I had forgotten that Little Women is such a moral tale. In fact, I doubt that when I first read it years ago I ever thought of it as a moral tale at all, but the emphasis on the characters of the four sisters with their individual flaws and efforts to overcome them was the dominant theme that struck me whilst I was reading the book this time.
I loved Little Women when I first read it and re-read it several times. It remains in my memory as one of my favourite childhood books. But reading again now it seems dated (although I did like reading what the girls wore – gloves were essential wear for a party!) and rather pious. I’m also reading Eden’s Outcasts: the story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, so I flipped forward in that book to see what John Matteson had to say about Little Women and Louisa May’s thoughts on writing her book. She wrote Little Women after Thomas Niles, a partner in the publishing firm of Roberts Brothers had asked her to write a book for girls. She wasn’t too keen but agreed to do so even though she said that:
I don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters. (Quoted in Eden’s Outcasts page 332.)
She consulted her mother and sisters and with their consent wrote the book based around the Alcott girls’ lives.
Little Women is about the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, and their mother – ‘Marmee’. Their father is absent for most of the book, working as a chaplain in the army,during the American Civil War. The first part of the book is a series of scenes of the March family life illustrating each sister’s burden of character flaws, and their attempts to overcome them. Meg is vain and materialistic, Jo has a temper and flies into great rages, Beth is painfully timid and shy and Amy is selfish. This section of the book is loosely based on Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, as some of the chapter headings indicate – for example, Playing Pilgrims, Amy’s Valley of Humiliation, Jo Meets Apollyon and Meg Goes to Vanity Fair.
The second part of the book centres on Jo (based on Louisa herself), her writing and her reluctance to grow up. Again this hadn’t struck me when I read as a child (I can’t remember how old I was); I’d thought of her as a tomboy character. She says to Meg, who at 17 is a year older and falling in love:
Don’t try to make me grow up before my time, Meg: it’s hard enough to have you change all of a sudden; let me be a little girl as long as I can. (page 162 of my copy of Little Women)
Laurie, who lives next door with his grandfather becomes a friend to all the girls, but especially to Jo. The family go through a number of dramas, both small and large, culminating in Beth catching scarlet fever after visiting the poor Hummel family, whilst Marmee is in Washington staying with Mr March who was very ill in hospital. Mr March is mostly absent from the book, and even when he does come home there is very little mention of him; he is a man of few words. He discovers that his ‘little women’ have changed for the better whilst he has been away, despite it being a rough road for his little pilgrims to travel:
“But you have got on very bravely; and I think the burdens are in a fair way to tumble off very soon,” said Mr March, looking with fatherly satisfaction at the four young faces gathered him. (page 232)
Little Women ends with Meg’s engagement to John Brooks, Laurie’s tutor. The story continues in Good Wives,which I have as a separate book, but it was originally published as volume 2 of Little Women. These two books were followed by Little Men, the story of Jo and her husband Professor Bhaer at Plumfield school, and Jo’s Boys, continuing the lives of the family and the boys ten years later.
Even though it is a sentimental tale, which it wasn’t in my memory, I did enjoy the experience of re-reading Little Women - some of the magic was still there. And I think I’ll re-read the other books soon as well.