Alcott’s Adventures – Transgender, by Kimmy Pletting (3/3)

In my concluding blog I want to focus on the norms that women had to adhere to in the nineteenth century, the norms that determined their lives and behaviors – in other words, what a woman needed to be. Arguably, those women who decided to become writers had already diverged from these norms, up to a certain point. However, Alcott went beyond that: she inspired a new type of character in narrative fiction that plays with those very norms of what it means to be a woman, which makes it particular interesting to see that she influenced other women authors. In this blog I will show some of the relations between Alcott and different Dutch female writers, relations not only in terms of solidarity, but also traceable connections in terms of inspiration. These final connections complete and illuminate the areas I explored in the previous blog posts.

Boyish Girls in Girls’ Books

Alcott’s books were read and translated in the Netherlands, and they also inspired Dutch (and other) women writers, most prominently Tine van Berken (1870-1899, pseudonym of Anna Christina Witmond-Berkhout) and – through Van Berken –Top Naeff (1878-1953). Tine van Berken refers  to Alcott[i] in her novel De Berewoudjes (1902), where one of the protagonists reads her books, and Top Naeff mentions Alcott first when speaking of the influence of foreign writers on her work.[ii]

In Rebel en Dame (2010), his biography of Top Naeff, Gé Vaartjes links these three writers and tells us how they all fit into the genre of books for girls and young women, which according to Helma van Lierop appeared for the first time with the release (1876) of Little Women (1868) in the Netherlands. She describes girls’ books as an instrument of society for socializing girls. The tomboy character within this genre should be seen as a temporary phase, which the girl leaves behind to marry eventually.[iii] Vaartjes tells us how both Tine van Berken and Alcott inspired Top Naeff in her writing of Schoolidyllen (eng: ‘Idylls in school’, 1900). This novel was by Becht, who was also the publisher of Tine van Berken’s books;  Naef also corresponded with Van Berken, who praised her work[iv] and published it in the periodical Lente she had founded. An elaborate portrait of Tine van Berken has been sketched by Ineke Vos in her MA thesis “Tine van Berken: portret van een meisjesboekenschrijfster uit het fin de siècle” (1993), making use of a book written about her by the Belgian (male) novelist Johan Daisne in 1962. While Naeff’s Schoolidyllen is usually seen as the go-to example of books for girls in the Netherlands, Vos describes how the work of Van Berken should also be regarded as a prime example of the genre.[v] In her thesis Vos also names Alcott as an important presence in Van Berken’s young life and shows that her influence is unmistakable in Van Berken’s work. Strong similarities between their works include the themes of poverty and family as well as the extensive number of shared literary references to different writers both make in their work.

The similarity uncovered by Vos that I want to focus on in this blog is a specific character type they both used, that of the boyish girl, the “tomboy”. Gabriel Bos describes this character type as breaking with the traditional representation of girls and the norms associated with them. The character is more likely to have short hair, a male name, unladylike manners and a stubborn temper: all things that are more likely to fit with a young male character. According to Bos, this new character had become possible because of the contemporaneous woman’s emancipation.[vi] Vos finds this character in all of Van Berken’s novels. De Dochters van den Generaal (1897) stands out in this context: Bos calls the character of Tommie the first incarnation of Alcott’s tomboy Jo March in the Netherlands. But even in Een Klaverblad van Vier (1894) she sees traces of a boyish girl. Top Naeff’s Jet in Schoolidyllen is also named as a less ladylike character, similar to that of Alcott’s Jo March. Thesi Schmitz calls characters with characteristics that define the tomboy character bakvissen[vii], a term that does not specifically refer to tomboys, but more to adolescent girls in general.[viii]

Did Alcott’s Tomboy Travel to the Netherlands?

Next I want to look at the critical reception of Alcott’s tomboy in the Netherlands. As mentioned above, her character type inspired other Dutch writers, but how was the tomboy first rewritten by Alcott’s translators and judged by literary critics in the Netherlands?

In the translation (1876) of Eight Cousins (1875) we can see the description of Nan as a ‘sad tomboy’ translated into ‘wilde kraai’ (eng: ‘wild crow’), and where Little Women (1868) describes Jo March as a ‘tomboy’, Almine translates this into ‘wilde meid’ (eng: ‘wild girl’). The emphasis in the translations clearly lies on the ‘wild’ side of the tomboy character, shifting the emphasis away from her boyish nature; both ‘kraai’ and ‘meid’ refer to the female gender. Furthermore, terms with a negative connotation are used.[ix] In addition to the results presented in the previous blog posts, which could imply that norms in The Netherlands were such that women were expected to show less emotion, had an unequal education, and were not expected to seek employment, we could say that these translations suggest that girls who act (out) like a tomboy were considered to be wild but associations of their behaviour with boyishness were avoided. Incidentally, in Eight Cousins (1875) we do find ‘strong-minded women’ translated into ‘geëmancipeerde dames’ (eng: ‘emancipated ladies’), implying that the translator was aware of part of the emancipation movement.

The contemporaneous critical articles I studied pay almost no attention to the character type of the tomboy, although it is a prominent feature of Alcott’s work. The character of the tomboy is discussed most in an article in De Gids of 1873[x] (commenting on the translation (1872) of An old-fashioned girl (1870)), although the term tomboy and the connection to boyish behavior is again avoided; the description given instead is a ‘new-fashioned girl’. The girl is praised here for combining her own work with the motherly nature that befits a girl. In De Gids of 1875[xi] (commenting the translation [1875] of Work: A story of experience [1873]), P.N. Müller calls the tomboy protagonists of Alcott ‘krachtige juffers’ (eng: ‘powerful damsels’), and much later De Hollandsche Revue of 1924[xii] tells us her work was especially loved by ‘bakvissen’, the less powerful term Schmitz also refers to describe the tomboy. These appear to be the only articles (so far discovered) that consider this character type in Alcott at all.

Both the translations and critical reviews seem to move away from or not name at all the boyish nature of the tomboy, either emphasizing the wild side of the characters’ behavior or using a different terminology that puts much more emphasis on the female nature of the character, a move that makes it more acceptable for the genre of girls’ books. However, the tomboy can be seen as much more than a temporary character stage in the socialisation of young girls.

Playing With Norms

We have seen that the character of the tomboy was adapted for the Dutch public, weakening or erasing its association boyish behavior. Nevertheless, Alcott did inspire writers such as Tine van Berken and Top Naeff to introduce similar characters. And while all of them are categorized as girls’ books, a closer analysis of both Naeff’s and Alcott’s texts can suggest a different, more progressive, role for these characters.

In “The Story of Jo: Literary Tomboys, Little Women, and the Sexual-Textual Politics of Narrative Desire” the tomboy character Jo March in Little Women (1868) is analyzed by Karin Quimby from the perspective of gender studies, with a particular interest in its queer potential. Her main argument is that while the tomboy character is eventually forced to marry, or behave in a more lady-like manner, it is nevertheless her tomboyish behavior that draws in the readers, who can identify with the characters and are inspired by them. As a consequence, the challenge to the notion of what a woman should be like finds its way into readers’ lives.

Similarly Wendela de Raat analyses in “Kenmerken van verzet tegen de vrouwenrol in het meisjesboek” (2012) how the tomboy Jet in Schoolidyllen resists to conform to traditional female roles and the corresponding norms, and not just in a temporary way. De Raat argues that the death of Jet in the story immortalizes the tomboy, together with his/her resistance to the traditional norms around the role of women. We should therefore not be too quick to overlook the disruptive potential of such a character, even if it appears in a text that De hele Bibelebontse Berg (1989) positions it as an example of a girls’ book.

This closer analysis of Alcott’s and Naeff’s texts suggest that there is a lot more potential in the tomboy character type than is often understood in literary history’s tendency to categorize these texts as girls’ books, in which the tomboy character is only understood as a transitional phase. So, while Alcott’s work was adapted by Dutch translators to adhere to different cultural norms concerning the role of women as far as emotions and education are concerned -as shown through my own comparison of selected source and target texts, the use of LIWC and the present focus on tomboys-, and while reviews praised her work mostly for its home-related simplicity, deeming it appropriate for the education of girls in terms of what a woman should be like, the inspiration Alcott provided for Van Berken’s and Naeff’s work should not be overlooked. We can still learn something from how they played with the boundaries of gender with their tomboy characters, addressing the question of what a woman should be like or, maybe, could be like.

[i] And also to Suze Andriessen, daughter of translator P.J. Andriessen who translated Eight Cousins (1875) into Dutch.

[iii]‘”Normen en waarden in meisjesliteratuur. De (her)waardering van een genre’” by Helma van Lierop

[iv] This letter can still be found in the Letterkundig Museum in the Hague and can be found partially transcribed in Rebel en Dame (2010) by Gé Vaartjes on page 52.

[v] Possibly Alcott’s was not the only example: In Germany, for instance we also see earlier works which fall into this genre such as Der Trotzkopf (1885) by Emmy von Rhooden. It was translated the same year by a woman, and then again 8 years later by another female translator.

[vi] See Gabriel Bos’ thesis Halve Jongens, jongensachtige meisjes in Nederlandse meisjesboeken van 1870-1940 (1991)

[vii] Which finds its origin in Germany, perhaps showing a relationship to German writers such as Van Rhooden

[viii] See “Het ‘recept’ van de klassieke meisjesboeken van Top Naeff en Cissy van Marxveldt: ‘Men neme een bakvis…’” (2001) by Thesi Schmitz.

[ix] ‘Kraai’ used for a girl was in context with being wild. See Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal (1916).