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Early in Louisa May Alcott's novel Eight Cousins, a character is described thus:

Aunt Plenty was utterly dissimilar, being a stout, brisk old lady, with a sharp eye, a lively tongue, and a face like a winter-apple. Always trotting, chatting, and bustling, she was a regular Martha, cumbered with the cares of this world and quite happy in them.

I suppose "Martha" here is an allusion to some well-known literary character who has become less well-known since 1874. Who is she?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 10 down vote accepted

From ODO's definition of Martha:

(in the New Testament) the sister of Lazarus and Mary and friend of Jesus (Luke 10:40).
(as noun a Martha) a woman who keeps herself very busy with domestic affairs.

Wikipedia's page has more information on Martha (of Bethany). It includes an excerpt from The Catholic Encylopaedia:

The familiar intercourse between the Saviour of the world and the humble family which St. Luke depicts is dwelt on by St. John when he tells us that "Jesus loved Martha, and her sister Mary, and Lazarus" (11:5). Again the picture of Martha's anxiety (John 11:20-21, 39) accords with the picture of her who was "busy about much serving" (Luke 10:40); so also in John 12:2: "They made him a supper there: and Martha served."

I suspect that all these mentions of Martha being busy serving is the source of meaning.

Etymonline's entry confirms this:

fem. proper name, from Aramaic Maretha, lit. "lady, mistress," fem. of mar, mara "lord, master." As the type name of one concerned with domestic affairs, it is from Luke x:40, 41.

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+1. I'll add that Martha was a very often referenced figure, across differences in denomination and class. –  Jon Hanna Jan 29 '13 at 15:33
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See also the “Marthas” in the dystopic novel, The Handmaid's Tale. –  Andrew Lazarus Jan 29 '13 at 16:34
    
@AndrewLazarus Thank you. That's been on my Kindle for a few months now. Hopefully, I'll start on it soon :) –  coleopterist Jan 29 '13 at 17:09

It refers to the Biblical story of Mary and Martha, two sisters visited by Jesus.

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