Well, I suppose it had to happen eventually, but I have finally come to a beloved childhood book that I didn’t enjoy as much as I thought I would. And to say that it is Little Women, published in 1868 by Louisa M. Alcott is a surprise to me!
First, some background. Little Women was apparently loosely based on the author’s own childhood, with her sisters the model for Meg, Amy, and Beth, and Louisa herself the model for Jo. The March sisters live in what could be described as genteel poverty, but the Alcotts were worse off, and Louisa, her sisters, and her mothers had to work at various jobs to help support the family.The book was instantly popular, and three months later Alcott published the sequel, Little Women Married, sometimes called Good Wives, or sometimes just bundled together under the original title.
I did not know anything about Louisa May Alcott before doing some research on her, and what I discovered was fascinating. Her parents were transcendentalists – a philosophical, literary and religious movement that sprang up in the eastern United States in the decades before the Civil War, headed by leading intellectuals of the day such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott. These men were all friends of the Alcotts and also became her teachers in the experimental school that her father founded.
Her family, and Louisa herself, were abolitionists, and were part of the Underground Railway. They hid an escaped slave in their home for a week in 1847. She also was an early proponent of women’s rights, and became the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts, in a school board election.
In doing my series this year I have read the book first and then done the research into the authors, just because I wanted to read the book as I did in childhood, with no preconceived notions about it. However, in this case, I wish I would have known some of Alcott’s background first, because I think I would have enjoyed it more, especially in the beginning.
In the end I did enjoy revisiting this tale of four sisters whose father is off fighting in the Civil War, but honestly I have to say if I was reading this for the first time ever I would have stopped somewhere around say, the first page. Gulp. To give you some idea of why, here’s the opening lines:
” Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
“i don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have lots of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
“We’ve got father and mother, and each other, anyhow,” said Beth, contentedly, from her corner.
The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly,–
“We haven’t got father, and shall not have him for a long time.” She didn’t say ‘perhaps never”, but each silently added it, thinking of father far away, where the fighting was.
Nobody spoke for a minute; then Meg said in an altered tone –
Blah. All that “grumbled” and “injured” and “contentedly” and “sadly” and “altered”…it’s a bit much, isn’t it? It shows the reason why writers are given the advice to simply use “said” when writing dialogue. Anything else verges into melodrama. As Stephen King famously said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” and in this opening scene we are marching pretty steadily down that road.
However, I do recognize that writing styles and standards have changed quite a bit in the nearly 150 years since the book was first published, so I ignored my inner critic and went on reading, getting absorbed in the tale of these sister’s lives, their small domestic dramas, and their “scrapes” as Jo calls misadventures.
The opening scene above is a fairly non-subtle introduction to the four sisters. Jo, who at 15 is the second-oldest girl, is the central character of the book, and she is given the opening line. And we are given a couple of clues about her right away. She “grumbles”, indicating her fiery personality, and she is lying on the rug, which hints at her unconventional nature.
Meg (16) and Amy (12) both are distressed at how their poverty is affecting them. Meg feels the lack of nice clothes keenly, and Amy compares herself to the “other girls” who have lots of pretty things while she makes do without.
And Beth (13) is the “saint” who brings them the proper perspective they should have on their troubles: to focus not on how much they don’t have, but, on what they do. Alcott also introduces the fact of the missing father nicely, setting the stage in which this domestic drama will be played.
After a couple of chapters I adjusted to Alcott’s style of writing and settled into the story, and some of the old enthusiasm for it came back. Of course I loved Jo all over again, as she is definitely the most interesting of the sisters. She struggles with her temper, she loves words and writing and eventually begins to publish some stories. Looking back, I believe that this is the first book I read about a girl who loved to write and eventually sent some stories out to be published, so I can see here the first prod in my writing journey, for which I am extremely grateful.
Interestingly enough, Jo mainly writes for financial gain, not artistic expression. At one point in the novel she begins to write “sensational” stories, with no morals in them, and she is chastised by her friend, Professor Bhaer, and eventually burns them all in shame. Alcott also wrote sensational stories for adults, but like Jo, eventually abandoned them after she discovered that writing wholesome stories for children brought a more positive reception.
And then there is Laurie, the grandson of the crotchedy rich gentleman next door. He becomes fast friends with the girls, especially Jo, to whom he is closest in age, and adds a nice masculine touch to the book.
The girls’ mother, Marmee (and I can never figure out if this is supposed to be her name or just the word they use for “mother”) is also presented as an ideal character, dispensing motherly wisdom here and there as the girls come to her with her various problems.
And speaking of dispensing wisdom…well, here I come to the second reason why this book struck an off-chord for me as I read it again. As an example, here’s a passage where Jo is discussing with her mother the difficulties she has in keeping her temper, and Marmee has just confessed to Jo that she, herself, has struggled in the past with this very thing.
“Poor mother! What helped you then?”
“Your father, Jo. He never loses patience, never doubts or complains, but always hopes, and works, and waits so cheerfully that one is ashamed to do otherwise before him. he helped and comforted me, and showed me that I must try to practice all the virtues I would have my little girls possess, for I was their example. It was easier to try for your sakes than for my own; a startled or surprised look from one of you when I spoke sharply, rebuked me more than any words could have done; and the love, respect, and confidence of my children was the sweetest reward I could receive for my efforts to be the woman I would have them copy.”
“Oh mother! If I’m ever half as good as you, I shall be satisfied,” cried Jo, much touched.
Well, yes. Wouldn’t we all. I mean, everyone in this book is just so darn good. And I hate to say that all this moralizing got on my nerves after awhile, but it really did.
However, again, tolerating the sticky-sweet flavour of the book is easier when you take into account the era in which it was written and the audience it was intended for. And considering those things, this book is actually quite remarkable, I think.
There have been reams written about Little Women, and it’s place in literary history, and the ground-breaking nature of the work. When it was first published, it was given accolades for presenting the lives of women in a “realistic” setting, and also for throwing some of the fictional tropes of the day on their heads. [SPOILER ALERT] For example Jo refuses handsome Laurie’s proposal, in favour of the older, plain, Professor Bhaer, which was completely against what would be expected in the novels of the day.
And let’s face it, don’t we all hate this part of the book? I can remember how absolutely devastated I was that Jo refused Laurie. I mean, come on. He’s handsome, he professes his love for her in charming and passionate ways, he’s known her as a good friend for a long time….and she chooses some dumpy old Professor instead?
But…..reading it this time, it didn’t bug me as much. What? Go figure. Ok, I still understand the outrage. But I guess I warmed to good ol’ Fritz a bit more this time around. And I appreciated Jo’s arguments against her union with Laurie more, too. They were too much alike. She loved him as a brother, and she didn’t have that certain spark towards him. So, really….I get it. But not being completely outraged by this was a huge surprise to me, all the same!
So I have mixed feelings about this book. Despite my initial aversion I warmed to it, in the end. And I found the information about Alcott herself very interesting. It’s the first time during my re-visit of old childhood favourites that I wished I had done the reading of the author’s background first, as I think it would have added layers of understanding to the book that would have given me more appreciation of it then I had reading it “cold”.
if you haven’t read this classic, I would highly recommend it. But if you find yourself gritting your teeth here and there as you read, just keep going. It’s a treasure that requires a little digging to fully appreciate it.