This post, and several others to appear in due course, are generously sponsored by a gentleman-scholar from County San Francisco, supportive of the production and assessment of nasty novels, dealing familiarly with gamblers, misandrists and flashy reprobates. Said gentleman-scholar has re-upped his donation, so keep pitching me, academics longing for freedom.
I am an unabashed reader of romances, watcher of romantic comedies, and lover of happy endings, so it’s unsurprising that I’ve always loved the romances in Louisa May Alcott’s Rose in Bloom. But I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of friendship lately. A friend once told me that she likes to examine her friendships and take time to realize what lesson or insight she has learned from each friend. I was reminded of this when I went to reread Rose in Bloom, and its predecessor, Eight Cousins, because it wasn’t Rose’s sweet romance with her bookish cousin Mac that struck me most on this reading. It was Rose’s friendship with Phebe Moore.
For anyone who hasn’t encountered this pair of Alcott books (or has not read and reread them and might need a refresher), Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom follow Rose Campbell from age thirteen through her early twenties. After her invalid father dies, she’s given into the care of her father’s brother, Uncle Alec. The two live in a big house with Rose’s great aunts and many of their other relatives live in the same neighborhood, affectionately called the Aunt Hill. These relatives include seven male cousins; with Rose they make up the eight cousins of the title. In Rose in Bloom, Rose and Uncle Alec return from a world tour to the Aunt Hill and twenty-year-old Rose must find her place once again, now a young woman of means.
Who is Phebe Moore in all of this? She’s first introduced to us as a fifteen-year-old kitchen maid in Rose’s great aunts’ house, then she becomes Rose’s own maid, and in Rose in Bloom she comes into her own as a concert singer. Phebe is an orphan from the poorhouse who enters Rose’s life on page three of Eight Cousins and is, by the end of Rose in Bloom, going to be Rose’s cousin-by-marriage. They start on unequal footing, at least by society’s standards, but end as equals – and Rose recognizes from the very beginning qualities in Phebe she wishes for in herself.
Over the course of the books, Rose and Phebe each want what the other has, but Alcott shows it to be almost entirely without any real jealousy or spitefulness. What the two women give to each other through their friendship is the support and knowledge each needs to secure her chosen future. Rose’s support is material as well as emotional, while Phebe leads Rose through her own example, but each contributes greatly to the other’s growth. At the beginning of Eight Cousins, when Rose is to see her Uncle Alec for the first time in years, she is scared, sickly, and lonely. Rose hears birdsong coming from the kitchen, where she meets the beautifully warbling Phebe. Rose is totally enchanted by this lovely, kind, strong girl who is making her own way in the world and seems to have nothing to trouble her. Phebe for her part feels bad for Rose, who is mourning her father, and is only envious of Rose’s access to the education Phebe wants for herself.
While Rose is at first oblivious to Phebe’s troubles, she does recognize her own advantages and seeks to share them with Phebe. Rose “adopts” Phebe, offers a portion of her gifts and clothing to her, brings her into the circle of the family, and eventually, with Uncle Alec, arranges for Phebe’s education. Phebe in turn supports Rose through her trials and tribulations as confidante and honorary sister, and is consistently grateful for the help and love she is shown.
As the women grow older, that gratitude takes on an edge. In Rose in Bloom, after Rose begins her career as a philanthropist, she learns that those she helps will not always be grateful, and while she knows she should do the good work for the sake of the work instead of for thanks or praise, it’s a tough lesson for her. I couldn’t help connecting it to her relationship with Phebe: Rose craves gratitude for her good deeds, something Phebe freely gives her, but this gratitude creates a sense of obligation between them that keeps them from being true equals.
Alcott devotes half a page in Eight Cousins to praising Phebe’s ability to feel and show gratitude. It’s overwhelming because it highlights and even supports the idea that Phebe should feel indebted to Rose and Uncle Alec. When I read it, I stopped and took a step back. Yes, of course Phebe should be thankful to Rose and Uncle Alec for giving her an education. They aren’t required to finance her studies or vocal training, but they decide to do so and spend time and money ensuring she is equipped to support herself with her voice. Phebe is to “earn” this training by being Rose’s maid – a token effort, I’m sure, against the great expense of her schooling.
So why shouldn’t Phebe be grateful? Well, she should be. But the great sense of obligation that this gift from Rose and Uncle Alec creates in Phebe feels like too much. If we’re supposed to see Phebe as Rose’s adopted sister – which, considering Rose refers to her as such and Uncle Alec seems to regard Phebe with a paternal air (he’s offended when one of the relatives he might have fallen in love with Phebe), I think we are – then why should Phebe have to repay her debt? In real life, we are grateful and thankful to our parents for all they do for us and to support us, and we repay them with our love and support, but neither side thinks of it as a debt – or at least, we try not to. Parents are meant to provide for their children. But Phebe hasn’t been raised from childhood as Rose’s sister; she is about sixteen when all these decisions about her future are made, and as aware of the class differences that separate her from Rose as some of Rose’s relatives are. I’m not sure whether Alcott saw these class differences as real, or important – but certainly some of her characters do.
Phebe sees herself as outside the family circle, and the closer she comes to being part of the family, the more she wishes to repay her perceived debt to them. When Rose’s cousin Archie proposes to her, he offers Phebe the thing she wants most: an official place in this family that has given her so much. But Phebe’s pride doesn’t allow her to accept it. She can’t do as Rose suggests and “[b]e happy, and never mind them” (Rose in Bloom 116) – and she makes Rose realize that if their positions were reversed, Rose wouldn’t be able to do it, either. Phebe feels she needs to earn her place, not only because of the family’s disapproval, but because of her own sense that she does not belong. Her pride won’t let her join the family until she has proved herself. And she does, first by making a name for herself as a singer and winning the family’s respect, and then, more importantly, by nursing Uncle Alec back to health after a deathly illness, and earning their gratitude.
Watching Phebe struggle with this is an education for Rose, because earning a place is something Rose never has to do. Her family loves her from the beginning, even when they don’t know what to do with her, or think she’s too strong-minded and independent. They love her because she is family, while Phebe is an outsider because of her birth. It’s classism paired with a clannish family dynamic, and even assurances from Rose and Uncle Alec that Phebe always has a place with them aren’t enough to convince Phebe that she belongs. Rose is actually envious of Phebe’s ability to earn a place, and learns from Phebe’s example as she begins to sense how unearned her own good fortune is. Rose is valued for herself by many members of the family, but her inherited wealth and beauty are what endear her to society at large. As suitors (including her dashing but unreliable cousin Charlie) come a-wooing, she is disheartened to learn that her position as a beautiful heiress is what has brought her so many admirers, and angered when she realizes that Rose-the-heiress has become a commodity to be acquired in the eyes of Charlie and others.
Once Rose realizes how she is viewed, she realizes she wants to be like Phebe, loved and valued for her merit rather than her fortune or station in life. In a moment of frustration, Rose goes so far as to look forward to the day when she might have lost her beauty and given away her worldly goods, because then she will know who her true friends are. When Mac falls in love with Rose through their letters to each other, after knowing and loving her as a cousin for years, we’re meant to see that he loves her, not her status. Their relationship is shown as an equal partnership between two good but imperfect people who see each other clearly.
As Rose watches both Phebe and Mac, a budding poet, achieve recognition for their artistic endeavors, she wishes that she too could go out into the world and prove herself somehow. Rose is proud of Phebe’s and Mac’s successes, but also, in a rare moment, jealous of them, and self-deprecating about her own gifts. Uncle Alec has to remind her of all the good she does for others. His argument is convincing, but it doesn’t stop Rose from later wishing she too could be by his side during his illness. Rose’s motivation in wanting to prove her love for Uncle Alec is different than Phebe’s: she longs to show him the love and support of a daughter, while Phebe, though she loves him as a father too, also wants to discharge her debt.
After Phebe saves Uncle Alec, her sense of obligation is finally lifted. When Phebe accepts Archie’s proposal, she tells Rose that she had to put aside her pride when all the family welcomed her, and when Archie’s parents called her daughter, she “would have promised anything to show [her] love for them.” (Rose in Bloom 299) Rose gently adds, “And him,” thinking that Archie might feel slighted, but Archie gets it. Phebe loves him, but she also wants desperately to be part of this family. Phebe knows where she stands with Archie, with Rose, and with Uncle Alec, and now she knows where she stands with everyone else. When Phebe gives up her singing career to be Archie’s wife, I get the sense that it’s not because Alcott (a single woman who earned her living as a writer) thought that was what women should do, but instead because it is right for Phebe, who wants a quiet family life more than she wants fame.
At the end of Rose in Bloom both women have gained a great deal from their relationship. Phebe sees Rose’s education, and her family support, and wants both for herself. Without Rose, Phebe would still be singing in the kitchen, without a family or hope for the future. Rose sees Phebe’s ability to rise above her past and make herself into someone worth knowing, and wants to be valued for herself, too. Without Phebe, Rose would be still be insulated and less thoughtful about class issues, less focused on the philanthropy that is her chosen career, and more likely to accept admiration as her due without questioning the impulse behind it.
Everyone remembers Louisa May Alcott for Little Women and the bonds of family she portrayed in that book, but the friendship she paints in Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom is much more compelling to me. It stretches across years, overcomes social barriers, and fulfills the needs of the two women in expected and unexpected ways. Phebe’s love story with Archie, and Rose’s with Mac, are both lovely, but it’s Rose and Phebe’s friendship that has formed their characters and turned them into the women that they are. Rose in Bloom may end with the happy couples, but I like to think of Rose and Phebe, too, walking forward into their futures step-in-step, and hand-in-hand.
Sarah Evans is a writer of fiction-in-progress and blog posts about doing neat things in NYC. Besides children’s books, she compulsively reads fairy tales, romance novels, travel memoirs, and in a pinch, the ads on the subway.