The Reinvented Bildungsroman: Doris Lessing’s “The Summer Before the Dark” & “Children of Violence”; George Orwell’s “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”; and Louisa May Alcott’s “An Old-Fashioned Girl”

 Like many avid readers of the bildungsroman, I have noted that coming-of-age novels never go out of fashion.  Not a week goes by that there is not a review of a new coming-of-age novel.  I often reread my favorites, Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, and The Mill on the Floss. My preference is for the nineteenth century novel; perhaps they did it better. Yet as I grow older, I appreciate the modern reinvention of the bildungsroman as a form that focuses on a transitional period, such as the beginning of middle- or old age.  

So what exactly do we mean by this term?  Doris Lessing insisted that her five-volume Children of Violence series was a bildungsroman.  The first four are naturalistic novels minutely documenting the life of the heroine, Martha Quest, up to the age of 30. But the fifth is problematic.

Many 20th-century women readers  identify with Martha’s desperate struggle to escape the limits of the family and geography that defined their parents’ generation.  The last book in the series, The Four-Gated City, is so experimental that it stands apart as a separate entity, and redefines the novel:  I love it, some hate it. it is the story of Martha in London from age 30 to old age, set against the history of radicalism and sexual politics in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  Lessing also explores the wobbly definition and treatment of madness, and ends with the kind of apocalypse that will doubtless happen, where all is confusion, and no one knows the origin. So is this novel part of the bildungsroman?  I’m not sure.

Lessing’s short 1973 bildungsroman, The Summer Before the Dark, is much more conventional. She focuses on one summer, the transition in Kate Brown’s life from busy, youngish wife and mother to middle age and independence.

That summer, her husband and grown-up children will be out of the country. So Kate is coerced into taking a job as a translator.  Soon she is translating not only Portuguese into English, but the conference-goers’ needs and insecurities into information and services.  And so she is upgraded to a manager, and realizes ironically that she is making a living out of her mothering skills.

Lessing, as well as Kate, wonders, Is this how Kate wants to spend the rest of her life?  As a professional mother?  And after the conference, during a month in a rented room in a hippie girl’s apartment, she changes her expectations, reads, and experiments with clothes: how do her looks affect how people see her?

Most important, she learns how to be middle-aged:  you learn to adapt and move on or are trapped in a role that no longer fits.

Needless to say, George Orwell has little in common with Lessing. I recently reread Orwell’s novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, because I remembered that it is set partly in a bookstore. I did not recall, however, that the raging hero, Gordon Comstock, quit his advertising job to avoid the “money stink.” This novel is essentially a comedy, but it is also about working for poverty wages in a used bookstore and the demands of money in our materialistic culture.  

In this mini-bildungsroman, Gordon is confronting (or avoiding?) the crisis of turning 30.  What do you do when you quit your well paid job in your late twenties and take a job at a second-hand bookstore, because you are too idealistic for the “money stink”?  Now he can barely afford to go out for a drink with his editor friend, Ravelston,  or take his girlfriend, Rosemary, to dinner, and he refuses to let them pay his way.   

Gordon is also a poet, the author of a slim volume of poetry, reviewed by prestigious publications.  He glares at the bookshop’s poetry section.  “His own wretched book was there – skied, of course, high up among the unsaleable.  Mice, by Gordon Comstock; a sneaky little foolscap octavo, price three and sixpence but now reduced to a bob.”

Gordon has lost his inspiration, and his new manuscript is a crossed-out, inky mess. Orwell comically describes Georges desperation for cigarettes, his inconvenient lodgings, and a drinking spree that gets him fired. – so he falls down even lower on the social ladder.  The question is:  can Ravelston, Rosemary, and his sister Juilia, who lives in genteel poverty, persuade him to take a job that pays?  His biological clock, or do I mean time bomb, is ticking:  what does one do at age 30

And now I will end on a lighter note. I am a fan of a little-known bildungsroman by Louisa May Alcott, An Old-Fashioned Girl, which is a kind of unraveling of a Vanity Fair, which the heroine radically rejects and shoots down. (Gordon in Keep the Aspidistra Flying would approve.) Alcott, who had a contract to write girls’ books, is often criticized for her tendency to “moralize.” Yet this criticism  reflects either ignorance or denial of her upbringing and idealism.   Her father,  Bronson Alcott, a Transcendentalist philosopher who socialized with Thoreau and Emerson,  not only  founded a vegetarian commune but  started a radical school open to students of all races – which, alas, was shut down.  In An Old-Fashioned Girl, Alcott pits the values of friendship and hard work against materialism and slavery to fashion. 

The impoverished  heroine, Polly, a lively country girl, is used to hard work and is close to her family.  On a visit to  the the Shaws, a nouveau riche family in the city, she is appalled by her worldly friend Fanny’s affectations.  Money drives the family’s inappropriate actions and shallow manners, but Polly quietly smooths the relationships among Fan, her “fractious” younger sister, Maud, and their neglected grandmother, who has marvelous stories to tell. 

As you can imagine, the lives of Polly and Fan differ in adulthood.  Polly become a hard-working music teacher, while Fanny is still absorbed in parties, fashion, and love. Polly introduces Fanny to her bohemian circle of artistic friends, a struggling group of  New England women striving to be taken seriously.   And Fanny is impressed.

Becky Jeffrey, a sculptress, lives with an engraver, Lizzie Small, in a small studio; Kate King is an authoress, struggling with her new novel; and Fanny’s landlady, Miss Mills, a philanthropist,  instead of living alone, rents rooms at low rates to impecunious people.

And Polly and Fanny do have to struggle to survive: they undergo radical changes and unforeseen difficulty. There is also romance.

And of course Alcott moralizes, but that doesn’t bother me in the least.

An Excavation of “Eight Cousins”

 We were not in the best of health, and it was not the best of times. It was because of the unreality of smoking cannabis,  and the discovery on a hot, sticky day of a musty old copy of Eight Cousins, by the nineteenth-century writer, Louisa May Alcott – an edition of her 1884 classic reissued in 1927.  We found it in Great-Aunt Andrea’s attic in a trunk that held unraveling Fair Isle sweaters and mismatched mittens. We made our delvings during the summer we house-sat for Great-Aunt Andrea, who was “going on tour,” as she put it ironically, to do “field work” in the rubble of war.  (It does not matter which war:  there are always wars on our benighted planet.)

Joan, my loquacious roommate, was delighted by our find of the treasured Alcott book.  Our newly-excavated 1927 Grosset and Dunlap edition had a cute orange cover, adorned with an illustration of the graceful, seemingly grown-up heroine, Rose, who wears her long hair flowing down her back and dresses simply in a dark orange dress.  She perches on a green chair next to a round table covered with a matching green velvet cloth.  And above the table hover portraits of Rose’s seven male cousins.

Joan shrieked over the art work.  “How amusing!  But why would Andrea have this book?” 

We sat on the floor flicking the pages, waiting for the cannabis to wear off, which we had unwisely bought in an alley behind a suburban Starbucks “What is this stuff?” I asked tiredly after a couple of tokes. “It’s laced with something.”  And then I was unable to talk; I was in a very dark place. Eventually I fell asleep, while Joan sang old Beatles songs, and then she fell silent, too.

We awoke with a start, showered and changed into clean shorts and t-shirts, and went downstairs, chatting about Alcott.   Eight Cousins was not the kind of book one expected G.A. – as Great-Aunt Andrea preferred to be called-  to keep in the attic, even for sentimental reasons.  Her shelves were crammed with 19th-century travel narratives, botany books, anthropology tomes, diaries of authors and politicians, biographies of the Tudors (for light reading), and The Complete Works of Cicero.  We didn’t know quite how old G-A was – but still  young enough to read Eight Cousins in 1927, we thought.

And yet we could not imagine G-A getting lost in a volume of  Louisa May Alcott.  Even her conversation at breakfast, while sipping the bitter coffee that no one else would drink, was inveterately intellectual and dry: we had never heard her mention a book of fiction, nor the weather, nor the movies playing at the theaters.  That morning she’d asked us at breakfast if “young people” still read Margaret Mead.” I said no. I wondered, Was this Jeopardy? Should I say, “Who is Margaret Mead?”

“It is imperative that you read these feminist classics of anthropology,” she growled.  “Indeed, you will enjoy  Ms. Mead’s work.  There are similarities between anthropologists and war correspondents.  Your horoscope, Gertrude,” she went on, looking at me, “indicates that you will be a journalist for a time.”

Trying not to laugh and determined not to read Margaret Mead, Joan and I segued into the topic of Eight Cousins.  Had the book been hers?  G-A looked at us with surprise; then said indifferently that perhaps she had read it, she couldn’t remember; but that it might have belonged to her sister, Mildred, who became a schoolteacher and was more likely to enjoy such things.  

As so often, we wondered if G-A wouldn’t have been better off reading Wuthering Heights, John Updike, or Tama Janowitz, like other mortals.   My nerves tingled because she never used  contractions.

And we could not keep up with her talk of the war. She found it strange that we were not out protesting every day.  Joan and I were not, at that time, concerned with the latest war; we had just finished our strenuous junior year at X College, a women’s college that resembles Smith or Wellesley, except that it is “less user-friendly.”  Every spring, one quarter of the students collapsed with the vapors, commonly labeled in the modern style as Anorexia, Depression, or Borderline Personality.  Joan was anorexic, still pale and skinny from overwork; I was depressed, nearly silent even when not stoned, after  laboring over  a 25-page paper on autobiographical elements in Jane Bowles’s enigmatic fiction, which eluded me after page 10.  I tried to wax lyrical and kept repeating myself till I reached the end of page 24.  But the professor approved the paper, another unlikely educational hurdle I’d passed.  (Query:  would I have been happier at a less intense school? )

That night, G-A left for the war zone. “Try to get out of the house.  Go to the protests.,” she said

“And if I were you,” she went on, leaning out the window of the taxi, “I would try to find a more valuable edition of Eight Cousins than the Grosset and Dunlap.  This is the kind of book you sell rather than read.  Nobody reads Alcott.”

But we read her. Eight Cousins is a slight, charming novel about a vain, prim orphan, Rose, who, under the auspices of her guardian uncle, two great-aunts, three (or four?) aunts, seven male cousins, and her friend Phoebe, a maid, becomes a mensch. This is not one of Alcott’s best, but we love it because it is Alcott.

 The sequel, Rose in Bloom, is much more intersting, about Rose as an adult. 

N.B.  The 1927 Grosset and Dunlap edition of Eight Cousins sells for $15 at Abebooks.

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