Well, costumes do become an even more significant part of the narrative near the end, when Polly dresses up to go to the opera, and garners the attention of a young man whom she doesn't love. This dressing up comes on the heels of a scene in which Fan's friends are discussing how they dislike to see their servants in finery unbecoming their station. The attention of Mr. Syd is drawn, it seems, as much by the dress itself as by Polly's actions. Alcott writes it as a near-ruinous turn of events.
If I had read this book when I was younger, I might have put it down in disgust at that point. The idea that girls needed to reign in their energy was anathema to my younger self, as I felt I had been reigned-in all my life up to that point. Alcott's moral would have seemed sour indeed. Now I see it differently. I still think there's an inherent sexism to Alcott's writing (historically appropriate, but sexist nonetheless) in blaming Polly for attracting Mr. Syd's affections rather than blaming Mr. Syd for his own actions. But I do think people should be aware of the implicit messages they send to others, and try to be mindful of both their intention and their words and actions, despite not being able to control all effects. At any rate, I didn't end up putting the book down in disgust.
In fact, I read it through to the end with great enjoyment. I liked that Alcott differed from Austin in that, as she set up the all-get-married ending, she did so selfconsciously and directly. It struck me as a very American way to write an ending:
"... I now yield to the amiable desire of giving
satisfaction, and, at the risk of outraging all
the unities, intend to pair off everybody I can
lay my hands on." (first paragraph of chpt XIX)
Now I'm looking into other articles about Alcott's work, although I'm doing it slowly because these musings have to take backseat to the dissertation work of looking at what books librarians were recommending for children in the 1880s. Alcott's works were among them, as was another book to be featured in a blog posting coming soon: Hawthorne's Wonder Book, which consists of his adaptations of myths and legends for a then-contemporary audience of children.