When I was about 10, I tried to read Little Women but found it so boring and such a slog that I gave up. Fast-forward several decades and I hate to say it, but I still kind of feel the same way. The “coming of age” story about the March sisters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy has important things to say about family, poverty and faith, as well as about the way young ladies ought to behave and what they should strive for. It was a hit from the moment it was published and has remained so ever since. The funny thing is, author Alcott did not practice what she preached and didn’t especially like preaching it.
Little Women was initially published in two separate volumes in 1868 and 1869 with Louisa May Alcott using her own life and sisters as an inspiration. The March sisters are teenagers in the 1860s, and in Part One of the novel, their father has gone off to war as a chaplain, leaving his daughters and wife Marmee at home in Massachusetts. The Marches have limited means and must economize. The story opens at Christmastime, and the girls aren’t expecting much in the way of presents, but their love for their mother and each other, their gratitude for what they do have, ensures that their holiday will be cozy and joyful. This theme of finding happiness in relationships and service to others rather than in material things runs throughout the novel. The girls find amusement in each other’s company, putting on plays that Jo has written and producing their own journal a la the Pickwick papers. Jo, second oldest, is usually the ringleader for these good times. She is an aspiring writer, somewhat boyish in her ways and in possession of a bit of a temper. Meg, the oldest, is the beauty who is admired by all who see her. Meg and youngest daughter Amy seem to feel the lack of funds more than the other girls. They wish to have the lovely dresses and accessories that other accomplished young ladies have. Amy also fancies herself an artist and dreams of traveling to Europe one day to study. Finally, there is Beth, the “mouse,” everyone’s pet. Beth is quiet and shy, often sickly, but always thoughtful and kind. Her greatest joy is in helping her family.
The arc of this novel is rather episodic. There’s not an obvious plot other than the girls growing up over time. It reads something like a soap opera. Each chapter is a little self contained story or vignette. In Part One, which covers the year that their father is away, readers see the family dynamic and are introduced to a few outside characters. So, for example, we see that Amy and Jo butt heads occasionally, that Jo is Beth’s special protector, and that all defer to Marmee, who is the epitome of goodness and charity. The Marches acquire a new friend and neighbor, Teddy “Laurie” Laurence. Laurie is the grandson of their wealthy neighbor Mr. Laurence. Mr. Laurence seemed a severe man, but as the March girls befriend Laurie, not only does Laurie’s life improve, but Mr. Laurence experiences a bit of a thaw himself. Aunt March is their wealthy but cantankerous relation who enjoys criticizing the family and trying to use her wealth to bully them into doing her bidding. (It doesn’t work.)
In Part Two, Mr. March has returned home, three years have passed, and the March girls are now young women. Life is changing for all of them as they grow up and move away. Jo has an especially hard time with this. She is quite upset that Meg has fallen in love with Laurie’s tutor and is the first to marry and move out. Amy has turned into a charming and sensible young woman who knows how to move in society and make an impression. As a result, Aunt March and another relative reward her with a trip to Europe to study, much to Jo’s chagrin as she herself wanted such an opportunity. Jo becomes a governess in New York for a year, has some success as a writer of sensational stories, and meets Professor Bhaer, a German tutor who will become much more to her. The serial nature of Alcott’s story telling continues in this part, and while I was quite engaged by the chapters dealing with Jo and Beth, the chapters about Meg, Amy and Laurie were somewhat tedious and preachy. Alcott is at her best when showing Jo’s emotional turbulence and the effect that Beth’s illness and decline have on her.
According to this piece from The Atlantic, Alcott was not terribly interested in writing stories about girls; having grown up in poverty herself, she was interested in writing stories that would earn her money to help support her family, not unlike Jo. Alcott apparently published a number of pot boilers under an assumed name, the kind of lurid, sensational stories that Jo wrote and eventually was ashamed of writing. The success of Little Women seems to a have come as a bit of surprise for Alcott, and while the novel and its sequels brought fame and financial security for Alcott, she grew tired of the stories herself.
I’m not prepared to say that I hated Little Women (I’m not a monster!) but I know a lot of women who absolutely loved it from the first time they read it as children. I wonder how girls and young women today respond to this classic. Is it dated or timeless? The film industry seems to think timeless. I haven’t seen any of the films but now I’m curious as to how faithful they are to the original.