Review: Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

 Oh, Little Women, how I love you.  My mother first read this to me when I was six.  Technically this is my second review of it as I also used it for my Book Report in Year 2.  I remember at the time that I kept being summoned out of class to show visitors to the school that I was reading Little Women – having worked as a primary school teacher, I now understand why the headmistress got so excited, it’s a fair bit above the usual independent reading done by the average seven year-old.  In my Book Report I advised people to read it because it had ‘ups and downs just like real life’ and that my favourite character was Beth.  It was around then that the 1994 film came out so a lot of my classmates were also aware of the story and in Year 4 some of them put on their own informal play of it which was highly interpretative – they assured the teacher that Pa March had died before the end and seemed strangely unappreciative when I pointed out indignantly that he hadn’t.  Little Women has always been a Book that I Treasure.

Still, after repeated readings, I actually hadn’t looked at Little Women in about fifteen years.  I read How to be a Heroine recently though which had some rather disapproving insights into Alcott’s most famous work.  According to Ellis, despite having loved it as a child, she found re-reading as an adult revealed Little Women as a mere conduct story, that the girls each had to be destroyed in their way in order to learn Valuable Lessons.  Thinking back, I could see what she meant – Jo’s anger at Amy is punished by nearly losing her when Amy falls through the ice, Meg’s vanity is rapped sharply at the ball, Amy’s selfishness is caught by a humiliation at school and then Beth … well.  Beth.  She is the Saintly Figure who is without sin and therefore naturally Doomed.  To be honest, I started re-reading it very much braced to hate it this time around.  But.  I didn’t.

The first chapter was not promising – we are introduced to each of the girls and they step on to the stage very much as cardboard cut-outs.  Meg is the lady-like one (being lady-like is a virtue which has really gone out of fashion in the twenty-first century), Jo is the tomboy, Beth is the sweet one and Amy is spoilt.  Each of the sisters speak in turn with Meg saying something lady-like, Jo speaking roughly about wanting to be a boy, Beth being sweet and Amy talking about Amy.  The 1994 adaptation takes a very feminist reading of Little Women and this in itself is an interpretative impression – Samantha Ellis is right that Louisa Alcott’s book is at its heart a conduct story.

Lizzie Alcott

However.  It is important also to remember that a lot of this is based on Alcott’s own experiences growing up as one of four sisters.  And this is most important of all when considering Beth March.  The Death of Beth is one of my early childhood traumas … but it doesn’t actually occur in Little Women contrary to popular belief but rather in the book’s immediate sequel, Good Wives.  Still, it is signposted early on that she is one of those souls who nobody quite appreciates until they are gone – Alcott is talking about her own sister, Lizzie Alcott.  Lizzie.  Beth.  It’s out in the open – Beth is Alcott’s own adored sister who died young.  Then you realise that Beth is no mere stock Angel in the House character, she is a proxy for a flesh and blood young woman who was dearly loved and missed by her big sister who wrote a wonderful book that made millions of reader come to understand and share in her grief.  How many young girls have shed a tear over Beth’s death?  It’s actually a very beautiful thing to do – whether or not Lizzie really was as sweet-natured as Beth doesn’t matter – she is being honoured by Louisa who really loved her and she has been brushed clean of any faults she might have had.

A few years ago my mother’s book group read Jane Eyre, one of my mother’s very favourite books, and she was startled to encounter so much vitriol against Helen Burns, another saintly young Victorian girl who died young.  But again, Helen Burns is really just a proxy for Maria Bronte, adored elder sister to Charlotte who has also immortalised the first sister she lost by writing her for all the world to see.  It is a pure act of love.  In a more unsavoury manner, Dickens repeatedly used the memory of his unspoiled and virginal sister-in-law Mary Hogarth in various of his novels, most notably as Little Nell in The Old Curiousity Shop.  This was because he was grossed out by his own wife Catherine who had weight problems after giving birth to ten of his children but Mary died before she’d done anything yucky like have sex.  He used to publicly refer to the dead Mary as having been his ideal woman.  Dickens had issues.  He was a great writer but not so great with the women.

Beth is smallest, Amy = Elizabeth Taylor

Beth can be irritating and her adventures are less dramatic than those endured by the other March girls, as if Alcott is treating her gently.  The 1949 film (the Elizabeth Taylor one) casts Beth as the youngest March sister and it does make sense, she is the one who still likes dolls and rejects adulthood.  But in real life, Lizzie was the third Alcott sister and so she is in Little Women.  Beth’s pure joy on receiving her piano and her thanks to Mr Laurence brought tears to my eyes – Alcott has made us all grieve for Lizzie and it feels churlish and unpleasant to have any other reaction to her character than sympathy.  Louisa Alcott, I am very sorry for your loss.  You clearly loved her very much.

After the discussion in Chapter one about how they want to be good for their father while he is away being a chaplain in the Civil War, the girls wake up to find their mother has given them a book each for Christmas.  It is never quite clear whether this is a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress or The Bible (or indeed a more metaphorical internal conscience?) but all the girls ‘work’ at their books throughout the year.  Jo tells her mother early on that she likes lessons that are not too ‘preachy’ and indeed Marmee March is very much the Voice Of God within the novel as she explains the moral of whatever has just occurred and then Jo provides a one-liner that drags the tone of the chapter back from direct sermonising.

(c) End of March

Jo’s early lesson to control her temper is an interesting one to consider in our society today.  Amy’s destruction of Jo’s story is startlingly vicious particularly in contrast to the original offence and indeed Amy herself appears insensitive to the hurt she has caused.  In the twenty-first century we are told that we have ‘freedom of speech’, the internet allows people free rein to unleash their hatred.  Recently an internet troll who hounded the McCann family found herself unmasked and claimed that she was ‘entitled’ to exercise her views.  The internet has become a modern lynch mob – it turned on this particular woman and she herself committed suicide.  We are not taught to control our tempers any more.  We are not taught to consider whether our words are useful, kind or necessary.  I can see why a feminist reading might take this message to Jo as one intended to crush her independence but I don’t actually think it is.  Amy is a little madam.  But Jo is the bigger person and she should not have let herself be dragged down to her level.

It’s no secret that I espouse feminism but I think that they give this book an unfair rap.  Many of its values are old-fashioned but they do not necessarily deserve to be forgotten.  Disregarding vanity for domesticity is not that bad a lesson, for men or for women.  We should not devalue the home but rather celebrate the choice and those who choose it just as we celebrate those who do not.  It is the same as Susan Walker of Swallows and Amazons – she is not boring and I would want her around if I was going camping.  We can play around as much as we like and try to avoid responsibility but at the end of the day we will still be children, the adult thing is to look and see where our responsibilities lie.  It is a fairly stark contrast to modern teen literature where the ultimate goal is to Get The Guy but this is really about becoming a person you can respect.

Lady-like behaviour has kind of fallen by the wayside.  When I worked in America, a colleague tried to confide in me about how she mourned the death of etiquette classes – she assumed because I was British that I would feel the same way – but while napkin-folding and how you hold your fork is to me superficial, I do actually think that coarse behaviour from either sex is pretty unpleasant and yet is becoming increasingly acceptable in the mainstream.  The scene in Little Women where Laurie and Jo run down the hill, scattering Jo’s hairpins everywhere and then encounter the dressed-up Meg is an interesting one.  I still like to run down hills, generally while playing at being an aeroplane, something that did not exist when Little Women was first published.  I also like to wear dresses and to look nice.  I think that both are completely acceptable.  No judgements are being made by Alcott on either Meg or Jo on that occasion but it’s about considering what you want other people to think of you, what impression you want to give.

I found the chapter where Meg visits the Moffats a fascinating one – it really captured that awkward moment that so often comes in your mid-teens where one first finds oneself called upon to play by adults’ rules.  Meg realises that the Moffats believe that her family are setting her up to marry Laurie, that ‘Mrs March has made her plans’.  Mrs Moffat even tries to help, dressing Meg up and Meg has an evening of flirting and drinking.  However – ultimately she finds this world to be un-fulfilling and repents to Marmee and Jo about her behaviour when back at home, cringing about what people have been saying.

It is easy again to see this as moralising but it reminded me oddly enough of The Vagenda – Meg is choosing against ridiculous fashions which make her uncomfortable, she is rebelling against peer pressure to behave a certain way and she is trying to remain true to herself.  There’s nothing shocking about a sixteen year-old girl trying on a new identity for an evening and deciding she does not like it.  Alcott is really advocating that other options are available.  Mrs Moffat has been the Mrs Bennet figure and this is no book about marriage plots – Marmee March does wish for happy partnerships for her daughters but she warns them that spinsterdom is preferable to an unhappy marriage.  Later in the novel, it is casually mentioned that when the other March girls go driving with Laurie, Meg discusses with her mother and decides not to because people will talk.  The odd thing is though that although the reader is assured that no plans are being made about Laurie – and although Jo wants Meg to marry him to keep her in the family – we realise early on that Laurie really does love the March family as his own and it is no surprise that he is so keen to marry in to it.  Mrs March may not have made her plans but Laurie certainly has.

There are many moments of pure joy within the book – I always like the chapter on the girls’ club where they play at the Pickwick Papers.  This is given ‘bona fide’ credentials by Alcott and we have a sense that we are getting a fairly genuine insight into Alcott’s own childhood.  We are getting a fairly sanitised view into a family struggling in poverty.  The Civil War is the silent backdrop; John Brooke mentions that when Laurie goes off to college he will probably ‘turn soldier’ and of course Mr March is down in the south, writing game letters back to his little girls.  It is strange to contrast Little Women to Gone With The Wind; while the girls are playing games and writing and sewing, somewhere down South Scarlett O’Hara is charging about and causing a ruckus.  I do think though that Marmee and Mellie would have gotten along famously.  The Cause Of The North is heavily implied to be that of the Heavenly Father.  Even when Mr March’s life is at stake, Marmee March reminds the girls that no matter what happens, they will never be Fatherless.  Meg advises Laurie to step closer to Christ.  There are heavy Christian messages that completely passed over my head as a six year-old who tended to communicate with God by drawing Him nice pictures in much the same way as I used to write letters to Santa.

If we accept that Jo the writer is essentially the proxy for Louisa Alcott herself, it is uncomfortable at the end to hear that she has in some sense become a good little woman who is softly-spoken and no longer lolls about the rug.  Still, there is nothing wrong about the fact she has accepted responsibilities.  Would we think more of her if she had run away with Laurie to see her father and left Meg and Marmee (and Hannah of course) to hold the fort? No, she did her part for her family because she was mature enough to realise the difference between physical and moral courage.  She learnt to consider the impression she made and to consider others before her own desires.  She still pursued her authorial ambitions, she never lost herself.  I have never been one of those who thought that Laurie and Jo were a good match but re-reading it made me feel sorry for him and for the first time I believed that he loved her.  But it was a boyish affection and I actually think that on some level she just knew it was a Bad Idea and sometimes you just know.

The romance with Mr Brooke unsettled me more – Meg is seventeen years old.  She is too young to know what she wants and it felt like an arranged marriage, albeit with a little reverse psychology courtesy of Aunt March.  The part when Meg takes a little pleasure in her power to upset Mr Brooke by refusing him showed her to still be a child.  The whole way that Meg is only able to unlock her feelings for John Brooke after he has declared himself for her is so 19th century and proper – Austen sends it up in Northanger Abbey when Catherine Morland only dreams about Henry Tilney after he has dreamt about her first.  Yes, seventeen year-olds often do not know what they want but if that is the case then I don’t think that they are ready to get engaged.  It may have been four years before they actually wed but her options narrowed radically.

Plus, I couldn’t help but think of the plot further down through the books.  Spoilers – John Brooke dies in Little Men.  The twins Daisy and Demi are at most nine or ten, Josie is still a baby.  Meg is at most barely thirty and just like that she is a widow for the rest of her days.  Alcott – why?  If you had to kill him off, why not let her find somebody nice later on down the line.  Oh no – I remember, because this is a piece of Victorian literature and women are only ever supposed to love once.  Eg. in Trollope’s The House at Allingdon, Lily Dale remains true to the man who jilted her for someone richer because it is ‘as if I married him’ even though there is a perfectly nice man right there who desperately wants to marry her.  Because Lily Dale is a good girl and good girls only give their hearts once.  And to think that people say that we don’t need feminism.

Still, there is a warmth at the core of Little Women which I loved as a six year-old and which I still love even now twenty years later.  This is a book that tried to consider the female voice – although Meg does finish the book engaged, Little Women is not about seeking a husband and puerile flirtations are rejected as harmful and inappropriate.  It is about considering how to be a woman in a world where the rules are a mass of contradictions.  The young man who Meg admires at the ball is taken with her when she is unadorned but when the other girls dress her up in the latest fashions, he rejects her as ‘a mere doll.’  Meg and Jo go out to work to help their families and then are sneered at for it by Kate Vaughn.  Some things haven’t changed and when you’re a woman there will always be someone out there to criticise your life choices.  The only thing to do is what Alcott advises – to listen to your conscience, your own little book, and try to do your best every day.

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Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, Elaine Showalter, Siobhan Kilfeather, Vinca Showalter
Published by Penguin Classics on January 1st 1970
Genres: 19th Century, Family, Feminism & Feminist Theory, Fiction, General, Literary, Women, Women's Issues
Pages: 504
ISBN: 0140390693

This post contains affiliate links which you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.

9 thoughts on “Review: Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

  1. I need to re-read this soon (The Midnight Garden is doing their December readalong of Little Women, which is a good opportunity). My recollection from my last reading is that I was also somewhat startled at the "good conduct" aspect that passed almost unnoticed when I read it as a child. There is an awkwardness sometimes as if Alcott is grafting accepted conventions onto a real story. Yet that reality still shines through and makes it immortal — I do think that the reality of Beth and of Jo's (Louisa's) love for her saves her from being merely a saccharine saint. By the way, having just read Barchester Towers I must note that Trollope at least does not doom all good women to love only once — Eleanor Bold gets to marry Mr. Arabin. I do agree it would have been nice if Meg had gotten to remarry as well, but there must have been quite a shortage of men after the Civil War.

  2. Oh, dear Little Women! What a lovely post. You brought up all sorts of points and thoughts that I've had for years. I think that the best way to read Little Women is through the eyes of somebody from the era in which it was written. I'm not even sure if it's possible to read a book like this without remembering to step back and remember thoughts and opinions that were taken for granted at the time.

    I read Little Women about 3 years ago and found such new meaning from things that went straight over my head as a little girl. I think it's funny all the debate and analysis that has arisen from Little Women and I wonder if L.M. Alcott would be surprised, could she come back and see. I do really wonder about the "little book". After reading again, I really think it's a bible. The amount of reverence with which the book is treated just doesn't sound like Pilgrim's Progress to me, but I don't know…

    Anyway, a very great post, as always!

  3. I agree with you about the realism – the part when Amy runs across the room and ends up hugging her fathers legs was so very true to life! It is what brings Beth to life rather than just being a martyr doomed to an early death. There probably were a shortage of men but Meg was just so Appropriate at all times that it seemed as if she just Gave Up and that seemed terribly unfair. I do wonder if my own warm associations with Little Women makes me slightly biased here but I can't help but just love this book. And I'm very glad to hear of a Victorian story where women get to marry twice!

  4. I agree with you that you do have to view it in context – I do think though that some of its values still hold good today, it makes it a really refreshing read! It's just not quite as liberal a story as the 1994 film made out …

    I was surprised how overtly Christian it was – I always hear people moaning about the Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe (don't see why people have to complain!) – but this book was a beautiful expression of how young women could build a relationship with their Father. I think that L M Alcott wrote it as a novel to make girls really Think so I think she would be pleased to see that it had worked. I hope so anyway.

    I think the little book is left deliberately ambiguous – I just assumed it was Pilgrim's Progress as a child but I think that yes, there's more reverence towards it than you would expect.

    Thank you for your lovely comments – it's always great to hear from you 🙂

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