Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott
published 1875 chapter 18
[Rose, an orphan, is being brought up by a collection of Aunts and an Uncle. Aunt Clara has suggested that Rose should have a corset, as she is growing stout. Uncle Alec responds:]
"Growing stout! Yes, thank Heaven, she is, and shall continue to do it, for Nature knows how to mould a woman better than any corset-maker, and I won't have her interfered with. My dear Clara, have you lost your senses that you can for a moment dream of putting a growing girl into an instrument of torture like this?" and with a sudden gesture he plucked forth the offending corsets from under the sofa cushion, and held them out with the expression one would wear on beholding the thumbscrews or the rack of ancient times.
"Don't be absurd, Alec. There is no torture about it, for tight lacing is out of fashion, and we have nice, sensible things nowadays. Everyone wears them; even babies have stiffened waists to support their weak little backs," began Mrs. Clara, rushing to the defence of the pet delusion of most women.
"I know it, and so the poor little souls have weak backs all their days, as their mothers had before them. It is vain to argue the matter, and I won't try, but I wish to state, once for all, that if I ever see a pair of corsets near Rose, I'll put them in the fire, and you may send the bill to me."
As he spoke the corsets were on their way to destruction, but Mrs. Jessie caught his arm, exclaiming merrily, "Don't burn them, for mercy sake, Alec; they are full of whalebones, and will make a dreadful odour. Give them to me. I'll see that they do no harm."
Theano Mouratides Petersen suggested looking at this chapter of the Louisa May Alcott book Eight Cousins, and indeed this is a long and fascinating scene all about clothes, which will certainly feature again.
Rose has been coddled by the aunts, who are fearful for her health and determined she shall grow up ladylike. A new uncle pops up, who reckons he has better ideas about how a young woman should be raised. The book is the battle between the two sides. It is no Little Women, but it is highly entertaining, in a muddled kind of way – it was originally written as a magazine serial, and that shows rather: as for example when one character changes her name halfway through. Rose has seven boy cousins, and some of them are in a family that calls their mother ‘Little Mum’ which seems surprising in an American book.
The photograph was taken in the Boulevard de Strasbourg in Paris in 1912, is from the George Eastman House collection, and is featured on Flickr.