My Back Pages: Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins

As I think back on books that piqued my early interest in fragrance, I can include quite a few examples of “young adult” literature. Like many girls, I was an avid reader of Louisa May Alcott’s work during my pre-teen years—Little Women, of course, but also lesser-known novels like An Old-Fashioned Girl and Eight Cousins.

The heroine of Eight Cousins is Rose Campbell, a recently orphaned girl (and slightly spoiled heiress) who is being raised by her many aunts until her well-traveled Uncle Alec adopts her as his ward and takes over her upbringing. This includes a total overhaul of Rose’s diet and wardrobe, for the benefit of her well-being: oatmeal rather than coffee for breakfast, plenty of fresh air and exercise, no more fancy corset-like belts. (Alcott’s interest in reforming women’s health and dress is evident.)

Uncle Alec persuades Rose to accept his new guidelines by gifting her with a box of souvenirs from his recent journeys—including some fragrance:

Every little girl can easily imagine what an extra good time she had diving into a sea of treasures and fishing up one pretty thing after another, till the air was full of the mingled odours of musk and sandalwood, the room gay with bright colours, and Rose in a rapture of delight. She began to forgive Dr. Alec for the oatmeal diet when she saw a lovely ivory workbox; became resigned to the state of her belt when she found a pile of rainbow-coloured sashes; and when she came to some distractingly pretty bottles of attar of rose, she felt that they almost atoned for the great sin of thinking [servant girl] Phebe the finer girl of the two.

By the time she finished delving to the bottom of her box of presents, Rose

…had stuck a purple fez on her blonde head, tied several brilliant scarfs about her waist, and put on a truly gorgeous scarlet jacket with a golden sun embroidered on the back, a silver moon on the front, and stars of all sizes on the sleeves. A pair of Turkish slippers adorned her feet, and necklaces of amber, coral, and filigree hung about her neck, while one hand held a smelling-bottle, and the other the spicy box of oriental sweetmeats.

As a young reader (and even today, as an adult reader), I enjoyed imagining the colors, tastes, and smells of this scene and taking stock of the treats Rose had received. I’m sure these pages introduced me to the word “attar,” and I do have an ongoing fondness for precious little bottles of rose essence and sandalwood oil, not to mention Turkish Delight and layers of necklaces.

Thanks to the Gutenberg Project, you can read Eight Cousins online here.

To view more posts in this series, click here.

Images: 1955 edition of Eight Cousins, with illustrations by Robert Doremus, via Louisa May Alcott Is My Passion.

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13 thoughts on “My Back Pages: Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins

  1. I loved Louisa May Alcott. I never read Eight Cousins, but I remember enjoying Jack and Jill immensely.

    I remember being disappointed with the sequels to Little Women, though.

    1. I have to agree… Little Men and Jo’s Boys both tend to be a little flat and preachy. I wonder whether LM Alcott wrote them mainly under pressure from readers and her publisher…

      1. I remember thinking the elements of Jo’s Boys were incredibly classist. Seems like a weird memory to harbor, so it must be true…?

        1. I need to go back and look! I do remember some of the poorer female students at the college being incredibly grateful to the incredibly generous March family, over and over, which got a little awkward to read… but I’ll need to re-read!

  2. Hey, I just cited these very same passages in a recent perfume review, mainly because they were responsible for awakening my perfume interests as a kid! I think I will always love this book for the sensory/visual passions it stirred in me. It makes me so happy to know that it inspired you and others too.

    1. Oh, so weird! I’ll need to go and look now. I didn’t see that post, obviously, because I don’t like to repeat other people’s observations. But now I’ll go check. It’s a wonderful section of that chapter, isn’t it? I loved to read and reread Alcott’s descriptions of rooms and outfits and meals, because they were so detailed and vivid.

      1. Cool coincidence– this year is the centennial of Orchard House, LMA’s family home, where she wrote Little Women. I think she’s channeling through us, her fans! :)

    1. Thank you for visiting, Susan!! I love your blog… I’ve visited it a few times. I really enjoyed your posts about “Eight Cousins” and Alcott using the Uncle Alec character as her “voice” to speak about women’s health and fashion.
      I owned a later (1980s) edition of “Eight Cousins” when I was growing up, but I love the illustrations from this 1950s edition.

  3. My mom loved nothing better than rummaging through antique stores. When I was 10 or 11, I found a copy of Eight Cousins in an antique store as I waited (none too happily) for mom to finish looking at china. I had just finished reading Little Women and was so excited to see an Alcott book I had never heard of. The woman who owned the store gave me Eight Cousins and a copy of Rose in Bloom! Yay! for people who understand a child’s enthusiasm for reading!

    I remember that scene in the book very well – I thought Rose was one lucky kid.

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