A poor girl goes to live in the home of a rich family. In one version, she’s a poor relation, the other, a friend. In both cases, the girl changes the lives of the wealthy family, by virtue of, well, her virtues. She is modest, kind, and caring, and her friendship transform the parents and the son.
In the above description of the setup of both An Old-Fashioned Girl (Louisa May Alcott, 1869) and Mansfield Park (Jane Austen, 1814), the similarities are arguably nothing but coincidental, but reading the books side by side shows some pretty significant parallels, while taking into account that not only are they separated by 50 years but also by the differences between upper-middle-class British culture and a less-stratified American class system. The novels are also different in theme. Alcott specialized in improving literature for children, while Austen was addressing the moral impact of slavery on a slaveholding family in England (to sum up: their moral failings cause chaos and bring shame down upon the family, and then everything is set to rights at the end). There are no similarities between the events of the novels, and there are very few one-to-one correspondences between characters, with the exception of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, and Polly Milton in An Old-Fashioned Girl.
Despite these major differences, I think Alcott took Mansfield Park as an inspiration for a young, American audience, writing during the post-Civil War period, in which slavery and slaves would be at the forefront in the nation’s conscience. Alcott makes no mention of soldiers or veterans or post-war hardships in An Old-Fashioned Girl, likely because the book is for children. Nor does the Civil War cast a shadow over OFG the way slavery looms in MP. Nonetheless, I think she took the characters and rewrote the story from a particularly American viewpoint.
In MP, Fanny Price is taken from her impoverished home and brought up with the Bertrams (her mother is Lady Bertram’s sister).For the most part she’s made to feel inferior by the Bertrams, with the exception of cousin Edmund and her uncle Sir Thomas. Fanny’s job from a very young age is to be at the beck and call of Lady Bertram, while also serving the purpose of allowing everyone to feel self-congratulatory for their kindness to her. When the brewing dysfunction of the family finally boils over, Fanny is the one her aunt asks for, and Fanny is the daughter Sir Thomas wishes he had. Toward the end of the book, Fanny goes home to visit her family in Portsmouth. Here, the bad family dynamics of the Bertrams are compared to the bad family dynamics of the Prices, compounded by poverty of spirit, intellect, and vigor. It’s not just that the Price family are poor, they are lower class and ignorant, and portrayed as living in squalor. This part of the book goes from Austenesque to Dickensian, and it’s fascinating to see the transition, as Austen anticipates the Dickens thematic drumbeat by twenty or so years.
Fanny can’t stand her family any more, with the exception of her idolized older brother William, a midshipman, and her little sister Susan. She hates living in the city of Portsmouth and longs for the country. Maybe the worst thing that ever happened to Fanny was being pulled out of poverty, because during the Portsmouth scenes, it’s not a done deal that she will get to go back. And she’s terrified of that, because, even though it’s not spelled out, she might even make a decision to marry Henry Crawford, despite her moral objections, just to get the hell out of Portsmouth. Fortunately Henry runs off with Maria Rushworth, so that puts an end to that.
As I said, a very different book from OFG. So here’s what Alcott does with these same pieces.
An Old-Fashioned Girl
Polly Milton and Fanny Shaw meet in the country through mutual friends. This is so very American: two young teenage girls who are able to become friends despite very different stations in life and different ages. Fanny is sixteen, Polly fourteen. Polly is not an orphan– she has a large family and is close to her mother, who is as wise and noble as Marmee. She has a beloved brother Jimmy, who died in a sledding accident. She also has a brother Will, who, like Fanny’s brother William Price, is the one on whom the whole family has set their hopes. In OFG, Alcott splits the beloved brother into two, but both are motivating characters for Polly’s actions and emotions, much as William is for Fanny Price in MP.
Polly is as different from Fanny Price in OFG as can be imagined. Fanny is shy, quiet, virtuous, and timid. Polly is outgoing, jolly, self-confident, and good. Her hearty self-sufficiency is a breath of fresh air to the Shaws. She provides a good example to everyone in the family. She is kind to the grandmamma in the attic, who has been exiled to the top floor (an echo of Fanny’s situation in MP). Mr. Shaw, who is a very busy businessman like his counterpart Sir Bertram, is wistful about Polly, because he wishes his daughter could be more like her. Polly has a few adventures, such as spending all her money on bronze boots, making molasses candy, and going sledding with the townie children. She civilizes Tom and little sister Maude, acts as Fanny Shaw’s better angel, and is wise for her age.
Most tellingly, Alcott uses Polly’s poverty to ennoble her and by extension to ennoble her readers. Unlike in MP, poverty is a virtue. Polly’s mother lets her go spend a few months with the Shaws so the lesson that money does not buy happiness will sink in. This is such an American story. It upends class, it cheerfully propagandizes poverty and self-sufficiency, and it makes a virtue out rough-hewn native intelligence.
An Old-Fashioned Girl was written in two parts. The second part takes place when Polly is eighteen. She goes to work and lives happily in a boarding-house that is cloyingly idyllic. (Even her cat and her canary are friends.). Even better though, Polly has a circle of young women friends who are doing amazing things — sculpting, painting, working for women’s suffrage, doing good, and living their best lives. Fanny Shaw comes to visit and comes away with the right lesson: being poor and creative is better than being rich any day!
Fanny gets her wish — the Shaws lose all their money, and Polly is there is save them by helping them learn how to be poor, just like Fanny Price returns to the Betrams to save her adopted family too. Once again, Alcott takes the events of MP and Americanizes them to suit her version of the story.
Also a purely American story decision — Tom Shaw goes West to seek his fortune, and comes back to marry Polly, echoes of Tom Bertram who goes to Antigua with his father to see to the sugar plantations. It’s Polly’s brother William who becomes the minister, echoing Edmund Bertram in MP.
Tom Shaw even has an engagement with a fashionable young lady who — horrors! –uses makeup. When the family loses their money, Trix breaks it off, and then everything is in place for Tom to marry Polly. Unlike Mary Crawford, Trix is barely on the page and lacks the complexity of the Austen character. Tom doesn’t even like her very much. She’s less a character than a plot point.
All the elements are there, just put together in different ways.
We can’t know for sure that Alcott is reconstructing Austen. I don’t think there’s any evidence except in these comparisons between the two texts. We know that Alcott read Elizabeth Gaskell, because she directly references Cranford in OFG. However, she’s not so considerate regarding Austen.
Although proof would be nice, I think the similarities between the two books are deliberate, not unconscious. They feel very intentional, even down to the echoes in the names, and how Alcott specifically does not use the same names for the same characters, or even the same plot points, She also inverts the power dynamics of the two families, another thoughtful decision. No longer does the rich family rescue the poor one (Fanny, William’s promotion, Susan’s turn as Lady Bertram’s companion). Now, it’s the rugged, vibrant, energetic poor family that comes to the rescue (Polly as guide to their new reality, Ned giving Tom a job out West). And I wonder, too, if Mansfield Park’s connection to slavery was not more recognized in 1869, since the wounds would be all the more raw. Could An Old-Fashioned Girl be an even more pointed rebuke aimed at Austen?