The fourth book I’ve read off the list is #18. Little Women is available to download for free through Project Gutenberg.
I loved, loved, loved Jo when I was young. I thought she was marvellous and wanted to be just like her. I wanted her to grow up, be a famous author, and marry Laurie. I don’t think I looked any further than that at the time but rereading the book now I notice the heavy-handed morality and the limited nature of the girls’ lives and expectations and I’m sort of surprised that I enjoyed this book so much as a child.
That said, I did enjoy the book this time round and a large part of the appeal is still Jo, with her love of reading, awkward height and passion for writing – all traits I share and don’t see in children’s books or YA novels very often.
What’s it about?
Published in 1868, Little Women is the story of a year and a bit in the lives of the March girls. Meg, the eldest, is 17 and growing into a proper young lady. Jo, a year younger, has no intention of ever growing up and would rather play. Beth, 14, is the timid, loving heart of the home. Amy, the youngest at 12, likes pretty things, looking fine and drawing. Their father is away near the front – the American Civil War is raging, and he’s a chaplain. Marmee (their mother) and Hannah, the servant, hold the fort on the home front and try to make sure the girls grow up well, aided and abetted by the wealthy old man next door and his impulsive 16 year-old grandson, Laurie.
Little Women is – to misquote Susan Coolidge – the adventures of girls who didn’t really have many adventures and several of the most talked about events are actually from the sequel, Good Wives. Apparently they’re often bound together, and films treat them as one but to me they are separate books with different bindings, just like when I first read them.
Then and now
When I was about eleven, we visited Orchard House, the Alcott family home in Massachusetts, USA. Alcott is well known to have drawn on her life for the story, and – thanks to some sterling conservation work – the house looks like one the March girls would be at home in, making the real and the fictional families seem even more like one.
Finding out that Alcott had based her books in part on her own life and those of her sisters made the stories seem more real – and helped me forgive her for not giving the characters the lives I wanted them to have.
The period shines through in how quaint and good all the girls are. Even Jo and Amy – the most ‘troubled’ and troublesome of the four girls are a bit too saintly for my more skeptical tastes. All the girls have their small sins, and the book dwells on these and their efforts to do better, which is good and uplifting – except that the sins really are small, old-fashioned and often followed up with a disproportionate punishment meted out by the author. For example, early on Amy burns the only copy of Jo’s book, a collection of stories she’s been working on for several years. Jo is angry – really angry – which isn’t surprising. Amy is sorry – eventually – and then when her apology is rejected, she gets cross too. All nice and plausible so far and a reconciliation seems interestingly far off. Enter the author, who has Amy fall through the ice on the river while skating putting Jo firmly in the wrong again and forgiveness ensues all round.
There are some rather lovely scenes though, even in the Victorian morality plays. There’s one where Marmee shares her own struggles with anger with Jo which I really enjoyed, and her thoughts on what makes a good marriage are rather sweet too.
Poverty and privilege
The Marches are framed as poor throughout but reading between the lines I don’t think they are. Although the girls and Marmee use that word to describe their circumstances, and they don’t have a luxurious life, it’s also clear that they’re several rungs up from the bottom of the social ladder. One of the few other families mentioned in the book are the Hummels who are a really poor probably immigrant family – poor to the point where the children don’t have enough to eat, and the baby dies from lack of medical care. With that as a contrast, as well as frontier stories like Little House on the Prarie, it’s interesting to see the Marches who have education, books and a servant described this way.
They’re also well out of the way of the war – it barely touches their lives and the only mentions I spotted are their father’s absence, one mention of Mr Brooks wanting to enlist and one or two mentions of Jo knitting socks for soldiers.
All in all, Little Women is a sweet, quiet, genteel book – so unobjectionable that I almost want to ban girls from reading it in case they do start striving to never say a cross word or raise a fuss when their wants and needs are overlooked. And while I enjoyed my foray into the past, I’m in no hurry to pick up Good Wives or the other three books in the series – for one thing, I never did quite agree with Jo’s choice of husband!
I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.