- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 20, 2006


By Louisa May Alcott

Edited by Elaine Showalter

Library of America, $40, 1092 pages


By Sigrid Undset

Translated from Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally

Penguin Classics, $25, 1144 pages

Two notable women writers, admired as both international literary celebrities and forerunners of modern feminism, are currently represented by handsome new editions of their most famous works.

The Library of America offers Louisa May Alcott’s domestic sentimental classic “Little Women” — in the expanded later edition which incorporates its immediate sequel “Good Wives” — together with its closely related companion volumes “Little Men” and “Jo’s Boys.”

And the new Penguin edition of Norwegian Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset’s great trilogy of medieval life, “Kristin Lavransdatter,” makes this epic saga accessible as never before, in a lucid English translation purged of archaisms and rhetorical ornamentation.

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) was born in Pennsylvania and raised mostly in Concord, Mass., the center from which her father, utopian transcendentalist educator and “philosopher” Bronson Alcott, hatched numerous visionary schemes that left his large family devoid of support — except for his daughter’s herculean labors. Churning out adult novels, children’s stories and pseudonymous thrillers, Alcott (who never married) essentially sacrificed herself for her family.

She was a successful writer by her early 30s, known for the “Hospital Sketches,” (1863) about her experiences as a Civil War nurse, the somber novel “Moods” (1864), and her work as editor of the popular children’s magazine Merry’s Museum. But the success of “Little Women” (1868-69) was as unprecedented as it has been lasting. Never since out of print; the inspiration for several film versions, a recent Broadway musical, even an opera: The story of the four March sisters growing up in an idealized New England village has long since become part of our American mythology.

Everyone has a relative or acquaintance reminiscent of vain, petulant Meg, gentle Beth, “artistic” Amy or headstrong, take-charge Jo (the self-appointed “man of the family, now Papa’s away” — serving as a Civil War battlefield chaplain). Everybody wants a mother like “Marmee,” the warmhearted (if disciplinarian) matriarch who guides her daughters’ not untroubled relationships among themselves and with the beckoning wider world outside their tight family circle.

Of course “Little Women” is sentimental, but its tendencies toward mawkishness are curbed by the precisely distinguished characterizations of its principals, engaging secondary figures (such as severe Aunt March, who might have taken tea with David Copperfield’s Aunt Betsy Trotwood), and a warmly detailed portrayal of 19th-century New England life.

Alcott also does something very interesting with John Bunyan’s classic allegory “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” the source of an educative “game” the March girls play, and a virtual template for their own progress toward the condition of (“little”) womanhood. This strategy functions most clearly in the palpably autobiographical figure of Jo, a creature of impulse bent on achieving independence, and — like her creator — an accomplished woman who earns success as a writer, yet bends her strong will dutifully in the direction of the conventional happiness for which she was raised.

Unlike Alcott, Jo does marry — an older man, Professor Fritz Bhaer, with whom she founds the boys’ school (Plumfield) where the actions of “Little Men” (1871) mostly occur. It’s a novel of education riddled with cliches and uninteresting characters — the only partial exception being reclaimed street urchin Dan Kean, a semi-Byronic “firebrand” whose travels and adventures spill over into Alcott’s last novel “Jo’s Boys” (1886).

This decidedly autumnal and genuinely depressing book places so much emphasis on the strength of women who channel their energies into shouldering domestic burdens that it’s difficult not to read it as an apologia: for a life subdued to duty, enervated by such sublimation, redeemed only by the unquestionable achievement of “Little Women.”

Sigrid Undset (1882-1949), a writer of far greater critical renown (including, as noted, a 1928 Nobel prize), had perhaps more in common with Alcott than either woman would have surmised. The beneficiary of a comfortable rural childhood and a firm religious education, she became a voracious reader who developed into an independent thinker and scholar and a precocious author whose early literary successes were fueled by what seemed an inextinguishable creative energy.

When she married and became the mother of a large family (including three stepchildren) whom her husband failed to support, Undset plunged headlong into the rich material of Scandinavian history, and produced the two great works that rightfully dominate her oeuvre: the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy (1920-22) and the tetralogy entitled “Olav Audunsson” (1924-27, published in English translation as “The Master of Hestviken”).

In this first unabridged English version of Undset’s original text, translator Tiina Nunnally’s crisp, spare sentences memorably record one woman’s arduous progression from physical abandonment through suffering and purgation to spiritual rebirth. It’s an astounding story, and it grips the reader as only the very greatest novels can.

“The Bridal Wreath” chronicles Kristin’s childhood and youth at Jorundgaard, the estate owned by her prosperous landowner father Lavrans — and apart from her father’s influence, when she rejects the suitor chosen for her and falls impulsively in love with charismatic adventurer Erlend Nikulausson. Their torrid affair, which violates every principle Kristin had lived by, acquires a crushing burden of guilt (over their part in the death of Erlend’s mistress), and climaxes with the hollow triumph of a marriage, at which bride Kristin is already pregnant with her first child.

In “The Mistress of Husaby,” the couple grows apart, as Erlend is imprisoned for participating in an ill-advised, anti-royalist coup, and Kristin’s absorption in raising their seven sons is interrupted only by an exhausting pilgrimage that introduces the changes in her character further articulated in “The Cross.” This latter volume reveals the cost exacted by Erlend’s excesses, and the road taken anew by Kristin, as she enters a convent, nurses plague victims, and finds in the submission of her own will to that of a higher and gentler power, a very real state of grace.

This matchless panorama of medieval life, which in many ways dwarfs the achievement of Alcott’s populist masterpiece, nevertheless interestingly echoes and parallels it. Both works offer searching explorations of women’s lives, conducted by gifted women themselves, who had more than a little in common with the now-mythical characters dreamed into being as their alter egos and, yes, heroines.

Bruce Allen also contributes regularly to the Boston Globe, Kirkus Reviews, and Sewanee Review, among other publications. He lives in Kittery, Maine.

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