Saturday 5 March 2016

Neo-Victorian Voices: March, Geraldine Brooks (2005)

Jo said sadly, "We haven't got Father, and shall not have him for a long time." She didn't say "perhaps never," but each silently added it, thinking of Father far away, where the fighting was.

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868-9) was remarkable on its publication for centring on the domestic cares and the trials and tribulations of a group of female characters—sisters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy and their mother, Marmee. Becoming a ‘little woman’ meant facing hardships, taming your feelings and embracing self-sacrifice. The result is a beloved classic that is still read regularly by young girls and has been seen as one of the first representations of ‘all American’ femininity.

Geraldine Brooks takes this well-loved work and examines the opposite side of the coin. If Alcott tells us this is what it means to be a woman at home, what does it mean to be a man at war, and, specifically, what did it mean to be a man on the side of the North in the Civil War?

Geraldine Brooks (1955- )
In March (Winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize), she takes the character of the girls’ absent father and constructs a parallel narrative to Little Women, forcing readers to confront the brutal realities of conflict, reassess the March household (in particular the parents’ marriage) and question the absolutism on many narratives concerning the North and its abolition of slavery.

One of my main criticisms of Valerie Martin’s 2003 Property, which I reviewed in this same series on my blog, was its idealised view of Northerners when it came to questions of race. Brooks doesn’t fall into the same trap. Mr March himself is liberal (you might think unbelievably so until you realise he was based on extensive research into Louisa May Alcott’s father Bronson, a vegan educator and reformer). But he is an idealist at sea in a pragmatic world, where Northerners are more than happy to take over plantations to make their fortunes, mistreating former slaves, whose lives are just as hard and more endangered now that they are no longer slaves, but ‘contraband’.

And, while in Property we are never given access to black characters’ views directly, Brooks gives us Grace, a former slave with whom March has had a sexual relationship. It is she who has the final say on March’s on-going involvement in the war:

“We have had a enough of white people ordering our existence! There are men of my own race more versed in how to fetch and carry than you will ever be. And there are Negro preachers aplenty who know the true language of our souls. A free people must learn to manage its own destiny.”

Grace is of course in a better position than many former slaves. She is well spoken and educated, due to being the illegitimate daughter of a plantation owner. But March’s life is actually saved by another black female character—Zannah. Zannah is mute (her tongue was cut out while a group of men raped her) and was totally illiterate until March’s arrival to teach on the plantation.

Her inability to communicate provides a stark contrast to Mr March. Unlike Zannah, he has the tools of language at his disposal, but he is still unable to tell the truth in his letters—instead sending Marmee and the girls a highly edited, and at times falsified, account of his time away from them.

This leaves Brooks with a plot problem. To be true to her source text, March must fall ill, prompting Marmee’s journey to Washington, and she can’t sustain this section in his first person. So, at the 200-page mark, we have a sudden shift of POV and continue the story from Marmee’s perspective.

The change is a little abrupt, and not just in tone. Marmee’s narrative doesn’t seem to be so much about developing her own character as hammering home that March’s perspective is unreliable—that a marriage can be made up of misunderstandings and resentment on both sides.  The result? The he said/she said at times feels a little overdone.

Brooks’s prose too at times tips over into the long-winded and dense, when the period could, I think, still be indicated with a lighter touch. Take for instance the following:

‘As I mentally composed these letters, it was inevitable that my mind would turn to the days when it was myself to whom such epistles had been directed. From there, my thoughts travelled in easy stages to the unravelling of my fortune, and to the exigencies of a current situation so threadbare that even my daughters are forced to toil for wages.’

But these quibbles over construction and execution are minor when compared with the overall genius of what Brooks has done, the scholarship of her research and the compelling nature of the story she has crafted from what was, in Alcott’s novel, an elision.

March doesn’t comfort like the familiar pages of Little Women. At times, it appals and horrifies. But the novels could be read as equally didactic. For Alcott, being a good woman in the nineteenth century was a story of self-improvement and self-sacrifice. For Brooks, being a good man in the nineteenth century seems to involve recognising injustice, but also recognising your own powerlessness to fight it everywhere and that pursuing your ideals could mean you’re doing an injustice to the little women waiting patiently at home.

Which novel should the Secret Victorianist read next as part of the Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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