishment, are all dealt with. These add greatly to the reader’s interest in the story.

While I was reading March, the 1994 film version of Little Women was being replayed on television. I recorded it and watched it after I had finished the book. Marmee played by Susan Sarandon is indeed too good to be true but the movie is charming and I enjoyed watching it again. It also made me reflect on what a good job Geraldine Brooks has made of fleshing out the characters of March and Marmee by reading between the historical lines.

Another writer of historical fiction I admire is Jane Smiley who recently had a public spat with historian Niall Ferguson. Ferguson dismissed novelists for “making stuff up” and not doing real research. Jane Smiley’s riposte was that historians do not arrive at the “truth” either and that a work of history is also a construct (this seems a particularly apt description of Ferguson’s latest book – an attempted hagiography of Henry Kissinger!) She claims that the job of the novelist is to see the world through the eyes of her character/s and that no-one has done that more convincingly than Hilary Mantel with Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. I heartily concur. Read March, Jane Smiley’s trilogy about a family in Iowa in the 20th century and Hilary Mantel’s soon-to-be Cromwell trilogy and see what you think.