ANOTHER LOOK AT LITTLE WOMEN: MEG, JO, BETH, AMY

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.

 

Advertisements

ANOTHER LOOK AT LITTLE WOMEN

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.

 

RETURN TO THE CLASSICS: LITTLE WOMEN THE NOVEMBER BOOK GROUP SELECTION

After a stimulating discussion of the effects of war on people, good and evil and other deep topics in our review of The Nightingale, the Field Notes Book Group voted for the book we’re going to be reading and discussing in November: the ever classic Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  Right before we voted for the book, I asked for a show of hands for everyone who has read the book in the past, and all of us raised our hands, though many people hadn’t read it in years (myself included; the last time I read it was when I was 12, which was a LONG time ago).

It’s not a book that needs much introduction, since not only has it been read for over 200 years but it’s been made into movies numerous times and (just to show that it’s still a big deal even in 2018) is currently both being made into a movie to come out in 2019 and the subject of a nonfiction book, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux.  Even if you’ve never read the book, you’ve almost certainly been exposed to one of the movies, whether with Katherine Hepburn or Elizabeth Taylor or Winona Ryder, and if you’ve read the book a long time ago, it’s always interesting to take another look, as an adult with different life experiences, at a book you read and loved as a child or teenager.  For instance, I want to see if I still, as an adult, think Amy is a totally annoying brat, or if I can find some way in which Jo’s marriage makes sense for her character.

The book group will be meeting on Saturday, November 17, from 11 to 12:30 in the Field Library Gallery, as usual, and we will have coffee and donuts to keep us going through our vigorous discussions.  Copies of the book will be available at The Field Library circulation desk probably later this week, so come in and pick up your copy and get ready for a blast from the past with the next Field Notes Book Group.

RETURNING TO YOUR ROOTS: WILD THINGS

Is there some unwritten law in publishing that all nonfiction books have to have subtitles, as if the ordinary title isn’t enough? It certainly seems to be a trend, and while sometimes the subtitle gives you a better clue about the contents of the book than you would have had from the title itself, sometimes the subtitle can be a little misleading.  Case in point: Wild Things : The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, by Bruce Handy.  It is an excellent book and an entertaining read, but it wasn’t exactly what I expected from the subtitle.

Consider it yourself.  Wouldn’t you think a book with that subtitle would talk about how as an adult rereading children’s books you see different things in them, things too subtle or too adult for you to have picked up when you were young? That’s not really what happens in this book, though.  For the most part, the author chooses a children’s book or series per chapter (sometimes he’ll put a couple together if they’re thematically linked), talks about the book, and then gives an often entertaining and enlightening history of the writer and the publication of the book in the first place.  Occasionally, very occasionally, he’ll talk about how his children reacted to the book when he read it to them and how their reactions differed from his when he experienced the book as a child, but that’s not the focus of the book.  So if you’re looking for a more personal experience of encountering children’s books as an adult, this is not the book you’re looking for.

However, it is a fun book to read, especially if you enjoy and are familiar with the classics of children’s literature.  You don’t have to agree with the author on all his evaluations of the books; I personally cannot understand how anyone couldn’t love Where the Wild Things Are, a book I not only read as a child and read to my child when she was young but also used to take with me when I babysat as a teenager, and, unlike Handy, I found Anne of Green Gables to be delightful and fun.  

That doesn’t matter, though. You can disagree with the weight he gives to different books, but you will still enjoy his enthusiasm for the books he likes, and the fascinating details he unearths about the authors (especially the lesser known ones, like Margaret Wise Brown, of Goodnight Moon fame.  Who would have guessed she was such a bohemian kind of flake, the kind of woman who would blow her whole first advance from one of her books on a room full of flowers?). He raises, but doesn’t always answer, some interesting questions about the books, too. For instance, why are the boys who are heroes of the classic boy books (Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and of course Peter Pan) allowed to remain boys throughout the books, while the girls in the classic girl books (the March girls in Little Women, Laura in the Little House series, Anne in the Anne of Green Gables books) have to grow up and get married and become adults?  

It’s a pleasure to be reintroduced to some of your favorite children’s books in the company of such a knowledgeable enthusiast, even when you disagree with him on the value of some of those books.  If you haven’t read all the books he writes about (I haven’t, I admit it), then he provides a good introduction and makes you want to read them for the first time, and he gives you a good excuse to dig up your old copies of your favorites and reread them in the light of his insights and his judgments.