47 pages 1 hour read

Louisa May Alcott

Eight Cousins

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1874

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Summary and Study Guide


American writer Louisa May Alcott originally serialized her novel Eight Cousins (or The Aunt-Hill), chapter by chapter, from 1874-1875 in a popular monthly American children’s magazine entitled St. Nicholas. The story depicts a young, orphaned heir named Rose as she moves from childhood to adolescence, and each chapter portrays an important life lesson that she experiences and grows from. The chapters were published together in novel form in 1875. In 1876, Alcott published its sequel, Rose in Bloom. An established children’s author known for her novel Little Women (1868-1869), Alcott wrote popular juvenile literature to support her family members, who were impoverished because of her father’s idealistic but impractical approach to life.

This study guide refers to the public domain Kindle edition available freely for download here.

Content Warning: The source text includes racist language about Chinese people.

Plot Summary

The novel opens on 13-year-old Rose Campbell, daughter and sole heir to her recently deceased father George’s estate and fortune. She is sobbing in the front room of her great-aunts Peace and Plenty’s house, having returned there recently from boarding school to await the arrival of her new guardian, her Uncle Alec. Alec is her father’s brother, a seafaring doctor. Over the past week, her six aunts have tried to cheer her up with feminine pastimes, but she feels inconsolable until she hears the song of a mocking bird coming from inside the house. She follows the sound and is surprised to find that it is not a bird singing but a young servant girl named Phebe who works in her aunts’ kitchens. The two girls are intrigued by each other’s lives, and Phebe becomes Rose’s first friend at Aunt Hill. While they are chatting, Rose sees what she thinks is a circus arriving outside and is then called to the parlor to meet her seven boy cousins.

Rose’s cousins range in age from 16 to toddlerhood. Their leader is Archie, the oldest, who introduces his brothers Geordie, Will and the youngest, Jamie, as well as a bookworm, Mac, his brother, Steve, and the handsomest one, whom they call Prince Charlie. Rose attempts to hide her fear of the boys and be cordial, and then they take her outside to show off their horses and carts, ignoring her worries that it might be seen as improper. Later, after dinner, Rose awakens from a dream about her father and realizes that she is being embraced in welcome by her Uncle Alec, who has arrived back from India.

Rose watches her uncle return from a morning ocean swim and is calmed by his jaunty demeanor and amused when he climbs up to her balcony to greet her. She confides in him her grief, her distress at her six aunts’ conflicting opinions of her behavior, and her poor health. Uncle Alec promises to look after her welfare and immediately begins by banning her from drinking coffee, throwing the medications her aunts gave her off the balcony, and prescribing her a healthier diet.

Uncle Alec and the six aunts decide that he will be allowed to try applying his unorthodox parenting theories on Rose for one year without interference, after which they can renegotiate based on the result. Uncle Alec begins his education of Rose by showing her how to milk a cow for breakfast each morning and requests for her to run around the yard, despite her protests of impropriety. Rose and Uncle Alec discuss her vanity and restrictive fashion accessories, and he tells her she should wear looser-fitting clothes that allow her greater freedom of movement. Then, Uncle Alec gives her new clothes from his trip overseas. Later, he reveals a beautiful bedroom furnished especially for her and charges her with the responsibility of cleaning it herself.

Uncle Alec teaches Rose how to row a boat and they visit her Uncle Mac’s cargo ship, which has recently returned to the US from Hong Kong. Aboard, she meets a couple of Chinese men, her uncle’s business associates, who don’t speak English well but amuse and charm her. One of them, Fun See, gifts her an ornate fan. On the ride home, Rose explains how much more interesting her uncle’s geography lessons are than the ones she had in boarding school. Rose defends her uncle’s educational methods to her Aunt Jane by surprising her with the vast amount of information she has learned about China.

Rose goes camping with her cousins on a nearby island for the Fourth of July, which she enjoys immensely, despite not having spent much of her life outdoors. She feels badly for Phebe, who stays behind to work, and secretly switches places with her so that Phebe can also enjoy the holiday. After a day of chores, Rose feels satisfied that she made an important sacrifice for her friend.

Young Mac is struck down with sunstroke and then temporary blindness from a lifetime of reading books in poor light. Rose spends her days reading to him during his long period of strict bedrest and comforts Mac when the doctor declares that he won’t recover fully for up to a year. She chastises the other boy cousins when they cause a ruckus in Mac’s room and teaches them to be more considerate of their cousin’s situation.

The setting changes to Cosey Corner, a vacation homestay that Mac, Rose, and her Aunt Jessie and small cousin Jamie visit for a month to entertain Mac while he recovers. Rose and Mac are much refreshed from spending time outside in nature, and Rose learns to ride a horse, a fact with which she surprises Uncle Alec when he and the other cousins come to visit her for her birthday picnic and charades. Unfortunately, during the celebrations, Rose sprains her ankle falling off her horse and is laid up for a few weeks. While recovering, she is visited by a haughty local girl, Ariadne, who convinces Rose to secretly pierce her ears. When Uncle Alec and the boys find out, they are disappointed that Rose has, in their minds, such feminine taste, but Uncle Alec lets her keep her earrings.

Rose decides that she wants to learn a trade and follows Uncle Alec’s advice to learn the art of housekeeping and breadmaking from Aunt Plenty and sewing from Aunt Peace. Rose sacrifices her earrings, trading them to Charlie and Archie in return for their promise not to smoke cigars. A grateful Aunt Jessie convinces her sons to give up reading sensational novels as part of the bargain.

Uncle Alec and Aunt Clara each buy a winter outfit for Rose, so she can choose which one she prefers. Rose chooses Uncle Alec’s because it allows for freedom of movement, whereas Aunt Clara’s is pretty and fashionable but restrictive. Uncle Alec starts to teach Rose physiology so that she will respect her body.

At Christmas, Charlie tries to trick Rose to kiss Mac under the mistletoe, but Rose outwits him and kisses Uncle Mac instead. As a surprise, Uncle Jem returns from his sea voyage and is touched by how much Rose reminds him of his late brother.

Rose contracts pneumonia while waiting outside in the winter weather for hours to meet with Mac. Mac, who got distracted with an experiment and forbidden by his mother Aunt Jane from leaving the house in the cold, feels so guilty that he visits Rose in the middle of the night to apologize. She forgives him, blaming her own stubbornness.

Rose discovers that Phebe wants an education and decides to tutor her. When Uncle Alec hears of the plan, he generously offers to pay for Phebe’s schooling, feeling guilty that he neglected to consider Phebe’s welfare.

Archie and Charlie get into an argument about Charlie’s new friends, whom Archie believes are a bad influence. Rose begs Archie to make up with Charlie because she worries that Charlie will get into trouble without Archie’s guidance, and Archie agrees to her plan.

Rose reflects on how much healthier and happier she is than when she arrived. To help her cousin Charlie, she agrees to spend a month staying at each of her aunt’s houses. Wherever she stays, the cousins follow, and each aunt is happy to have the “family flower” stay with them. When Uncle Alec reveals that the one-year experiment is over, the aunts declare it a great success, and all desire Rose to stay with them in future. However, when Rose is given the choice, she decides to stay with Uncle Alec, whom she feels she loves most and will be happiest with.