Bingo Update: This is my Classics square. I don’t think I need to explain this one.
This is not my first read, though I’ve discovered with the release of the trailer for the new film that it isn’t actually fair to assume that everyone has read this perennial favorite of young women everywhere. The upcoming film adaptation, one of many, inspired me to pick this up for the first time in more than a decade. I was not disappointed.
Little Women tells the semi-autobiographical story of the March family: lovely and domestic Meg, stubborn and tempestuous Jo, peaceful and musical Beth, and ambitious and sometimes spoiled Amy, led by warm and strong Marmee. The story opens with their father off at war, though this is the rare example of a story set during a conflict but not focused on the results of said conflict. The March family endures certain hardships that are directly related to the war, but in Massachusetts, they are less touched by it in their daily life than many similar narratives would be. The girls befriend their lonely young neighbor, Theodore Lawrence (called both Teddy and Laurie by different sisters at different times) and his grandfather, as well as his tutor, Mr Brooke. Each girl faces her own growing pains. Meg wants to experience the luxury other girls her age do, but the March finances don’t support that way of life anymore. Jo longs to be out the in the world, writing about everything; instead she’s bound to care for her caustic Aunt March in hopes that some day the elderly woman will take her abroad. Beth wants all of her family home and happy, even when that can’t always be the case. And Amy wants to be glamorous and a successful artist, leaving her very bratty much of the time.
The book, I had forgotten, is structured in two parts. The first is when the girls are all in their teens, with the second picking up when they are a bit older. The novel overall covers quite a span of their lives, through joy and sadness, life and death, and all the compromises life brings to bear upon us all. SPOILER FOR A BOOK 150 YEARS OLD: I had forgotten how much of her life Beth spends sick, and also how late in the book her death actually takes place. More fascinating was my reaction to it – I had remembered being bereft at Beth’s passing, feeling for Jo’s heartbreak in particular. This time, I accepted that Beth was tired and ready to be done. What broke me was Marmee letting her go. Age, life and perception do a lot to the emotional impact of a story.
Another change upon this reading was my reaction to Professor Bhaer. As a youth, he felt too old and too boring for my beloved Jo. Jo was supposed to end up with Laurie! How was she falling for this old German guy instead? This time, I completely agreed that Jo and Laurie were a terrible romantic match. I also really appreciated the slow and measured way that Bhaer and Jo learn to care for one another. It’s not an immediate shift, just starts as a recognition of a kindred. Bhaer works to earn Jo, and Jo works to be worthy of it. Theirs is a partnership of equals that develops into something more in a slow and steady sort of way, and as an adult, I have a deeper appreciation for it.
The biggest surprise to me was Amy. I am, like most right thinking people, Team Amy March is the Worst. She is one of the monsters of literature and I have always loved to hate her. That stayed true of young Amy March in part one…but I have to say, I have some grudging respect for Amy in part two. She really does learn her faults and work to better them. She and Laurie are better matched than I ever gave them credit for. I think part of the problem is the adaptations I’ve watched – there is a lot more time spent on part one and the worst of Amy’s character than any of the good. Also, it’s important to recall that she is all of 13 when the book starts and we were none of us charming angels of virtue at that age. Regardless, it shocked me to be reading sections told from Amy’s point of view and not want to throw the book down in disgust.
This book continues to be good as gold and worth the revisit. I hope the film (being released this December) does it justice!