Little Women

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1869)

What it’s about: Massachusetts, America, the 1860s. The March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – live with their mother (“Marmee”) in genteel poverty during the American Civil War. Their father has volunteered as a military chaplain, leaving the Marches to support themselves. Part One, “Little Women”, opens at Christmastime, as the girls lament their poverty and their father’s absence, but decide to spend their Christmas money on gifts for their mother. Marmee encourages them to donate their breakfast to the Hummels, a poor German immigrant family in their neighbourhood, and they are rewarded with a surprise feast by Mr Lawrence, their elderly neighbour. Meg and Jo attend a Christmas ball at the home of the Gardiners, where they meet Laurie, Mr Lawrence’s grandson. After Christmas, Marmee and the girls return to their routines: Meg works as a governess; Jo, a bookworm and aspiring writer, is an assistant to their cantankerous Aunt March; Amy returns to school, while Beth, who is too shy and fragile for school, keeps house. The Marches become friendly with the Lawrences, and Jo and Laurie strike up an especially close friendship. When Jo refuses to take Amy to the theatre, Amy burns the draft of Jo’s novel. In retaliation, Jo fails to warn Amy about a patch of dangerous ice when they go skating, and Amy is nearly drowned, rescued by a guilty and contrite Jo. Meg spends a fortnight with the Gardiners, and is given a makeover to attend a grand ball, where she drinks too much and behaves foolishly with Laurie, who berates her for her behaviour. Later, Meg overhears the Gardiners gossiping that she intends to marry Laurie for his money, and regrets her disloyalty to her own family. Jo has a story published and proudly offers her earnings to the family. Marmee receive news that Mr March is gravely ill: she travels to the battlefields to nurse him, accompanied by Laurie’s tutor John Brooke. In Marmee’s absence, Beth visits the Hummels and witnesses their baby die from scarlet fever. Beth becomes seriously ill, and Amy is sent to live with Aunt March to prevent contagion. Meg and Jo decide not to notify their parents about Beth, but as her condition worsens, they finally send a telegram. Mr and Mrs March return home just as Beth recovers. Meg and John Brooke announce their engagement, while Jo laments the impending loss of her sister, and the Marches enjoy another Christmas now reunited.

In Part Two, originally published as “Good Wives”, Meg and John marry in a simple ceremony and move into their new home. Amy has replaced Jo as the companion of Aunt March, who pays for her drawing lessons. Jo continues life as a writer, winning one hundred dollars in a story prize, and eventually becomes the family’s main breadwinner. Meg initially struggles with life as a poor man’s wife, and eventually gives birth to twins, named Daisy and Demi. Amy and Jo pay Aunt March a social call, after which the old woman changes her mind about inviting Jo to accompany her to Europe and invites Amy instead. Jo suspects that Beth is in love with Laurie, and finds herself a job as a governess in New York so as to leave them alone. In New York, Jo meets Friedrich Bhaer, an impoverished German professor who cares for his two young nephews. Jo starts writing sensation fiction for tabloid newspapers to earn money, but stops after Friedrich criticises the low moral standards of popular writing. She returns home, and Laurie, recently graduated from college, proposes marriage. Jo refuses him, and a devastated Laurie leaves for Europe with his grandfather. Beth confides to Jo that she is dying. Amy and Laurie meet in the South of France and become closer. Meg is consumed with new motherhood, prompting John to spend more time away from home, until Marmee encourages her not to neglect her husband and to allow him more involvement with raising the children. Jo devotes herself to Beth, who dies at home, surrounded by her family. Amy and Laurie agree to marry, and discuss how they can use Laurie’s money to encourage other artists. Jo, grieving for Beth, confronts her future as a lonely spinster, till she receives a surprise visit from Friedrich. Amy and Laurie return to America, and Jo and Laurie agree to be friends. Friedrich and Jo meet in town during a rainstorm and they declare their love for each other. The story concludes with Aunt March dying and leaving Jo her house, Plumfield, which she and Friedrich convert into a school for orphaned boys, eventually having two sons of their own.

Why it’s a classic: It’s difficult to think of a book that’s more “classic” than Little Women. A bestseller on its initial publication, it has been continually in print ever since, and inspired scores of stage, TV and film adaptations (notably George Cukor’s 1933 version starring the young Katharine Hepburn as Jo). Proposed by Alcott’s publisher Thomas Niles, who thought there might be a market for “stories for girls”, and written rather hurriedly by Alcott as a source of easy money, it became a runaway success, making Alcott a literary celebrity. Niles wisely advised Alcott to take a share of the royalties rather than a fixed advance, bringing  her the financial independence she had always craved. Little Women is now regarded as a classic of American fiction, for Alcott’s sharply drawn portrait of Civil War era life and her enthusiastic embrace of American vernacular and customs. It’s also been hailed as a classic of feminist fiction, for its portrayal of a female dominated world, and its detailed psychological focus on relationships between mothers, daughters and sisters. Written in a buoyant humorous style, the March Family emerge as real women, with complex thoughts and desires of their own and sometimes contradictory, “unheroic” behaviour, attempting in various ways to balance their own ambitions with the wish to live a good life. The “ordinariness” of their lives, and the apparent banality of their experiences (a burned manuscript, a spoiled dinner, an argument over limes) gave voice to women’s experience as it was actually lived, rather than literary stereotypes of women as pillars of virtue, repositories of sin or the passive objects of men’s desires. In Jo March, Alcott’s most autobiographical character, we have a proto-feminist heroine for the ages – a tomboy kicking against social expectations that women be docile and submissive, and bravely following her ambitions to be a writer. Everyone from Simone de Beauvoir to Susan Sontag has cited Jo as a major influence on their development as feminists and writers. Greta Gerwig’s new film adaptation of Little Women is soon to be released, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the publication of the novel, giving audiences another opportunity to encounter Alcott’s work.

Bouquet or Brickbat? A huge heart-shaped bouquet. This isn’t my first encounter with Little Women. I read it first when I was about seven, loved it, and immediately devoured Alcott’s sequel Jo’s Boys. I’ve used this project and the prospect of a new film adaptation to revisit the novel, partially to see if and how my feelings have changed now that I’m middle-aged and the product of a post-feminist, post-Freudian culture.

Like many books written by the Transcendentalists (I’d include Thoreau’s Walden and Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter here too), Little Women reads like two separate books, or the result of a titanic struggle between two conflicting psychic forces. On one hand, there’s Alcott the moralist, writing a fable about good behaviour in the tradition of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan’s dreary Christian tract plays a significant part in Little Women: Marmee gives each of the girls a copy of Progress for Christmas, and subsequent chapters borrow from his leaden-footed metaphors, including “Vanity Fair” and “The Slough of Despond”. For contemporary readers, Alcott is often cringingly didactic, grinding her narrative to a halt to preach a sermon on the benefits of poverty, the importance of women learning to control their tempers, or the spiritual superiority of a doormat like Beth meekly accepting her death. Alcott even has her characters deliver long and rather tedious defences of novels with morals (homilies about homilies, if you will), and constructs a guilt-and-redemption narrative in which Jo is tempted by an unscrupulous editor to write sensation fiction (“People want to be amused, not preached at… Morals don’t sell nowadays“, he cautions) only to repent when Friedrich declares that such work corrupts the young.

This isn’t always as unrelentingly pious as it sounds – at one point during Good Wives, she acknowledges that her own audience might have fallen asleep, suggesting that she had a sense of humour about her own sermonising. But still, it’s there in the text and can’t be whitewashed away – a hundred little compliments for her female characters when they hold their tongues, ignore their frustrations, swallow their egos and act like angels in the house, and just as many slights and punishments for “bad”, unladylike behaviour (read: being assertive). They’re led in this moral evangelism by Marmee, an almost impossibly virtuous mother-angel, who tells Jo “I’m angry almost every day of my life” and salutes Mr March for helping her keep her temper in check. I remember being delighted as a child with the moral certainty provided by all this narrative “telling”, which felt cozily reassuring. Reading it now often feels quite painful, like an instruction manual for girls on how to submit uncomplainingly to a patriarchal society.

Alcott’s moralising feels even more peculiar because it rubs uneasily up against a very different aspect of her storytelling: a celebration of the sisters in all their messy, imperfect humanity. These days, we’re much more forgiving of weakness – our own and other people’s – and despite Alcott’s homilies about the rewards of good behaviour, it’s the Marches’ bad behaviour that resonates most strongly. From Meg’s longing for a comfortable life and reckless overspending, to Jo’s sharp tongue and quick temper, and Amy’s petty displays of revenge, the Marches feel real, human and relatable. Even the saintly Beth is afforded a level of nuance, as she’s shown struggling through her shyness to forge a bond with old Mr Lawrence, though post-Lolita, it’s difficult to read a scene about an old man taking a young girl on his knee without a slight shudder.

Alcott also gives an authentically dissatisfied voice to the lot of women in the 19th century. “I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy,” Jo grumbles, more than once, and it’s impossible not to sympathise with her plight. Little Women is set during a turbulent period in American history, in which wifely domesticity was rubbing up against the unpretty necessity of making a living in troubled times, and the absence of men required women to step into the traditionally “masculine” roles of breadwinner to keep their families alive. Though Alcott seldom mentions politics or the burgeoning women’s suffrage movement (which she was heavily involved in as an adult), something of the confusion of the age and shifting attitudes towards women’s roles resounds throughout Little Women. Alcott had also experienced enough poverty in her childhood (after her free-thinking father proved incapable of providing for the family) to understand the economic importance of women working for their living. And so she has Jo selling her hair and eventually her stories and novels to pay the bills and put food on the table. By contrast, Amy makes a cool and compelling case for her decision to marry a wealthy man. Like her patron Aunt March, Amy is a realist, who realises she must play the hand she’s been dealt, and “marry well” to save herself and her family from poverty. Some critics have even attempted to argue a case for Meg as a feminist hero, due to Alcott’s sympathetic interest in her domestic life, though I still find her character to too sick-making to care much about.

Little Women contains a fair degree of wish-fulfilment, in which Alcott allows her characters their dissatisfactions, but rewards them with money and marriage in the final act. Jo is allowed to hang onto her high moral ideals, nobly turning her back on sensation fiction, whereas Alcott had to keep pumping out trashy stories to pay the bills until the success of Little Women made her financially secure. Alcott also bravely resisted her fans’ demands to have Jo and Laurie marry, setting a precedent for strong, independent female heroines who feel ambivalent about marriage. Her eventual decision to have Jo and Friedrich fall in love has been endlessly debated, especially in the light of her earlier declarations of independence: “I don’t believe I shall ever marry. I’m happy as I am, and love my liberty too well to be in a hurry to give it up for any mortal man“. Alcott, too, decided not to marry or have children (“I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe”, she said) and dropped several hints that she was bisexual. (“I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body,” she said, in an 1883 interview, “because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with a man.”) By marrying off her heroine, was Alcott compromising her radical proto-queer ideals, churning out a conventional “happy ending” that would satisfy her fans and not upset middle class sensibilities? Or was having Jo marry a poor 40something German professor with holes in his socks actually a brilliant act of subversion, challenging expectations that the heroine will marry the handsome prince? To some extent, it’s both, and as the sales proved, it was a savvy decision.

Alcott’s even greater act of subversion, and one not always appreciated by critics, was her decision to leave Mr March largely out of the story. In Part One, he’s at war, and in Part Two, he seems to mostly to live in the library, and is seldom quoted directly.  Joan Acocella writes in the New Yorker that this could be Alcott revenging herself on her own useless father, or simply erasing her own conflicted feelings about him. Either way, it’s clear that the “happy family” narrative of Little Woman was critical to its massive success. For all their moaning about poverty, the Marches live in a utopia of warm and supportive female friendship, presenting an (impossible?) ideal of family life that millions of its readers have fallen in love with.

For all its faults and its patches of purple prose, Little Women deserves its place in the canon for its trailblazing depiction of women, for its bright, energetic prose style, and for its sensitive unpacking of the struggles of being young, female and an artist. Without Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, we wouldn’t have had Anne of Green Gables, Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden or Hermione Granger. I can’t wait for the new film adaptation, which I hope will send a new generation of readers rushing to the bookstore.

Quotable Quote: “But you see, Jo wasn’t a heroine, she was only a struggling human girl like hundreds of others, and she just acted out her nature, being sad, cross, listless, or energetic, as the mood suggested.” 

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