Somehow I missed reading Little Women as a girl, although I do remember the 90’s film version with Winona Ryder and Christian Bale, so I had a general idea on the plot before coming to the book for the first time this year. This classic novel follows the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, as well as their mother and several family friends, for a period of about 15 years as they grow up. Set somewhere in New England, the novel opens in the final years of the US civil war, when Mr. March is away serving as a medic for the North in the war. The novel is divided into two parts, with the first part covering two formative years when the girls are in their tweens/teens and the second beginning after a three year break and continuing until the girls are adults with their own families. In both parts the characters experience adventures small (a disastrous dinner party, a secret club) and large (falling in love, complications from Scarlet Fever).
I really enjoyed this novel, although the first half felt more familiar and was my favourite. I loved so many things about it- the realistic feel of the sisterly interactions, the historical insight into lower middle class family life in the mid-late 1800s, the hijinks- in a lot of ways it reminds me of Anne of Green Gables, which is another childhood favourite. I also really enjoyed all the references to A Pilgrim’s Progress that were peppered throughout (and especially in the first section) largely because I understood them! (Turns out reading A Pilgrim’s Progress, which used to be standard curriculum but has fallen out of fashion, was useful).
The parts that I didn’t like centered on the now outdated expectations for women. The girls were constantly reminded to ‘keep sweet’ and not lose their tempers; they were expected to get married and be subservient. I had real issues (and almost had to skip over) the chapter where Meg is finding being a young mother to twins exhausting and demoralizing and her husband is spending all his evenings with friends instead of helping her. Mrs. March’s advice to Meg is that it isn’t her husband’s fault that he isn’t helping her; rather, it is Meg’s own fault, because she has been ‘neglecting’ her duties to her husband (making dinner, being sweet when he comes home from a long hard day). I also took umbrage with Jo’s professor love interest implying that the types of stories she was getting paid to write were not good moral stories, and that she was being dishonorable by writing them. Woemn in that time period had so few options for making their own money, and this man has the gall to guilt her about one of those few options? Grrrr, especially in a novel by a women, featuring women, and still presented as a ‘classic’ to legions of young women.
Finally, it was nice to finally read this novel that has such a large cultural footprint, and especially one that is about what women were doing while the men were at war. Often the war story is the only one that is told, which makes it feel as though women weren’t part of history at all- not the case, but it sure contributes to that misconception. I’m also really curious to see what Greta Gerwig’s recent adaption does with the problematic parts of the novel- excludes them altogether? Includes them but changes tone? Either way, given Gerwig’s history and that of her actresses, I’m hopeful we’ll see a treatment that respectfully modernizes these rough historic edges.