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Louisa May Alcott – Little Women

Book Cover

Please note that this is a commentary of what is sometimes referred to as Little Women Part One. Part Two, also known as Good Wives, will be discussed in a separate post.

Playing the part but not without diversions.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1868
Date Reviewed: 4th July 2019
Rating: 4.5/5

The four March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, and their mother – are living in relative poverty; their father had been let down by people whose businesses he had invested money in. Now it’s Christmas, and Mr March is serving as a chaplain in the American Civil War. As the girls look towards a lacklustre season and future, their mother reminds them of what they do have – a home and each other – and as time goes on, the four take it on board and live life to the full, making friends with the boy and his grandfather next door, working for money, and loving each other.

Little Women is a book of family, hope, and love, and all those wonderful things we still long for today.

Looked at in the context of our 21st century, it must be said that the book is fairly low on content. Alcott herself disliked some of the book, which she had written under pressure from her publisher1; her publisher also found the first chapters very dull and it was only after a young girl read the book, and following this the manuscript was passed to others, that it was given the go ahead for publication (Wikipedia, n.d. a). After this it became a bestseller and Alcott was asked by readers to finish off the story which she did swiftly – hence Part Two. (Perhaps the pressure was the reason Alcott chose to make the book semi-autobiographical. Little Women is based on the author and her sisters: Alcott is Jo – her life, personality, and the language of her letters are very similar to that of her character’s – and Amy her artistic sister May who became well-known; thus it was likely very easy to write. Certainly a lot of both Little Women and Good Wives mirrors her life – some things she writes about as the experiences of the others were in fact her own experiences2.)

The book is little difficult today. The most obvious issue is the sugary sweet nature of it, what we might think of as too goody-goody and overly wholesome, but a full reading shows off the moral values that we don’t adhere to so much any more. Whilst the love of family and being kind within the unit are still very relevant, the wish for girls to be interested in house and home beyond all else has largely become a thing of the past, and therefore in a way, it is far better to read this book as a product and example of its time than it is anything else; this is to say that the values it promotes for children, particularly girls, are often irrelevant, some even potentially harmful as we move away from the idea that women should be polite and modest beyond all else; thus it may no longer be wholly appropriate for the target age it was written for, but an older child and adult readers will appreciate the novel for what it is. (Children can of course still read it, but support of parents in terms of questions they may have will be required for many and would be beneficial for reasons above and beyond questions of morality.) We should perhaps look to a near-contemporary opinion of the book for guidance: editor Ednah Cheney noted in her commentary that ‘One of the greatest charms of the book is its perfect truth to New England life. But it is not merely local; it touches the universal heart deeply’ (Cheney, 1889, p. 190).

And Cheney is right about its charm; the use of place, albeit that most often scenes take place in only one or two houses, is lovely. Rather like the Anne Of Green Gables series in terms of life on Prince Edward Island in Canada (a book that was published just less than half a century later), Little Women shows well life for the average person in New England – Concord, Massachusetts, to be exact, if we trust that Alcott’s hometown is the setting. It introduces us to the general atmosphere of the place and the diversity of society in its nextdoor neighbour set up of a newly poor family residing beside a rich one, and the way Mrs March visits the homes of families who are even worse off than her own. As well as this, despite the fact that it could be something not so much universal as simply important to Alcott, the book shows the humanity and humility in charity, helping those worse off than oneself, putting others ahead of your own comfort. This is where Amy, otherwise a bit frivolous and vain, shines, adding a subtly to Jo’s more obvious acts of kindness.

Where the domesticity and general life goals of the March family do not match with us today, there is a bright light in Josephine. Alcott’s writing of Jo as a personality match for herself means that Jo’s independent nature and dreams for her future have more relevance than before; Jo is known for having inspired girls of the time, with Alcott providing both the social norm of domesticity and an instance of the value in having individual identities3 but our present day wider acceptance of female agency, and our drive for it, makes Jo perhaps the most resonant character for all. And the slight to moderate gender nonconformity (it’s hard to say exactly how much due to Alcott’s limitations) has surely more worth today than ever before, bringing in new conversations that would have been unthinkable in Alcott’s time (though quite possibly welcomed by the author if they could have happened).

Continuing on that positive note and offering a reversal of something that has already been said, the quietness, that lack of action and the dull quality that Alcott and her publisher found – as much as it’s a drawback it is also a major highlight of the book. The relative solitude of the family and their limited times away from home does well to remind us of the value to be found in a more laid-back way of life – or just a laid-back few days. Time full to the brim with busy-ness and travel is excellent, but a ‘staycation’, to use an instantly-recognisable example, can be just as wonderful if for very different reasons. There are treasures in life’s monotony.

It is due to this that Alcott’s lack of any plot – in its formal terms – and her concentration on characterisation and conversation over all else works. The everyday hobbies of piano playing and games of make-believe are enjoyable to read. And as much as some of the traits of the characters can be difficult – anyone who has worked for weeks or months on a hobby could be forgiven for feeling that Jo is hard done by by the author in the episode of Amy’s revenge – they slowly work their way into your heart.

The book-about-books factor is omnipresent. A fan of Dickens and other authors of her time, Alcott peppers her work with references both obvious and, to our time almost 200 years in the future, more vague. (Of Dickens the references are particularly plentiful and to no surprise – Alcott and her friends made a point of seeing the English author on stage when in Europe4 – however the novel also pays a fair debt to Puritan writer John Bunyan’s 1678 Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, including the book as an item the girls own that they use in their favourite imaginary games. Away from the Bunyan, the various book references span centuries and include both timeless classics and bestsellers of the day.

It wouldn’t be wrong to speculate that with the continued passing of time, Little Women will inch towards being viewed less for its story and more for its great value in terms of the history it includes of time and place, the further movements towards gender equality and female independence and choice, the extremely detailed information it offers on the life and opinions of its author, and the slight material on the trends in publishing at that time, which when placed beside Alcott’s letters and journals is a vast amount5. Certainly questions already abound the Internet as to the suitability of the novel for children – especially girls – in terms of content as well as language; you do have to be on the ball and in the know if you’re to catch the various references that will give you a better idea of how a reader in the 1800s would have understood and received it.

This book has never been out of print and it’s not hard to see why. Suitably ending with a note that suggests the not-so-neatly-tied threads can be undone for another book if the reader so desires, and with all its morals and background, its purpose was achieved and then some. It may not tick every literary box or every reader box today but it ticks more than enough of them. It is fun, it is sweet, and for all the reliance on Alcott’s particular Christian denomination, its lessons are of worth to all.

A note on the religious aspect: the debt owed to The Pilgrim’s Progress pervades the book (even the chapter headed ‘Vanity Fair’ is more about a place in Bunyan’s novel than it is Thackeray – ‘more’ because Alcott liked Thackeray, too, and Thackeray’s own use of the name was due to Bunyan). As much as Little Women isn’t called a Christian book, it well could be, however it’s more along the lines of The Lord Of The Rings than The Chronicles Of Narnia, the religion there for the taking if you have the wish or knowledge – it’s a long way from being pushed on you.

Footnotes

1 In her edited collection of Alcott’s journals and letters, published in 1889, Ednah Cheney includes this entry:
“September, 1867 – Niles, partner of Roberts, asked me to write a girls’ book. Said I’d try. … Began at once on both new jobs; but didn’t like either.”
The editor follows this up with a commentary: ‘…in May, 1868, they [the publishers] repeated the request through her father, who had brought to them a collection of short stories for publication. Miss Alcott’s fancy had always been for depicting the life of boys rather than girls; but she fortunately took the suggestion of the publisher, and said, like Col. Miller, “I’ll try, sir.” The old idea of “The Pathetic Family” [this appears to be her description of her own family] recurred to her mind; and she set herself to describe the early life of her home. The book was finished in July, named “Little Women,” and sent to the publishers, who promptly accepted it, making Miss Alcott an outright offer for the copyright, but at the same time advising her not to part with it. It was published in October, and the result is well known. She was quite unconscious of the unusual merit of the book, thinking, as she says, the first chapters dull, and so was quite surprised at her success. “It reads better than I expected,” she says; and she truly adds, “We really lived most of it, and if it succeeds, that will be the reason of it.”‘(pp 186, 189-190)
2 Louisa travelled to Europe, seeing all the sights she would later ascribe to another sister/character.
3 Wikipedia (n.d. a) says, with a quotation from Alcott scholar Joy Kasson: ‘In the 1860s, gendered separation of children’s fiction was a newer division in literature. This division signaled a beginning of polarization of gender roles as social constructs “as class stratification increased”.’ The page continues, quoting Barbara Sicherman: ‘After reading Little Women, some women felt the need to “acquire new and more public identities”, however dependent on other factors such as financial resources. While Little Women showed regular lives of American middle-class girls, it also “legitimized” their dreams to do something different and allowed them to consider the possibilities.’ These comments cover both Parts of the book combined into one – it could be argued, considering the notes about dreams and possibilities, that they are most relevant to the second, but this is not exclusive.
4 ‘Went to a dinner-party or two, theatres, to hear Dickens read, a concert, conversazione and receptions, seeing English society, or rather one class of it, and liking what I saw.’ (Alcott, 1866, in Cheney, 1898, p. 183)
5 Good Wives unarguably takes the publishing trends and readership information a lot further, resulting in a fair overview of the time.

Book References

Cheney, Ednah D (ed.) (1889) Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, And Journals, Roberts Brothers, Boston

Article References

Wikipedia (n.d. -a) Little Women, accessed 4th July 2019
Wikipedia (n.d. -b) The Pilgrim’s Progress, accessed 3rd July 2019

 
 

Caitlin Jordan

July 5, 2019, 11:55 pm

This was one of my favourite books growing up. I recognised that it wasn’t what life was like but the simplisities that were present always made me happy. I particularly love Jo’s boys and little men which are the last 2 books. But good wives is such an interesting story on what running a house really involved. There was a reason the women were needed at home and it wasn’t just because of they were thought of as inferior the houses took a lot of work to make run.

Holly @ Nut Free Nerd

July 6, 2019, 8:32 pm

Thanks for such a comprehensive, thought-provoking review! Especially enjoyed learning more about the literary references that Alcott has sprinkled throughout the novel.

Jenny @ Reading the End

July 7, 2019, 1:09 am

I love this book! If I were one to do literature hot takes, I’d argue that we should let Good Wives go and just read Little Women, and that should just be like what the reading public does from now on. Little Women is so charming and sweet, even with its flaws. I’m interested to see what you have to say about Good Wives! I hope it includes plenty of trash-talking of John Brooke, the worst human in literature maybe.

jessicabookworm

July 13, 2019, 5:30 pm

I never read this as a child, but read it as an adult in my Classics Club challenge and I adored it. I have just finished reading the series with Jo’s Boys this year. While I enjoyed all three books (I read Little Women as one book), Little Women is definitely my favourite.

Charlie

September 6, 2019, 10:10 am

Caitlin: Yes, as long as you’re happy with it being simple it’s a good book. Right mindset going in. Interesting to hear you preferred the last two books! I’ve put them aside for now but plan to read them at some point; I found Little Men a bit too different to carry on with immediately afterwards as I had enjoyed the ride so far and was expecting more of the same. Good point about showing how a house was run; there’s a lot of social history there. Yes, Amy in particular, even if we don’t ‘see’ a lot of it, would have a lot to do.

Holly: You’re welcome! It was a surprise for me, finding out just how bookish it was beyond Jo’s writing (shouldn’t have surprised me really, I suppose!) and a fascinating one.

Jenny: I loved Good Wives but if it had stopped at part one that would’ve worked well. The cycle of the father having gone away and coming back made the story complete in itself and the troubles with Laurie wouldn’t exist. John Brooke had his issues, but that ‘first kiss for Marmee!’ rubbish made me feel a bit sorry for him before we could get to the marriage bit. (I’d like to know why the author did that – I’m guessing more of the ‘I don’t want them married’ thing but still…)

Jessica: So you’ve completed the set, that’s awesome. I moved on to Little Men briefly but the difference was too different at that point – I was fully expecting more of the same so I’m going to keep it back until later on.

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