Usually I don’t write about the books the Field Notes Book Group is reading, at least not before the discussion, because I don’t want to prejudice the people in the group, or influence people’s opinions to align with mine (of course, there are probably people in the group who would change their opinions to be the opposite of mine if they knew in advance what my opinion was; it’s a good group). However, I’m going to make an exception in the case of this month’s book, Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, because I have already postponed the meeting once (due to a funeral), and because Little Women is the kind of book people think they know, but might, on rereading (or reading for the first time) discover is more than what they remember. It certainly was that way for me.
As I said to the group in October when we chose the book, I read Little Women when I was 12 years old and hadn’t picked it up since. Most of the women in the group had also read it, similarly in the past. There were things I remembered vividly about the book from my one reading, and other aspects that were just a general blur. For instance (spoilers ahead), I remembered Amy’s destroying the book Jo wrote (is there anyone who read that book who doesn’t remember that scene? Is there anyone who wasn’t as furious at Amy as Jo was at that? Is there anyone, besides me, who found it impossible to read anything more about Amy for the rest of the book without carrying a grudge for that?). I remembered Jo’s turning Laurie’s proposal of marriage down (more about that later), and of course I remembered Beth’s death. I had a general sense that all the surviving characters got married and settled by the end of the book, which seemed to me, as a 12 year old girl, to be the only way these kinds of stories got resolved.
Reading Little Women as an adult in the 21st century isn’t like reading modern books. When I tried to explain to my husband (who, like most men, hadn’t read it) what the book was about, I foundered around, finally lamely saying that it was about four young women growing up during and in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, in Massachusetts, which is an accurate description as far as it goes. There really isn’t a plot per se. There are incidents, some of which lead to other incidents, but if you’re reading it for an overarching plot, you’re going to be disappointed.
You’ll also be disappointed if you’re looking for a modern writing style. Alcott wrote in the 19th century, before the adage “show, don’t tell” was a mantra drummed into the heads of writers. She tells a great deal, with frequent authorial commentary on the characters and their behavior. Sometimes it’s like having a moralizing parent telling you a story; you want to urge her to leave out the sermons and get to the action. If you’ve read other 19th century authors (like Charles Dickens, an author I love, about whom someday I will write at greater length), then you’re prepared for Alcott’s writing style, and willing to be patient with the digressions and the sermonizing. You’ll also be prepared for the religiosity of the asides, which didn’t strike me as strongly when I was 12 as they did on this rereading.
That said, it’s a better book than I remembered in a number of ways, and well worth reading, or rereading if it’s been a long time since you joined the March girls.
For one thing, it’s a story of girls coming of age. A pet peeve of mine is that there are boatloads of books and movies about boys coming of age in various circumstances, and girls and women are expected to read or watch them, but stories of girls growing up and becoming women are much scarcer and much less likely to become part of the canon. If Tom Sawyer can be considered a classic American novel, Little Women can serve as its female counterpart.
Then there are the characters. The parents remain mostly archetypes; Marmee is everyone’s ideal mother, watchful of her children but not suffocatingly so, always ready with good advice when a person is ready to listen to it, but not pushing anyone to do things her way at the outset. She’s warm-hearted and affectionate, and so much the center of the girls’ lives that she gets the closing line in the book (Jo gets the opening line). The girls’ father is away at the Civil War at the outset of the book, and there’s drama when he’s wounded and Marmee has to go and nurse him, and drama when the father comes home, but after that, he’s just a figure in the background.
In the foreground are the four “little women” of the title: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, in order of age. They’re sisters and they act like sisters, which is refreshing. One thing I remembered liking about the book when I first read it, which I still like, is the relationships between and among the sisters, the alliances and antagonisms within the group as well as the girls’ loyalty to each other against any outsiders. Yes, it was probably convenient for Alcott to match Meg, the oldest, with Amy, the youngest, and to have Jo, the wild one, be especially close to saintly Beth, but those combinations also make sense within a family universe. Naturally Amy and Jo would butt heads and fight with each other; Amy is the somewhat spoiled youngest child and Jo is stubborn and independent. Naturally Jo and Meg would go to parties together as the two oldest and since they’re only a year apart in age. Naturally they would confide in each other as having more in common (their jobs, their ages) than either one would with the younger girls. In their relationships with each other, they feel like real girls, like sisters in the 20th and 21st century, as well as in the 19th.
My favorite character, then and now, is Jo. I have a feeling she’s everybody’s favorite character, not because she’s a Mary Sue for the author (though I suspect Alcott based Jo on herself to greater or lesser extent; Jo’s an aspiring writer who’s trying to support her family through her writing, as Louisa May Alcott was), but because she’s the one character who’s not an archetype, who seems to break free of the expectations readers have for a girl in her position. She’s far from perfect. She is, as I mentioned, stubborn and difficult. She loses out on the chance to take a much anticipated trip to Europe because she’s deliberately being contrary when she and Amy go to make visits to relatives (a sequence that’s very funny because of Jo’s behavior even as we, the readers, know it’s going to end up biting her), for instance, and while she sees how her behavior contributed to her losing out on that trip, she doesn’t really change her behavior either. On the other hand, Jo is wildly brave and willing to defy expectations for her gender. She gets her long hair cut off to raise money for her mother to go to Washington to take care of her father, which surprises all her sisters and everybody around her as her long hair was her one beauty. She writes stories and actually takes them to newspapers to be published, facing personal rejection with gumption and guts. She turns down a marriage proposal that would seem to be really advantageous for her and for her family, because she doesn’t love the suitor that way. She ends up running a home and school for boys, while her sisters engage in much more ordinary and socially sanctioned pursuits. Yes, she does get married; I suppose Alcott felt she had to marry Jo off eventually rather than have her be a spinster aunt (and maybe that was wish fulfillment on the part of Louisa May Alcott, who never did get married and was a spinster aunt), but it’s an unconventional and unexpected marriage, which makes it fitting for someone who’s as willing to buck conventions as Jo is.
About that marriage proposal: when I first wrote about the book group’s reading this book, I mentioned wondering whether Jo’s turning down Laurie’s proposal would strike me as more logical this time around, and I’m happy to say that it did. If you read the book closely (as I didn’t when I was 12, but did now), you can see that Jo never thinks of Laurie as anything other than a buddy. While there was (and still sometimes is) a convention that close friends ultimately discover they’re made for each other and get married, Jo makes it clear that this is not her idea of how things are going to work. From early on, before Laurie (their friend and next door neighbor, who’s handsome and charming and also rich) starts thinking romantically about Jo, she’s treating him as one of the guys, and herself as one of the guys, too. When Laurie goes to college, his friends fall in love with the beautiful, flirtatious Amy, not the boyish and plain spoken Jo, and that’s fine with Jo. She never wants romance in her life (in her stories, that’s a different matter, but she’s got an eye on what sells, so that explains her writing focus), she never moons around about Laurie or any other boy, and when she meets the man she’s ultimately going to marry, she doesn’t think about him as a potential husband until he all but throws himself at her. While I, as a 12 year old, wanted Jo and Laurie to marry because Laurie was so crazy about her and because I wanted Jo to live happily ever after, and that was how women lived happily ever after to my mind, as an adult I can see that Jo really wasn’t interested. If she had married him, she probably would have made a go of it, but it’s clear from his later behavior that Laurie would have wanted a more conventional wife than Jo was ever willing to be. She did the right thing, and in this context it was remarkable that she was able to do it (yes, Elizabeth Bennett turned down two marriage proposals in Pride and Prejudice, but one of them was by the person she ultimately married, and her turning down his proposal was a spark that led to their finally seeing eye to eye later), and not be punished for it.
Although Alcott does, for the most part, send the characters down conventional paths, she also allows them to be ambitious, to take on more of the world than their conventional roles would seem to allow. At the outset, both Meg and Jo are working outside the home, Meg as a governess and Jo as a companion to her rich aunt. Jo and Amy consider themselves to be artists (Jo a writer and Amy a visual artist), and spend a great deal of time working on their respective crafts. Jo even sells a number of stories and a novel, and makes money to support her family as a result (Alcott feels the need to turn Jo away from the sensational stories she writes at first to something more realistic, possibly like Little Women, though I will forever be grateful that Jo doesn’t turn out to have written Little Women, which is so often the convention in books about young writers; still, I would love to see the kinds of stories Jo wrote before she was tamed, which were probably like the other books Alcott wrote for money). While Amy (and Laurie) decides that since she’s not a genius she shouldn’t dedicate herself to her art, at no point does the book suggest that Amy didn’t have talent or that she shouldn’t have given her art a decent chance.
Spend some time with Little Women, and I think you’ll appreciate anew the world of the March family, their humors, their tragedies, their growth and maturing. I’m glad the book group gave me the spur and the opportunity to reread it myself, and I recommend you give it a try as well.