I usually don’t change my opinions about a book just because of what critics thought of it, or what other readers thought of it, nor do I believe it’s essential to know everything that was going on in the author’s life when the book was written in order to understand the book. Sometimes, in fact, it’s detrimental to learn more about the author’s life, especially when there’s a possibility that the book was semi-autobiographical. However, even if a book like Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux doesn’t change my opinions about the fundamentals of Little Women, I still found it an interesting read, and it did give me perspective on Louisa May Alcott and the writing of the book.
At the outset, I feel there are a lot of nonfiction books that would have been great magazine articles which lose some of their power by being padded out to book length. While Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy doesn’t quite fall into that category, there’s a certain amount of repetition in the text, and there are details about more modern books and television shows that supposedly show the influence of Little Women that feel more like filler than like useful insights into the book.
Rioux gives an excellent short biography of Louisa May Alcott, locating her in her specific time and place, demonstrating how her fictional family, the Marches, was in some ways a revision, a fantasized and more bearable version of her own family. If, for instance, you’re wondering why Mr. March, the father in Little Women, plays so small a part in the book, even after he returns from the war, knowing what kind of father Bronson Alcott was helps put Mr. March in perspective. Louisa had little enough experience of a father who was deeply involved in the life of his family, as opposed to living up to his own dreams and ideals regardless of how they affected his family, so her placing Mr. March deeply in the background makes him actually an improvement on the father she knew.
There’s always the question of how much Jo March was based on Louisa May Alcott herself, and the book does a good job of drawing the parallels between Louisa’s career and Jo’s. Like her literary alter ego, Alcott wrote gothic, sensationalistic stories to make money to help support her family, but ultimately made her lasting fame by writing more realistic works about families she knew. When Jo considers her future after Beth’s death and sees herself as a spinster aunt, and Alcott interjects a few paragraphs extolling the virtues of maiden aunts, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to guess that Alcott herself never married or had children of her own. It’s possible that in a different era, Alcott might have been brave enough to allow Jo not to marry anyone, but in the era in which she lived and wrote, that would have been a bridge too far. As it was, Alcott deliberately subverted the expectations of her readers by having Jo turn down Laurie’s proposal and instead get married to Professor Bhaer, one of the least romantic men in the novel.
While it’s moderately interesting to read about the development and the critical responses to the different film and stage versions of Little Women, I would have liked more analysis of the book and of the characters, and fewer repetitive quotations of people, especially women, talking about Jo’s being their inspiration for writing. Rioux discusses the questions of whether Little Women is a feminist book or a regressive book, whether it actually subverts the standards of the time and if so, how much, and gives a nicely balanced view of opinions on both sides. She shows how, despite the overt support of marriage as the best life for a woman, Little Women actually advocates for a less patriarchal, more egalitarian kind of marriage, not just in the case of Jo and her professor, an unconventional couple, but also in the much more seemingly ordinary marriage of Meg and John. Marriage is not the end of the story, or the end of the growth of a woman’s character; Meg and John spend a certain amount of time learning how to be spouses and how to be parents together (a confession: those chapters I skimmed when I first read the book because I thought nothing could be more boring than reading about Meg now that she was married and a mother).
A case can be made that Little Women discourages women from living their dreams, considering that Amy gives up art because she’s not a genius, and Jo ends the book running a school for boys and putting off writing her masterpiece. However, a case can also be made that Alcott supports women (and men) testing the waters, doing unconventional things (like Jo’s moving to New York and delivering her manuscripts to publishers directly) to see whether their dreams are practical. Even Jo’s ending is a postponement rather than and end to her writing career, and, as Rioux reminds us, in the third book in the series Jo’s Boys, Jo writes a book not unlike Little Women and it becomes a success (this is a particular trope that I dislike in general, the book about a writer where the climax is that the writer writes this very book you’re reading, but Louisa May Alcott was one of the first people to do it, so I’ll cut her some slack).
Probably the most intriguing insight of this book has to do with the cause of Beth’s death, which is left fairly vague in Little Women. Looking at Beth’s childlike nature and her unwillingness to grow up as symptoms of depression and possible eating disorders, none of which would have been diagnosed as such at the time, but both of which undoubtedly existed in Alcott’s world, makes a certain amount of sense and turns her death into something more meaningful than her just being too good for this world.
If you enjoyed Little Women and you want a little more background into the book and the causes for its popularity, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy is a good place to start, and don’t feel guilty if you decide to skip the chapters on Gilmore Girls or the movie versions of the book; you’ll still get a good read and some extra dimensions on the classic book.