Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

I have always been somewhat bemused by the perennial popularity of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s nineteenth—century novel about four New England sisters coming of age. At least once a decade a new film or television adaptation appears, and the list of successful women writers who identify Jo March as a formative influence is startlingly long. Jo aspires to be a writer, and insofar as she is Alcott’s alter ego in the novel, the book the reader holds in her hands is satisfying evidence of Jo’s eventual success. But in the fiction itself, bowing to both editorial pressure and the demands of her form, Alcott marries Jo off. To the dismay of her admirers, Alcott’s ambitious heroine sets aside her writing and finds happiness with an idealistic, charmingly disheveled German professor twice her age, with whom she founds an unusual school for boys called ­Plumfield.

If comedies traditionally end in marriages that successfully sort out the amorous inclinations of their confused protagonists, Little Women is classic comedy. After Jo refuses him, Laurie, the rich boy next door, contents himself with Jo’s youngest sister, Amy, while Meg, the oldest March girl, accepts Laurie’s tutor, John Brooke. Beth, the third sister, never having dreamed of either growing up or marrying, dies a quiet death, but the final note of the novel is one of almost undiluted happiness, the curtain falling on the contented couples picking apples together in Plumfield’s orchard.

In comedy proper, this would be the end of the story. There would be no reckoning with any long-term consequences of romantic choices or eaten apples. But in a sequel called Little Men, a book I flat-out adored as a child, Alcott raises the curtain again on her characters’ futures. The marriage questions having been settled, the business of real life has resumed: the raising, educating, and sanctifying of the next generation. The epicenter of this educational project is Plumfield itself, which has as its beating heart Jo’s small nuclear family, but includes in its sphere of influence Meg’s and Amy’s satellite families, Jo’s parents and Laurie’s grandfather, stray orphans, neglected rich boys, hired help, and a sprinkling of small girls. Marriage, in other words, hasn’t made “a hole in the family” as Jo feared in Little Women, but instead has enlarged it. Plumfield, as Alcott envisions it, amounts to “a communion of families,” a community generated not only in the usual way by husbands and wives, but also by Jo’s and Laurie’s chaste friendship, their marriage of true minds, as together—his money underwriting her dreams—they extend Plumfield’s benevolent ambitions to the wider world.

The phrase “a communion of families” was not Louisa’s, but her father’s. Like other nineteenth-­century reformers and dreamers, Bronson Alcott, when his children were young, actually tried to establish a utopian community called Fruitlands, a short-lived disaster which, when it collapsed, nearly took Louisa’s parents’ marriage with it. Bronson’s partner in the Fruitlands project, Charles Lane, had no patience with marriage (too selfish) or sex (he eventually decamped to the Shakers). Barely escaping his influence, the chastened Bronson held fast in the future to the inviolability of the marriage bond, as did his observant eleven-year-old daughter, Louisa. Whereas Rose Hawthorne, Louisa’s childhood acquaintance whose father also dabbled in utopianism, eventually came to the conclusion that only Catholic religious communities solved the problem of communitarian living, Louisa ­herself never gave up on the possibilities of marriage and family life. Bronson may have coined the phrase “a communion of families,” but it was his daughter who worked out the particulars of his conception in the pages of a book, a book that is one small example of a vast Protestant undertaking to extend God’s kingdom through the medium of the written word.

Man is weak. As then-Cardinal ­Ratzinger observed in The Spirit of the Liturgy, just as there is no atheist who does not harbor a doubt of his atheism, so there is no person of faith who escapes doubt altogether. Man may be saved by faith, but his faith wavers. Like Peter on the water, the faith of the Christian is perennially in need of reinforcement and strengthening, reminding and building up. For the Catholic, the ­refreshment of his memory happens ­preeminently at Mass, in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which continually re-presents to him, in a mystical manner, the one sacrifice on which his faith depends. Many of the Protestant reformers, on the other hand, reasoning that if man is saved by faith he has no need of priests or Sacraments, and scandalized by the suggestion that Calvary could be recapitulated in any way, took the first half of the Mass—the Liturgy of the Word—and made it the centerpiece of their Christianity. In the newly translated words of Scripture primarily, but also in their own articulated responses to Scripture’s claims—in lay sermons and vernacular hymns, proliferating testimonies and mass-­produced tracts—Protestants found the inspiration and generated the reinforcement they needed to persevere in their faith.

By the mid-nineteenth century, almost the whole Anglo-American literary world had been effectively recruited to this Protestant project. Even as the Bible continued to be read and stories of real-­life conversions remained popular, a growing appetite for mass-produced fictions—imaginary stories about imaginary souls—afforded new opportunities for reinforcing Protestant convictions. Lifted out of the Church, the Word spiraled into the culture, filling the bookshelves of an increasingly literate population with increasingly realistic stories of lay life. Descendants of The Pilgrim’s Progress, the original Protestant Story of a Soul, the new fictions followed individuals from all walks of life into law courts and workhouses, orphanages and schools. In this centrifugal movement, which penetrated every hole and corner of English-speaking society, the farther the books travelled and the wider the gyre they traced, the more they tended to shed explicitly confessional content. And yet steeped as they continued to be in the ascendant Protestant culture that produced them—in the manners and morals that Joseph Bottum has called “the received setting and given condition of the fiction”—even books that never mentioned Christ by name remained effectively Christian in their assumptions and aims. Even when not doctrinally catechetical, they were almost always morally so, and in no genre was this more true than in that of books written expressly for young people. The golden age of the novel was also a golden age of children’s literature, as the Victorians, credited with inventing childhood as a state of life with unique characteristics and needs, enlisted stories in their efforts to inculcate virtue in their young.

The great majority of these Victorian books for children have not survived. I remember one called Violet’s Idol, part of a series in which each small volume dramatized one of the Ten Commandments. In the book in question (“Thou shalt have no other gods before me”), young ­Violet’s attachment to her luxuriant golden hair nearly ends in tragedy when she brandishes a lit lamp too close to her idol, the better to admire it in a dim mirror in a deserted bedroom. Long out of print, this Christian morality tale was already falling to ­pieces by the time it came to me from a Presbyterian great-grandmother. But other books of the period, more doctrinally vague in their messaging, are still read and reprinted today.

There is no church building, or chapel, in Little Men. Church is offstage, a vague place that the older boys visit on Sundays. Nor are there any pastors or professional churchmen of any kind. All of the goods and responsibilities of religion have been transferred to the home, which is effectively both church and school. In this large family, or domestic church, prayer is encouraged to a heavenly Father, but Jesus is mentioned only once: On a wall in the sickroom there is a picture of him blessing the children. Questioned by a new boy who finds himself attracted to the picture, Demi, the small sage of the community, identifies Christ as “the Good Man,” who loved children and was a friend to the poor.

Did elisions like these—Unitarian dilutions of Christian claims—concern me as a child?I didn’t notice them. To me, Plumfield was simply heaven, the kind of “home as heaven” Bronson explicitly tried to provide for his daughters. Everything I loved about my home and our small church community was there, only more so—the adults more attentive, the children more ­delightful—and everything I dreaded in my small, rural grammar school was decidedly not there. There was order at Plumfield—daily walks, quiet Sunday afternoons—but also unsupervised adventures outdoors, impromptu celebrations, and a strong undercurrent of infectious joy. There were interesting lessons and nourishing food, musical evenings and Saturday night pillow fights. Above all, children were taken seriously in the community by adults who, while firmly in charge, entrusted even the smallest child with real tools and responsibilities: real animals to husband, real gardens to cultivate, even a real museum to curate. In the chapter I loved most, Laurie, the school’s benefactor, surprises Demi’s twin sister with a small-scale, fully functioning kitchen, in which she can cook real meals, and feed and entertain real guests.

Alcott, like her father, may have been more a Unitarian than a Christian, but she understood well how Christianity works: that it is only in ­real relationships that real progress in the moral life is possible. What small children require of their world is intermediate love objects, ideally a mother and a father, who bring to the relationship both unconditional love and high expectations. This job description Jo and her husband fill to the letter. They are called by everyone Father and Mother Bhaer, as if the school really were one family or as if they were the prior and prioress of a ­coeducational monastery. Father Bhaer presides in the schoolroom and Mother Bhaer everywhere else, but wherever they are and whatever is happening with the children, morals are being drawn and life lessons slipped in, in conversations that are raised almost to the status of a Sacrament.

These conversations, it goes without saying, work extramurally as well as intramurally, ­benefitting the reader as much as the children of Plumfield. Everything of moral moment is talked through in the school; nothing is set aside or suppressed. Indeed, every week, Mother Bhaer spends a quiet hour alone with each child, sharing with him her notes on his progress in what she calls her conscience book, in a homespun approximation of a confessional.

As he grew older, Bronson Alcott actually tried to earn a living by hiring himself out as a conversationalist, presiding over small gatherings in private homes as far away as St. Louis. He believed fervently that good conversation was an art form, a genre he aspired to perfect; but again, it is the conversations his daughter recorded in the pages of her books that have come down to us as models of edifying communication.

Like others in their circle, Louisa and her father valued the scriptural teachings of ­Jesus more than his purported miracles or the supernatural events of his Passion. By the time Louisa was writing, the original centrifuge of the Reformation that separated Word from Sacrament had issued in further separations and winnowings, further sortings by influential individuals of the scriptural words themselves. For theists like the Alcotts, who still believed in the sanctification of souls, the demotion of the Passion meant that any work of saving and sanctifying now fell to ordinary men and women. Going forward, religion was less a work of grace than an educational project. It was less about Christ himself than about the cultivation of virtue, and what is most remarkable about this project—even more remarkable than the seismic shift itself—is how equal Bronson and others felt themselves to the new task. Ralph ­Waldo Emerson, a close friend of the Alcott family, was banished from Harvard Divinity School for suggesting that everyone could be as divine as Jesus. Bronson, in passing, confided to Henry James Sr. that, like ­Jesus, he had never sinned. Confidence, in brief, was the signal charism of these people: confidence in moral norms and their ability to transmit them; confidence in parental and pedagogical authority; confidence in the power of words and the perfectibility of human beings.

In the fiction of Little Men, this confidence is entirely vindicated. The words of the Bhaers accomplish the ends for which they are sent: vice is eradicated, children flourish, happiness prevails. No one, moreover, is left out of this happiness. Salvation is universal, if only because the sense of evil in the community is attenuated. Venial sin is certainly deplored at Plumfield. Even a habit of white lies is cause for considerable consternation on the part of the Bhaers, who swiftly mobilize creative countermeasures to nip any such tendencies in the bud. But if mortal sin is sin that separates man from God, nothing finally separates any of the children from Plumfield. Two prodigals run away, but they return by the end, the pull of the school and its dedicated overseers proving irresistible.

In the same century, across the Atlantic, the view of early education was not so sanguine. The English habit of sending even very young children away to school, and the unhappiness this occasioned, darkened Victorian attitudes to schools in general. Virtue, in Victorian novels, always inheres in individuals, never in institutions, with organized education treated with almost as much suspicion as organized religion. Children learn and grow in these stories not because of the schools they attend, but in spite of them. In Jane ­Eyre, for example, the Lowood School and its sadistic benefactor are examples of a Christian pedagogy gone terribly wrong, while real religion is practiced in the school only in private, hidden settings: in snatched conversations in deserted schoolrooms, or in the sequestered apartment of the one loving but powerless teacher in the school. There, late at night, as if they had been in the catacombs, this teacher and the saintly Helen Burns engage in conversations almost as radiantly incendiary as the apocryphal conversations of Saints Benedict and Scholastica, with the small, impressionable Jane Eyre herself as a witness.

This is the tradition to which Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess belongs, another book I read and reread in childhood. Burnett’s family emigrated to America when she was sixteen, but her novels—Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Secret ­Garden—take place in an England where children like Sara Crewe, the heroine of A Little Princess, board in ­English schools while their parents are stationed in India.

The school in London where Sara’s father leaves his motherless child is not Lowood. The evil in Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies is more banal than the Lowood variety, less ideologically driven, more purely mercenary, which means that as long as Sara is rich, it spares her. As long as her accomplishments and lavish wardrobe are a credit to the school, the fact that there are no reliable adults in the seminary, no inspiring teachers or even one other admirable student, is not concerning. Sara herself is the adult in the room, the child who speaks French more fluently than the French teacher and has read more widely than the history master. Deeply imaginative and sensitive, truthful to a fault and already a penetrating judge of character, Sara also happens to be golden-tongued, a purveyor of stories so enchanting that even the girls who most resent her cannot resist them. Then, too, she is a model of charity, a “friendly little soul” who welcomes into her circle of listeners the marginal and the poor: slow-witted Ermengarde; Lottie, the spoiled baby of the school; and Becky, the scullery drudge.

In the first half of the book, as in the first half of the Gospels, all is well. But when Sara’s father dies and his fortune is thought lost, the evil in the school comes for her. Banished from the schoolroom and the company of the other girls, housed in an unheated attic, overworked, underdressed, and sometimes half-starved, she is sustained in her changed circumstances by a story she told herself in better days—that she is, in truth, a princess, and the child of a distant but nevertheless powerful king. In the crucible of her Passion, this resonant story is put to the test. Can she, in spite of everything, continue to live as if it were true? In the way she conducts herself, in the language with which she answers her abusers, in her patience and charity, can she somehow vindicate this parable that she presciently generated on her own behalf, that she clings to as if it were the gospel itself?

This story that sustains Sara is kin to the conversations that encourage the children in Little Men, with the difference that the work done by the Bhaers to form their charges in virtue pales beside the demands Burnett’s young heroine places on herself. Sara has to be her own hard taskmaster, her own spiritual director, even as she continues to be responsible for her small band of disciples—Ermengarde, Lottie, and Becky—who sometimes creep up to her attic at night to warm themselves at the fire of her burning faith. If Little Men is about homely virtues, A Little Princess is about heroic virtue, a charity that bears all things, hopes all things, believes all things.

Sometimes, in winter, when she has been sent out on a late errand in the cold and the wet, Sara lingers in front of the lit windows of a house that belongs to what she calls the Large Family, her vision of “home as heaven,” reminiscent of Plumfield. When she is finally found and restored—when her imagination has been vindicated and what she calls The Magic has prevailed—this family turns out to be a kind of extended family of the man who adopts her, the close friend of her father who holds her fortune intact, and who has been looking for her since her father died.

If people had told me when I was young and reading these books for pleasure that Protestants believe man is saved by faith while Catholics think he is saved by good works, I would not have believed them. The difference between Unitarianism and Christianity, like the difference between an explicit and an implicit Christianity, may have been lost on me as a child, but two things I knew: The books I was reading were not Catholic, and they were all about virtue, about the supreme importance of being and doing good. Whether the author was Unitarian like Alcott, or Anglican on her way to being a Christian Scientist like Burnett, or Scotch Presbyterian like the author of Ada and Gerty—a book I had forgotten until a photocopy in a cheap binding turned up in my mailbox, resurrected by a sister with the help of a “facsimile” publisher in Delhi—all of these books were marked by a works ethic that was unmistakable, even while the artfulness with which the ethic was conveyed varied widely.

Inevitably, the most explicitly Christian books of the period perished: heavy-handed morality tales like Violet’s Idol, but also beautiful books like Ada and Gerty, the story of two schoolgirls in Edinburgh who read the Bible together and try to live by its lights. For that matter, Little Men and even A Little Princess would probably have perished, too, were it not for the greater popularity of their literary siblings. Like poor relations, they survive in the shadows of Little Women, a romantic comedy with a proto-feminist heroine, and The Secret Garden, a paean to Health and Nature written when Burnett had drifted further from Anglicanism in the direction of Christian Science and Spiritualism.

Sometimes the books that survive make reference to those that did not, sometimes with a note of condescension or patronage, but always, by referencing them at all, giving us an idea just how vast and self-conscious was the movement to which all of these books belonged. In A Little ­Princess, for example, five-year-old Guy Clarence has fallen under the spell of a certain kind of story:

It was Christmas time, and the Large Family had been hearing many stories about children who were poor and had no mammas and papas to fill their stockings and take them to the pantomime—children who were, in fact, cold and thinly clad and hungry. In the stories, kind people—sometimes little boys and girls with tender hearts—invariably saw the poor children and gave them money or rich gifts, or took them home to beautiful dinners. Guy Clarence had been affected to tears that very afternoon by the reading of such a story, and he burned with a desire to find such a poor child and give her a certain sixpence he possessed, and thus provide for her for life.

A memorable scene follows, in which humor and pathos are wonderfully mixed, with Guy ­Clarence determinedly trying to press his sixpence on Sara, and Sara, in her pride and dismay, trying to resist him.

Similarly, in Ada and Gerty:

Gerty had read many children’s books, and she remembered now instances innumerable of the little heroes and heroines of these moral tales giving up some expected treat for the sake of another; but they had always been rewarded afterwards by a blissful sense of happiness, which poor Gerty was far from feeling. And what they did always turned out well; never, never had any of these well-meaning boys or girls been obliged to fear afterwards that their brave self-denial had been worse than useless.

Reading around in this literature now, with certain life experiences under my belt, what impresses me as much as the characters’ earnest struggles for virtue is their related struggle for community, in a world in which a church community can no longer be taken for granted. Having traversed, myself, the lonely terrain of evangelical Protestantism, I find the absence of churches in books devoted to moral formation hard to ignore. So many children in the literature are orphans—think, for example, of the children in the novels of Charles Dickens—or, if not orphaned, at least left behind in boarding schools by parents who have decamped to India, a useful signifier of an unbridgeable distance. And then, in these schools that are stand-ins for a cold world, tiny faith communities spring up, literally two or three gathered together, like Jane Eyre and Helen Burns and their one sympathetic teacher, or Sara in her attic trying to hold her small community together. The two schoolgirl heroines of Louisa Gray’s Ada and Gerty are essentially alone with their Bibles, and Ada, an Adamic figure whose parents are (yes) in India, dies—as Helen Burns dies in Jane Eyre with the small Jane curled up next to her for comfort—with only her young friend Gerty at her side, to whom she bequeaths, as Jesus bequeaths John to Mary from the Cross, a still younger, difficult child she had taken under her wing.

Only Louisa May Alcott, in Little Men, managed to create a credible portrait of a viable, adult-led community, borrowing from certain Catholic conventions in order to do it. But Plumfield, too, has its subtext of strain and scrupulosity, hard work and compulsive sermonizing, as if, were Father and Mother Bhaer to relax their vigilance even for a moment, the whole enterprise would fail. Behind Plumfield, and influencing its creation, is the shadow of Fruitlands, the failure of Louisa’s father to provide a faith community for his family. There is something compensatory about Little Men, as there is about the whole literary movement under discussion, as Louisa tries to immortalize, in words, what she called “the beautiful dreams” of her father.

Now this movement is over, and has been for a long time, this great outpouring of written material downstream from the choice of the Word over the Eucharist, in which moral formation and the telling of stories were so intimately linked. As the Word separated from the Sacraments, setting in motion far-reaching centrifugal effects, so the moralizing impulse eventually moved on from mainstream Protestant Christianity, looking for new orthodoxies to champion, new forms of utopianism to uphold and enforce. Reading to my grandchildren stories first enjoyed by my great-grandmother, I estimate five generations, or six, or roughly one hundred and fifty years, have passed since most of these books first came to light.

Meanwhile, every day, the Mass continues to be offered around the world, the Mass that, at its heart, is not a formula of words only, but words accompanying an action—an action of sacrifice; the sacramental representation of the one saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ, in the presence of which no illusions about a works righteousness are possible. When I came to the Catholic Church, after years of trying with a few others to make church on my own, it was rest that I needed—“Tell me, you whom my soul loves / where you pasture your flock, / where you make it lie down at noon”—and it was rest that I found, like Sara, when she is taken up into the Large Family and is able to sit down, finally, at the feet of the one who has saved her.

The whole life of Jesus Christ unfolds chronologically in the Mass: the years of his teaching and preaching in the Liturgy of the Word, and then the events of his Passion in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which prove the words that preceded them to be the words of God himself. In the life of the Christian, as in the life of the Church in history, the same pattern will hold: action followed by passion, a time of verbal evangelization followed by a time when words lose their power to persuade. ­After experiencing, myself, this unity at the heart of the Church, I was grieved and almost scandalized by the idea of giving someone “just” Jesus: the Scriptures but not the Sacraments; a relationship with the Bridegroom, but not with the Bride. After receiving the Sacraments in the Church, I understood that Jesus has entrusted himself to the Church in a way that he will not take back, that he has endowed her with his own prerogatives and given into her keeping his entire life, so that we cannot separate him from this Bride he has chosen, except we tear Christ from Christ.

What God has joined together, let not man put ­asunder.

This mystery is a profound one, St. Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church.

Separated from the Church, like a branch broken off from a vine, the ascendant Protestant culture that formed the character of the English-speaking world for generations finally came to an end. But before it did, like an annual plant sensing that winter is near, it threw out, in the late summer of its ascendancy, a great profusion of blossoms, some of the seeds of which took root in future generations.

Growing up apart from the Church, I didn’t know any saints. Instead, I was reading books that have no real equivalents in Catholic literature, books that were one of the great gifts of Protestantism to the children of the Universal Church. Sara Crewe, Jo Bhaer, and Ada Godfrey were the fictional saints of my childhood, whose influence, as I grow older, only seems to increase. “Give me a girl at an impressionable age,” says the title character in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, “and she is mine for life.”

Patricia Snow writes from New Haven, Connecticut.