Rereading Little Women in its 150th Anniversary Year
Could it Mean as Much to Me in My Thirties as it Had in Adolescence?
It was 1994, and I was in my first-ever book club, reading Little Women with three of my fellow sixth graders in anticipation of the brand-new movie version, which would be in theaters a few days after Christmas. I devoured books indiscriminately in those days, ticking off every installment of the Nancy Drew, Baby-Sitters Club, Encyclopedia Brown, Saddle Club and Redwall series, but Little Women was my first big classic. Reading it made me feel instantly more mature, like I was connecting with the many generations of young women who’d grown up alongside the March girls. I also realized, perhaps for the first time, that books that require a bit more work out of the reader can be commensurately rewarding.
Earlier this year, three things convinced me that it was finally time to revisit Louisa May Alcott’s classic: the new BBC/PBS miniseries, about which more anon; a bibliotherapy appointment at London’s School of Life, during which I was encouraged to try rereading some childhood favorites; and the buzz about the novel’s 150th anniversary, which is the occasion for Anne Boyd Rioux’s forthcoming Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters (W.W. Norton, August 21st).
When I decided to return to Little Women, more than two-thirds of my life had passed since I first opened a well-thumbed library paperback and sank into the story of the March family. How much would I remember of the plot and characters, I wondered, and could the book possibly mean as much to me in my thirties as it had in adolescence? It’s not surprising that I recalled very few specific incidents, though the broad strokes of Jo’s writing career and romantic prospects had stuck with me. What I didn’t expect of a classic novel was lots of slang: The original 1868 text has been restored in the Oxford University Press edition I read this year, so “ain’t it” and “don’t it” are common, along with some outdated vernacular phrases, whereas after 1880 most editions were cleaned up to offer more standardized prose.
I’d even forgotten that the novel opens on Christmas; that wasn’t just some marketing ploy to have Susan Sarandon and the rest pictured against a snowy background in the movie posters. “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” Jo sighs in the very first line. With Father off at war as a chaplain and little money to spare, the holidays appear bleak indeed in 1861. Yet the make-do-and-mend spirit is alive, with Beth’s chirrupy voice counterbalancing her sisters’ complaints and their beloved mother, “Marmee,” reminding them how privileged they are to donate their Christmas meal to poor immigrants.“How much would I remember of the plot and characters, I wondered, and could the book possibly mean as much to me in my thirties as it had in adolescence?”
I was struck afresh by the cozy sorority of this setup. Four sisters, divvied up into natural pairings: dutiful Meg with vain Amy; tomboy Jo with Beth the peacemaker. “What good times they had, to be sure! Such plays and tableaux; such sleigh-rides and skating frolics,” Alcott gushes. I could only imagine having so much company in the house, like built-in friends. The prospect thrilled me back in 1994, when my sister had just left for college, leaving me feeling like an only child. However, I was lucky to have my best friend living just around the corner, and, like the March girls, we wrote plays and a monthly newspaper, which we illustrated and distributed in our suburban Maryland neighborhood.
But more than the casual language or half-remembered details, what surprised me most on returning to Little Women as an adult were the piety and the gender politics. The sisters speak fondly of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, around which they based a childhood game, and think of life as a pilgrimage in the course of which one learns to make sacrifices, quash one’s temper, and count one’s blessings. There is goody-goody talk of heaven, and Marmee is wont to deliver clichéd Christian advice—“Watch and pray, dear; . . . and never think it is impossible to conquer your fault.” None of this would have bothered me back in the 1990s, church- and Bible Club-attending preteen that I was, but all these years later the Marches’ religiosity began to grate.
British journalist Lucy Mangan had a similar experience when revisiting Little Women in adulthood. In Bookworm, her recent memoir of childhood reading, Mangan gently mocks the novel’s tidy moral contract: “Their little universe is a well-ordered one. Sins are always expiated. Sacrifice is always rewarded.” Rioux agrees that the preachiness can be a challenge for today’s more cynical, secular readers. A mite disappointingly, I also found that Little Women holds up marriage and motherhood as the pinnacle of a woman’s life. “To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman; and I sincerely hope my girls may know this beautiful experience,” Marmee enthuses, while pregnancy is for “Meg a new experience,—the deepest and tenderest of a woman’s life.”
I was an inveterate tomboy like Jo when I first read Little Women, much happier whittling in tree houses than thinking about clothes and makeup. But must tomboyishness always be presented as an inferior opposite of femininity? Despite her love of Alcott’s classic, Mangan, too, regrets that the March girls are always “working to cultivate, subdue and repress various aspects of themselves to fit a preordained model of femininity.” In Little Women, I found five instances of “gentlemanly” applied to Jo’s manner and dress. By contrast, “womanly” describes Meg five times and Amy three times. And though Jo is temporarily allowed to follow a different route, eventually she, too, succumbs to marriage. Alcott published the novel in two parts, and while she initially resisted readers’ pleas—“I won’t marry Jo to Laurie [the sisters’ neighbor and childhood friend] to please any one,” she wrote in a letter—she ultimately bowed to public and publisher pressure in marrying her off (though to Professor Bhaer instead) in the second volume, published a year later in 1869.
Of course, it’s unfair to expect a 19th-century work to be ground-breaking about gender. Yet, as Rioux argues, a feminist case can be made for Little Women. It was perhaps the first female Bildungsroman, and was taken up as a hallmark feminist text in the 1970s and 1980s, with Jo inspiring women writers ranging from Elizabeth Alexander to Barbara Kingsolver. Jo’s writing garret was an early example of the Woolfian room of one’s own, and Alcott, in Rioux’s words, “validated the very idea of a girl developing her own opinions, earning a living, and deciding to become a writer.” Importantly, Jo seemed to have it all: she could be ambitious and creative, choose a profession and earn her own money, but still have a warm and fulfilling family life.
There’s no doubt Alcott modeled Jo after herself. Indeed, Little Women’s heavily autobiographical nature has long been acknowledged. Alcott drew on the dynamic between herself and her three sisters, as well as their relationship with their longsuffering mother, in her portrayal of the March family. She was in a rare situation for a woman of her time: not only was she not discouraged from making writing her profession, she was positively encouraged by family and friends, including mentor Henry David Thoreau and the Emersons, who helped finance her publishing ventures. Unlike Jo, however, Alcott remained a spinster.“Jo seemed to have it all: she could be ambitious and creative, choose a profession and earn her own money, but still have a warm and fulfilling family life.”
Rioux’s book unearths Little Women’s origins in Alcott family history, but she also traces its influence through to the present day. Multiple generations of heroines, she believes, “owe an obvious debt to Alcott’s pathbreaking portrayal of a spunky young heroine with a literary bent”—everyone from Anne Shirley in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series to Hermione in the Harry Potter books. Rioux also compares the dozens of Little Women adaptations, ranging from silent films to an opera and a Broadway musical.
The most recent version, a three-hour BBC miniseries directed by Vanessa Caswill, aired in the UK, where I now live, over Christmas last year and started showing on PBS Masterpiece last weekend. Purists will be relieved to hear it takes no significant liberties with the plot or characters. While rereading Little Woman I wasn’t fully able to recapture the unquestioning enjoyment of my childhood reading experience, but I found the new adaptation utterly charming. Angela Lansbury steals the show in the Dowager Countess-esque role of Great-Aunt March, while the rest of the cast is a mixture of newcomers and familiar faces from television and cinema. Maya Hawke (the nineteen-year-old daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman) may well become as iconic a Jo as Kathryn Hepburn and Winona Ryder. The County Wicklow, Ireland filming locations are remarkably effective stand-ins for nineteenth-century Massachusetts, and I especially enjoyed the banjo-and-fiddle Americana style of the theme music.
The key thing is that this “paradigmatic book about growing up,” as Rioux calls it, continues to make its way into young people’s hands. No matter in what medium girls—and boys!—first encounter the story, Rioux trusts it “evokes deep feelings of identification” that they can carry with them through to adulthood. For younger readers daunted by the book’s length, she suggests just reading Part I, which ends exactly one year later, with the whole family together for another cozy Christmas.
Little Women had two lasting effects on my life: a fellow book clubber has remained a lifelong friend, and, ever since that first reading, I’ve called my mother “Marm.” (Alas, Rioux reveals that Marmee—the name the Alcott girls called their mother, too—would have been pronounced “Mawmmy” in the New England accent of the time.) It’s been, if not an unqualified joy, still a nostalgic pleasure to rediscover it this year, in print and on screen. I’ll be pressing the novel on my niece as soon as she’s old enough to appreciate it.