Saturday 29 January 2011

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

I used to be confused and a bit annoyed when film and stage adaptations of this classic story would be titled Little Women but contain the story both of Little Women and the "sequel" Good Wives. It was not until relatively recently that I discovered that Good Wives is merely the UK title for what was originally, and still is elsewhere, the second half of Little Women itself. Upon discovering this, and not being overly fond of the twee Good Wives as a title, I determined to buy my own copy of the complete text. Previously I had never got past volume one, but having a book all-in-one would get me past the usual stopping point. It seemed that a Penguin paperback would be my best bet, but in Foyle's I found a lovely hardback for a lower price.

Little Women was never one of my absolute favourite books, although I've read it a fair few times, seen the 1990s film and a West End play. It's a strange thing, but every time I read this book I seem to come to it with a different attitude, and take different things away from the reading. As a child I viewed it as similar to What Katy Did, but a bit more grown-up - possibly because I was a bit more grown-up when I first read it. I came back to it a year or two ago, intending to read the whole series, but stopped at the end of Little Women [volume one] after feeling bogged down by all the moralising. Frustrated, I found the girls too good to be true, their faults only there to be overcome and an over-keenness to be lectured by their "Marmee."

That was just about a year ago. This time around I wondered if I was reading the same book, because Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy were refreshingly real, made up not of a single fault there just to be overcome, but flesh-and-blood teenagers with understandable struggles against hot tempers, jealousy, discontent, crippling shyness among others. The girls' friendship with the boy next door, Theodore "Laurie" Laurence was refreshing for the era, a cosy, platonic companionship full of fun, games and silliness that you just don't get in Victorian literature. I noticed scenes and chapters I must have only skimmed before, because they felt quite new to me. Perhaps these were the scenes omitted from the film, of which I may have retained more memories.

That's not to say I didn't find the moralising a little heavy-handed at times. In the chapter Meg Goes to Vanity Fair, Meg is rebuked first in the text, then by Laurie and finally by Marmee, for allowing herself to be made-over by her rich friend-of-a-friend for a party, and acting the part. Looking at it one way I felt quite cross, asking "What's wrong with dressing up once in a while?" and wondering if the moral here was that one shouldn't act above one's station, an idea that appalled the twenty-first century English girl who - until very recently - had an idea that class boundaries were fairly fluid. Looking at it the other way and I know quite well what Alcott's point was. After all, I tut when watching Grease to see Sandy dressing up in her leather catsuit and smoking cigarettes just to gain the respect of someone who isn't worth it. Here, Meg is doing just the same thing (I'm just picturing her in that tight catsuit!) by pretending to be someone who she isn't, just to try to fit in. We see the same in enough high school dramas nowadays.

Similarly, I was riled in part two when Professor Bhaer - and Miss Alcott - preach about the evils of writing and reading gothic thrillers and sensational stories. (Maybe I'm just horribly degenerate.) On the other hand, Alcott satirises Jo's attempts to write the sort of sickly, moralistic Victorian fiction that makes Little Women look positively riotous, the lesson being that Jo should write for herself, write what she knows and loves, and not merely what sells - something that still holds true for writers today.

I, as well as probably most girl readers of Little Women, and certainly Alcott herself, identify best with tomboy Jo, the independant woman, the writer with the hot temper and burning ambition. As a small girl I had some sympathy with shy Beth, but nowadays she comes across not as a human being, but that device of the sicklier Victorian literature: the good girl who essentially dies of being too angelic and insipid. I have to confess I've never liked Amy very much, finding her spoilt and a bit of a snob.
Read as Children's Classic for the
Back to the Classics Challenge
When it comes to the love stories, I'm not quite satisfied. I'm certainly not Laurie/Jo "shipper," but it seems to me that Laurie ends up with Amy simply as the next best thing, if he can't marry Jo. Jo's eventual husband Professor Bhaer is a very pleasant character, but being about twice her age, very plain and having a rather distancing title, just isn't the dashing hero I'd wish for the heroine. Meg's marriage to John Brooke, on the other hand, is portrayed very realistically with two young people as poor as the proverbial church mouse, living in the house about the size of a shoe box, madly in love, but still experiencing conflict as the honeymoon period comes to an end, with Meg accidentally neglecting her husband when being overwhelmed with coping with twins, and John happening to bring a friend home for supper on the one day Meg is having a disaster in the kitchen. Marmee steps in to offer some very wise advice, and in this context it doesn't come across as preachy, but as the calm voice of experience. Marmee is the steady force in the family, always with the right answers, but with the sympathy that comes from having been in the same fixes as her girls in her own youth.


  1. I've read Little Women once a couple of yeats ago and enjoyed it. I love the film version too. I too was confused by the 'Good Wives' thing so I'm glad you've cleared that up! You might also enjoy Rose in Bloom and Eight Cousins by Alcott as they have a very similar feel :)

  2. This has really made me want to read them again, although I only own the first (or first half). I do quite like the second book but, like you, find the title far too twee and sickly!

  3. I tried to read Little Women several times when I was young and just didn't get it. Then I read it this year, now as an empty nester, and I loved it! The character development was just amazing. My favorite character was actually Amy because I had just read a memoir about her alter ego, May Alcott. Jo is a great character but her alter ego, Louisa, is even more interesting.

    I blogged extensively about Little Women as I read it last summer and fall - come over and take a look at

  4. Thanks for hoppin by my blog this weekend! I confess, I have tried to read Little Wommen so many times, but just can't get through it! I may just have to skip ahead to the sequels...

  5. I think I may have read this as a teenager and tried re=reading it a few years ago. I reading it for this challenge also, but for my 19th century book.

  6. That was a very good, honest and thorough review. I also think it's interesting how we can dislike a book and then later in a different season in our lives appreciate it.
    That happened for me with Wuthering Heights. I'm now following you from Crazy for Books.

  7. I never warmed to Little Women until last year. It is a nice read on a cold winter's day but by no means one of my favourites.

    We all know the story of Little Women. I enjoyed reading it and felt that Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy were my friends. I became interested in their lives, especially through their joys and sorrows. I laughed at Meg being dressed up in all the fine things she so desperately wants by the Gardiner family and then she realizes that vanity isn't all that nice after all. I felt anxious when Beth falls ill and watched with Jo and felt relived when her fever broke and also when their father came home and told each of his girls how proud he was of them.

    I loved Jo and Laurie messing about and playing games. I wanted to live at Orchard House and become a member of the March family, have meals with them, share their domestic duties and be a member of The Pickwick Club! I love Jo and wanted to write a book with her. I felt happy for Meg and John and enjoyed their joys and struggles through marriage and parenthood.

    I am glad that Jo and Laurie didn't marry because as Jo says they are both too stubborn and hot headed to be good together. Amy and Laurie are better suited for each other. Jo found her match in Professor Bhar who is older than her loves her and is very patient with her.

    Beth found peace at last and was very happy and content as she died. I'm glad all the girls finally all got their happy ending.



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