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  • Gracie Carmichael

10 Life Lessons I learned from Alcott's "An Old-Fashioned Girl"

❝𝒲𝚒𝚝𝚑 𝚊 𝚟𝚎𝚛𝚢 𝚎𝚊𝚛𝚗𝚎𝚜𝚝 𝚙𝚛𝚊𝚢𝚎𝚛 𝙿𝚘𝚕𝚕𝚢 𝚊𝚜𝚔𝚎𝚍 𝚏𝚘𝚛 𝚝𝚑𝚎 𝚜𝚝𝚛𝚎𝚗𝚐𝚝𝚑 𝚘𝚏 𝚊𝚗 𝚞𝚙𝚛𝚒𝚐𝚑𝚝 𝚜𝚘𝚞𝚕, 𝚝𝚑𝚎 𝚋𝚎𝚊𝚞𝚝𝚢 𝚘𝚏 𝚊 𝚝𝚎𝚗𝚍𝚎𝚛 𝚑𝚎𝚊𝚛𝚝, 𝚝𝚑𝚎 𝚙𝚘𝚠𝚎𝚛 𝚝𝚘 𝚖𝚊𝚔𝚎 𝚑𝚎𝚛 𝚕𝚒𝚏𝚎 𝚊 𝚜𝚠𝚎𝚎𝚝 𝚊𝚗𝚍 𝚜𝚝𝚒𝚛𝚛𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚜𝚘𝚗𝚐, 𝚑𝚎𝚕𝚙𝚏𝚞𝚕 𝚠𝚑𝚒𝚕𝚎 𝚒𝚝 𝚕𝚊𝚜𝚝𝚎𝚍, 𝚛𝚎𝚖𝚎𝚖𝚋𝚎𝚛𝚎𝚍 𝚠𝚑𝚎𝚗 𝚒𝚝 𝚍𝚒𝚎𝚍.❞

-An Old-Fashioned Girl, Louisa May Alcott

Dear friend,


I'm delighted you could join me today for one of the lovely, heart-fulfilling dear talks between kindred spirits. With autumn already showing her first array of colors, and the days of brisk winds and warm woolens swiftly approaching, I find that my reading list tends to accommodate the seasonal shift. It's become a custom of mine to read Louisa May Alcott in September, and this month I selected An Old-Fashioned Girl to fulfill a yearning for the warm, comfortable, wisdom-imbued stories that I cherish through the years.


While Little Women is, admittedly, my favorite of Alcott's works, truly all of her stories have such a power to fill my heart with wonder at her timeless wisdom, which still comforts us through generations of girlhood walking through the very same ageless life lessons. I personally find An Old-Fashioned Girl to be one of Alcott's most groundbreaking stories of all—as it never fails to shock me that, yes, the world was changing for the worse even then, in those days that we've come to idealize so much since.


If you aren't familiar with the story, I shall refrain from giving away too much of the plot. The book follows Polly Milton, a moral, upright heroine of a poor, though close-knit and loving family background, as she struggles against the developing standards of city-life, in which money and fashion and flirting rank high. Polly is often labelled "old-fashioned" because she disapproves of the changing ways of life. The story largely deals with her relationship with the worldly-wise Shaw family, and her profound effect upon their hither-to disjointed, self-seeking ways.


Every chapter of this timeless story is full of the very life lessons that only grow more relevant with age, and seem more needed today than ever to cause our hearts to harken again to wisdom, so long-ago discarded. I'm convinced Polly's story will encourage you and fill your heart with a renewed determination to live the way we were always meant to.


Here are 10 timeless life-lessons that I learned from An Old-Fashioned Girl:

1. Modesty is worth more than all the fashion in the world.

“The least of of us have some influence in this big world; and perhaps my little girl can do some good by showing others that a contented heart and a happy face are better ornaments than any Paris can give her.”

Throughout An Old-Fashioned Girl, Polly's fashion is a point of much note. She never dresses "fashionably" and retains a sense of simplicity and modesty. While many of the girls refuse to associate with her for her style, Polly finds a few who appreciate her age-appropriate modesty, and praise her for what makes her stand out. The more time she spends with the Shaws, Polly begins to worry about her plain attire—until she finds confidence that no amount of fashion can hide an unhappy heart, or simple dress suppress a a contented soul.

“The thought that, insignificant as she was, she yet might do some good, made her very careful of her acts and words, and so anxious to keep head contented and face happy, that she forgot her clothes, and made others do the same. She did not know it, but that good old fashion of simplicity made the plain gowns pretty, and the grace of unconsciousness beautified their little wearer with the charm that makes girlhood sweetest to those who truly love and reverence it.”

2. Purpose is the sustenance of a fruitful life.

"They seemed a different race of creatures from the girls whose lives were spent in dress, gossip, pleasure, or ennui. They were girls still, full of spirits, fun, and youth; but below the light-heartedness each cherished a purpose, which seemed to ennoble her womanhood, to give her a certain power, a sustaining satisfaction, a daily stimulus, that led her on to daily effort, and in time to some success in circumstance or character, which was worth all the patience, hope, and labor of her life.”

One of the major themes present is that idleness and unhappiness go together to make life empty and meaningless—whereas a life with goals to work towards, noble ideals to pursue, and a purpose to keep hearts strong and active, is a life of fullness and nobility. Polly worked hard for herself as well as others, and found joy in every purpose, unlike Fanny, who had nothing to work for because she let others do everything for her.

“. . . Polly came to know a little sisterhood of busy, happy, independent, girls, who each had a purpose to execute, a talent to develop, an ambition to achieve, and brought to the work patience and perseverance, hope and courage. . . . All these helped Polly . . . for purpose and principle are the best teachers we can have, and the want of them makes half the women in America what they are, restless, aimless, frivolous, and sick.”

3. A generous heart brings joy to self as well as others.

“When you feel out of sorts, try to make some one else happy, and you will soon be so yourself.”

Polly found she could let go of her little troubles by relieving others of theirs, and throughout the book she observes the secret needs of those around her. She sees that the Shaw children neglect their grandmother—that Mr. Shaw yearns for the love of his children—that Fanny and Tom do not love each other as a brother and sister should. She steadily works in unseen ways to bring the family closer together and heal the breach between them.

"Little things of this sort are especially good work for little people: a kind little thought, an unselfish little act, a cheery little word, are so sweet and comfortable, that no one can fail to feel their beauty and love the giver, no matter how small they are. Mothers do a deal of this sort of thing, unseen, unthanked, but felt and remembered long afterward, and never lost, for this is the simple magic that binds hearts together, and keeps home happy.”

In several areas, Polly is said to "make sunshine" for those around her. She does this by pouring her inner light out into dark places—in making others happy, in doing small kind deeds that others always feel, even when they don't notice.

“She loved to do the “little things” that others did not see, or were too busy to stop for; and while doing them, without a thought of thanks, she made sunshine for herself as well as others. There was so much love in her own home, that she quickly felt the want of it in Fanny's, and puzzled herself to find out why these people were not kind and patient to one another. She did not try to settle the question, but did her best to love and serve and bear with each, and the good will, the gentle heart, the helpful ways and simple manners of our Polly made her dear to every one, for these virtues, even in a little child, are lovely and attractive.”

4. If life is like plum-cake, make it well.

“Life, my brethren, is like plum-cake. In some the plums are all on the top, and we eat them gayly, till we suddenly find they are gone. In others the plums sink to the bottom, and we look for them in vain as we go on, and often come to them when it is too late to enjoy them. But in the well-made cake, the plums are wisely scattered all through, and every mouthful is a pleasure. We make our own cakes, in a great measure, therefore let us look to it [...] that they are mixed according to the best receipt, baked in a well regulated oven, and gratefully eaten with a temperate appetite.”

Polly explains to Tom and Fanny in her "parable of the plum cake" that the highlights of life may be sought all at once, until we are full of them and can find no more, or they may come so late in life that we can no longer enjoy them to the full. It would, of course, be best to have a life with beauty dispersed evenly throughout—but this can only be found in a life lived with wisdom, generosity and gratefulness.

5. Money can do nothing for a neglected heart.

“Poor Mr. Shaw had been so busy getting rich, that he had not found time to teach his children to love him; he was more at leisure now, and as his boy and girls grew up, he missed something. Polly was unconsciously showing him what it was, and making child-love so sweet, that he felt he could not do without it any more, yet didn't quite know how to win the confidence of the children, who had always found him busy, indifferent, and absentminded.

When we are so focused on riches and the cares of the world, we neglect the needs of the heart—for ourselves as well as others. Material distractions cause us to forget the far more important things that bring a happiness that can't be bought.


6. The world tells us to grow up too quickly.

“Our little girl was too innocent to understand half the jokes, and often wondered what people were laughing at [...] Polly began to feel uncomfortable, to be sure her mother wouldn't like to have her there, and to wish she hadn't come. Polly didn't know what to do; for she felt both frightened and indignant, and sat with her eyes on her play-bill, and her cheeks getting hotter and hotter every minute.

When Fanny takes Polly to a Parisian-style show at a theater, Polly is horrified at the immodest entertainment which is clearly not appropriate for children.

" 'I know it wasn't proper for little girls to see, or I wouldn't have been so ashamed!' "

Polly quickly realizes that the Shaw girls, despite being six and fourteen, behave like grown-ups, and are only interested in gossip, fashion and flirting. Fourteen-year-old Fanny treats Polly, twelve, like a child because Polly does not pretend to be older than her age. It's frequently stated that Fanny "had never known anything else" and that her friends followed in the same footsteps. Even six-year-old Maud's conversations with other little girls her age were about where their gowns were made—because that's what they had seen their mothers discuss.

7. A mother's love is shown by her generosity towards her children.

“Then the thought had come to Polly that the velvet cloak didn't cover a right motherly heart, that the fretful face under the nodding purple plumes was not a tender motherly face, and that the hands in the delicate primrose gloves had put away something very sweet and precious...

Polly observes that Mrs. Shaw, a mostly-bedridden hypochondriac, does not care for her children in the way a mother should. When little Maud runs to her mother and hugs her skirts, Mrs. Shaw brushes her away and reprimands her for crushing her silk. Polly is heartbroken to realize that the Shaw children don't know what a real mother is, and compares Mrs. Shaw to her own.

She thought of another woman, whose dress never was too fine for little wet cheeks to lie against, or loving little arms to press; whose face, in spite of many lines and the gray hairs above it, was never sour or unsympathetic when children's eyes turned towards it; and whose hands never were too busy, too full or too nice to welcome and serve the little sons and daughters who freely brought their small hopes and fears, sins and sorrows, to her, who dealt out justice and mercy with such wise love. “Ah, that's a mother!” thought Polly, as the memory came warm into her heart, making her feel very rich, and pity Maud for being so poor.”

8. Our little tribulations cause us to forget our blessings.

"She no longer felt an injured, hard-working, unhappy Polly, but as if quite burdened with blessings, for which she wasn't half grateful enough. She had heard of poverty and suffering, in the vague, far-off way, which is all that many girls, safe in happy homes, ever know of it; but now she had seen it, in a shape which she could feel and understand, and life grew more earnest to her from that minute.

A turning-point for Polly comes when she feels hampered by the restraints of poverty and the inability to have as much fun as Fanny does. Polly realizes first-hand that her little means and purpose-driven life would be considered a positive wealth to others less fortunate than her—and that she hasn't been grateful for it.

"She received, from an unexpected source, some of the real help which teaches young people how to bear these small crosses, by showing them the heavier ones they have escaped."

9. A charitable heart will find happiness.

“This love and thought and care for those weaker, poorer, or worse than ourselves, which we call Christian charity, is a very old fashion, my dear. It began eighteen hundred years ago, and only those who honestly follow the beautiful example set us then, learn how to get genuine happiness out of life.”

Polly finds an opportunity at Fanny's Sewing Circle to educate the other girls about the poverty-stricken circumstances which poor girls their own age, in their own city, are facing. She stirs the hearts of many who come to realize that their sense of peace comes from ignorance to what is really happening behind the curtain of society.

“I don't think many of us would enjoy that selfish sort of peace, while little children starve, and girls no older than us kill themselves because their dreadful poverty leaves them no choice but sin or death.”[...] A sudden lull took place, for, though Polly did not raise her voice, it was full of indignant emotion, and the most frivolous girl there felt a little thrill of sympathy; for the most utterly fashionable life does not kill the heart out of women, till years of selfish pleasure have passed over their heads.”

10. Hard times cause hard hearts to change.

"We shall pull through, children, so don't borrow trouble, only be ready for discomforts and annoyances. Put your pride in your pockets, and remember poverty isn't disgraceful, but dishonesty is."

Trials and tribulations don't have to make us bitter and woeful. In fact, they often come our way because our hearts have become hard and proud, and need to be changed in order for us to find real happiness, and not its counterfeit in life. When hard times come upon the Shaws, it causes the family to grow closer than ever, to finally work together with a purpose, and change their old, proud, ways of wealth into hard work, familial unity, humility and generosity.

Louisa May Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl remains one of my favorite books, reminding me (more profoundly with age) what true wisdom and happiness is—and the cost of self-seeking ways and idleness. Its ageless truths shine like rubies that only become more precious through the years.


If you love Polly Milton as much as I do, I'd be delighted to hear from you! You can leave a comment below if you fancy sharing a thought! :) Thanks so much for stopping by!


Until next time,