“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
And with that opening line, the scene is set for one of the classics of children’s literature. Little Women has charmed readers of all ages ever since its publication in 1863. Within six weeks of its release it had sold more than 13,000 copies (an extraordinary number for the period). Readers hungry for more news of the March family pressed the author Louisa May Alcott to write a sequel. Little Women and its sequel Good Wives made Alcott one of the first children’s authors to be taken seriously by the literary world and ushered in a new genre of books aimed specifically at girls.
It’s very much a domestic novel. Most of the action takes place either in the March’s home or in other homes close by and many of the episodes revolve around domestic activities like cleaning, cooking and sewing. It’s not until Good Wives that the March daughters get to venture further away from the family home.
Given the target audience it’s not surprising that the central characters are mainly female. Men don’t get much of a look in in this novel. They’re outnumbered and some of them are conspicuously absent (most notably Mr March who is serving as a chaplain in the Civil War). When they do make an appearance they seem to a hapless lot, suffering from broken hearts or physical injuries and utterly reliant on the women to sustain and care for them. There’s the family neighbour Mr Lawrence, who is grieving over the death of his daughter but finds solace in the gentleness of young Beth March. There’s Mr March who has to be nursed back to health by the love of his wife and daughters on his return from the war. And then there is the March girls’ new-found friend Laurie, who prefers the warmth and affection of the March home than the richness of his grandfather’s mansion.
The men seem rather insignificant and drippy in comparison to the strong individuals who comprise the female side of the March family. Although Alcott confided to her journal that she “Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters” she succeeded in creating girls to whom her readers could relate. Apparently she used her own sisters as models for the four sisters and used a lot of her own experiences and attitudes to develop the character of the second eldest girl Jo March. This vivacious, intelligent girl who cares nothing for outward appearance, struggles repeatedly against her tendency to lose her temper and to hold a grudge. Her sisters (the other ‘little women’) have their fans too — Amy, the proud artistic sister with a passionate interest in her own appearance and in being popular; Meg, the eldest girl who becomes the closest in temperament to her mother; and little Beth, the shy and fragile girl whose disposition is always sweet and selfless.
It’s the trials and tribulations of these girls as they grow into adulthood and deal with the difficulties posed by lack of wealth, that form the focus of the book. It’s told in a series of episodes, some amusing, some touching, in which they win friends, make their own fun, fall in love and worry about their absent father.
But if you think this book is simply about a series of entertaining episodes. This is a book that has a serious purpose. It’s meant to instruct not merely to amuse. If you’re in any doubt about this, look at the Preface which alludes to John Buynan’s Pilgrims Progress and expresses a wish that the novel might affect its readers to the point that “they choose to be Pilgrims better.”
So even before we get to page 1, the didactic nature of the book is evident. And just in case young readers miss the point, it’s reinforced early in Chapter 1 where Mrs March reminds the girls how much they loved playing as pilgrims in their younger days and encourages them to take up their journey again.
We are never too old for this… because it is a play we are playing all the time in one way or another. Our burdens are here, our road is before us and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City.
The Christian overtone means that Little Women can be seen as part of a long tradition of improving literature for children. Also in keeping with the cultural norm of mid nineteenth century society, is the fact that it’s the mother figure who takes on the role of guide and mentor (a reflection of the ideology about the traditional role of women as nurturer.) Hence we see it’s Mrs March, a strong and confident woman herself, who seeks to teach her daughters – and through them, young female readers – how to be happy and fulfilled individuals. Not for Mrs March are the outward accoutrements of wealth or status; what she wants for her daughters is the contentment that comes from self respect and love:
Money is a needful and precious thing, and when well used, a noble thing, but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for. I’d rather see you poor men’s wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.
Whenever one of the girls gets into difficulties, Mrs March always seems on hand to provide some wise words and to dole out another of life’s lessons. In one episode, a disastrous attempt by the girls to take over the cooking and cleaning, ends with Marmee teaching them the dangers of thinking only of themselves:
I thought, as a little lesson, I would show you what happens when everyone thinks only of herself. Don’t you feel that it is pleasanter to help one another, to have daily duties which make leisure sweet when it comes, and to bear and forbear, that home may be comfortable and lovely to us all?
Similar scenes happen again and again throughout the book so that by the halfway mark, I felt I was drowning in saccharin.
Clearly, the passage of time has not helped here. My advancing years have made me more critical and, I will admit it, more cynical also. Reading the book as a child I don’t remember noticing the sentimental, sermonising tone — I was too caught up in the tomboy antics of my favourite character, Jo — but reading it again as an adult I found the little homilies from Marmee became too predictable an element of the story. The sermonising was so overt I could not ignore it, which consequently robbed me of interest in the novel. I know the book has a huge fan club. But I shall not be signing up for membership.
Bits and pieces
- Alcott never anticipated her book would prove popular. In her journal she wrote that ” our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.”
- if you have a hankering to own an early edition of the novel, you’ll need deep pockets. A hardback copy of a first edition will set you back $25,000.
- After the success of Little Women and Good Wives, Alcott went on to write twice more about the March family in Little Men and then Jo’s Boys
- Alcott became active in the women’s suffrage movement and canvassing door to door trying to encourage women to register to vote.
- Despite the homely image of an author conjured up by Little Women, Alcott was a prolific writer of a vastly different kind of fiction – under the pen name A M Banard, she wrote sensation style stories for several magazines. Behind the Mask is one I would recommend.