Saturday, May 01, 2010

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)

I read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868) about a billion times when I was a girl. I loved the relationships between the sisters, the rebelliousness of Jo, and the way that everyone took care of each other even when they were fighting over some little thing. And since Alcott and I share a birthday, I wrote numerous elementary school English papers on her life and times and the history of her books.

Recently my aunt loaned me a new biography of Alcott, which I'm very interested to read, but she suggested I re-read Little Women and its sequels -- Alcott published a second volume in 1869 after the success of the first volume (often titled Good Wives, but sometimes bound in together with Little Women), then Little Men in 1871 and Jo's Boys in 1886. I've read both volumes of Little Women before, but not any of the others, so I am keen to check them out.

In case you are one of the sad people on earth who has never read Little Women or seen any of the film adaptations, let me fill you in on the plot: The March family has four daughters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy), and they live in a house somewhere in New England with their mother, who they all call Marmie. Their father is serving in the Civil War, even though he is a bit too old to be doing so. The family used to be quite wealthy but, for an unexplained reason, they have lost their fortune and both Meg and Jo have to go out and work to help bring some money into the household (Meg as a nanny and Jo as a companion to their rich and crotchety Aunt March).

Each of the daughters has a strong personality that guides the action of the book: Meg is the oldest, sometimes a little vain, and remembers when the family had money and misses that lifestyle; Jo is an impetuous tomboy who loves to read and write and make up stories and direct plays staring her sisters (Alcott modeled Jo on herself, and she is a pretty obvious favorite character for most readers); Beth is sweet and shy and giving, and loves to play the piano; Amy is the youngest, tries to act more worldly than she is, mispronounces words, is caught up in conventions, and wants to be a great artists.

The best thing about Little Women is that everything that happens is pretty ordinary, but because the characters are drawn so well and the reader has such sympathy for the family, the small victories and tragedies of everyday life are heightened and the book is really a fun read.

The one downside to modern readers (or perhaps adult readers, since it didn't really bother me as a kid) is the moralizing -- around every bend our little women are learning important lessons in being kind and understanding and not saying mean things or being selfish or rude, and each of those lessons is spelled out for the reader and rubbed in maybe just a little too much. Still, it is forgivable considering the time the book was written and its audience, and it definitely isn't a deal breaker.

Check this space for more Alcott updates in the near future!

[Also: My copy of Little Women (printed in 1926) was actually my grandmother's copy. I'm not sure if it is a copy she had from when she was a girl or if she bought it later in life, but it has great illustrations by C.M. Burd and an introduction by Albert Lindsay Rowland (Superintendent of Schools, Cheltenham Township, PA) that gives this advice to modern readers of 1926: "A superficial opinion would call it a far cry from the long dresses, the veiled faces, and the prim speech of the March sisters to the scanty frocks, the bobbed hair and the vigorous actions of a group of modern school girls. Yet all are little women and the tremendously interesting and important problem of growing up is essentially the same in both cases."]


Corie said...

Oh, can I borrow the biography when you're done with it, or do you need to give it back to your aunt? If so, what's it called?

maria said...

I loved the whole series as a pre-teen and am now tempted to go back & re-read them. And am totally curious about the Alcott biography too - can't wait to hear your thoughts.