Concord, Massachusetts in the mid-19th century was an exciting place to be, if you were of a thoughtful bent. For a small town, it was home to a substantial collection of philosophers and writers, the most prominent being Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the leading lights of the Transcendentalist movement. Emerson’s neighbours included Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the philosopher, reformer, and teacher, Amos Bronson Alcott, whose daughter, Louisa May, wrote the classic Little Women.
If you, like me, were an adolescent girl in the early 1960s, you no doubt read Little Women and enjoyed it. I certainly did. I identified strongly with Jo, the bookworm, although I wasn’t a tomboy like her. For a long time I could recite whole passages of the book, and I remember being very affected by the death of one of the sisters, shy little Beth. I would say that Jo’s journey into the world of writing and publishing was at least one of several early incentives I experienced to become a writer.
Which is why it grieves me to say I really wish I hadn’t re-read it for the purposes of this blog.
First, the summary. Published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, Little Women is the story of a family of girls – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March – who live in genteel poverty with their mother, their servant, and their father, who is away serving as a chaplain to the Union forces during the American civil war. Meg, the oldest, is the pretty one – she’s modest and conventional, and most like her mother in temperament. Jo is the “man of the house” – she wishes she was a boy and hates all things “girly”. Beth is a shy little homebody, with a gift for music. In a foreshadowing of her early death, Alcott writes:
“There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.”
Amy, the youngest, is a budding artist. She’s pretty, graceful, and ambitious: “Her little airs and graces were much admired, so were her accomplishments, for besides her drawing, she could play twelve tunes, crochet, and read French without mispronouncing more than two-thirds of the words.”
The two older girls work outside the home to earn money – Meg teaches the children of a neighbouring family, and Jo acts as a companion and helper to her crotchety Aunt March. Beth stays home and helps with the housework, and Amy attends school. Although all four girls revere their father and regard him as the fount of all wisdom, their mother, Marmee, is the mainstay of the family. Her advice, frequently but kindly offered, guides all their actions.
When the story opens, the girls are bemoaning the approach of a very frugal Christmas – as Jo says, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” The family has recently moved into a poorer neighbourhood, their father having lost all his money, and their circumstances are much reduced. Each of the girls struggles with a particular challenge: Meg longs for past luxuries, Jo is impulsive and quick to anger, Beth is far too shy, and Amy is selfish. Their mother reminds them that when they were young they used to play Pilgrim’s Progress, working their way from the cellar, which was the City of Destruction, to the rooftop, which was the Celestial City. She suggests they play the game now for real, bearing their burdens cheerfully as Christian did, and this becomes the theme of the narrative.
While the book is not strictly autobiographical, it’s clear that Alcott based much of it on her own family and her experiences growing up in Concord. Like Jo, she had three sisters, one of whom, Elizabeth, died young after a lengthy illness. The oldest sister, Meg, is based on Anna, who was dutiful, self-sacrificing, and conformed to the model of Victorian womanhood. Her youngest sister, Abigail May, provided the model for Amy. Like Amy, she moved to Europe and studied sculpture, sketching and painting and eventually came into her own as a copyist and a painter of still life.
As for Louisa May, she, like Jo, was a tomboy who preferred running wildly through the countryside to sitting nicely and being a “lady”. She once confided to an interviewer, “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body … because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.” She was an abolitionist and a feminist; having read and admired the “Declaration of Sentiments” published by the Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights, she became the first woman to register to vote in a Concord school board election. She never married and various scholars have speculated about her sexuality. At the very least I think it’s fair to say Alcott was a more complex and compelling character than any of the women in her book.
It’s interesting to me that she didn’t particularly like Little Women. She was encouraged to write it by her publisher who wanted her to come up with a girls’ book that would have widespread appeal. She agreed but loathed the process: “I plod away,” she wrote in her diary, “although I don’t enjoy this sort of thing.”
Nor do I. If I didn’t admire the woman herself – which I do – and hadn’t loved the book so much – which I did – I’d be tempted to conclude that Little Women is a compilation of sentimental homilies written to convince little girls that the point of growing up is to be submissive, subserviant and meek – none of which the author believed for a moment. If the little girls of 1868 accepted that – and many, many didn’t – I can guarantee you it won’t resonate with a child of today.
Yes, Alcott gave us Jo, the rebel, the female anti-hero. But Jo marries in the end and Marmee gets the last word: Surrounded by her children, her grandchildren, and her husband, she reaches out her arms and cries, “Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!”
Ten Little Women homilies, taken entirely out of context, offered here for your edification, without editorial comment:
Work is a blessed solace.
Rich people have about as many worries as poor ones.
It’s nice to have accomplishments and be elegant, but not to show off or get perked up.
Women should learn to be agreeable, particularly poor ones, for they have no other way of repaying the kindnesses they receive.
A kiss for a blow is always best, though it’s not very easy to give it sometimes.
Don’t neglect husband for children, don’t shut him out of the nursery, but teach him how to help in it.
Rich people’s children often need care and comfort, as well as poor.
Wrongdoing always brings its own punishment.
A woman’s happiest kingdom is home, her highest honor the art of ruling it not as a queen, but as a wise wife and mother.
Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.