Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Little (occasionally annoying, sometimes infuriating) Women‏

Last week I chuckled when my friend Emma wrote a mini-rant on facebook about one of the great classic books of female literature - Little Women by Louise May Alcott so I asked her to expand on her thoughts here...and for those of you who don't know anything about the story it's still a very amusing mini-rant!

Little Women
- Louise May Alcott

Little Women is the heartwarming story of the March family that has thrilled generations of readers. It is the story of four sisters--Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth-- and of the courage, humor and ingenuity they display to survive poverty and the absence of their father during the Civil War.

The classic American novel Little Women has one of fiction's most famous opening lines*:

" "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents, " grumbled Jo, lying on the rug"

and off we go into the world of the March sisters - refined Meg, tomboyish Jo, saintly Beth and vain Amy. I first met these girls when I was aged about 10, thanks to my aunt's childhood copy of the novel sitting temptingly on the shelf at my Grandparents' house, and I remember enjoying the time I spent in their company. Last week, many years older, I picked up the book again. I'd recently visited Boston and New England, where Louise May Alcott had lived and had set her story, and was seized by an urge to read it again. On Saturday I finished it, sighed, logged onto facebook and wrote:

"I've just finished rereading Little Women, which I remember loving as a child. Is it wrong that I now find all the female characters insufferably goody goody?"

Mel saw my mini-rant and kindly offered me this opportunity to try to try and better explain my problems with the book. Before reading any further a warning: there are going to be PLOT SPOILERS ahead, so beware if you've not read it. There may also be some shouting if things go badly. Turn away now if you, like little Beth, are of a delicate disposition.

So what changed? How did the fun story in my memory of the growing pains of four friendly, lively sisters turn into a highly moralistic and sanctimonious tale of doing your duty, learning how to be a proper housewife and giving up all your childhood dreams? I've had a long think about this and come to the conclusion that the problem isn't with the novel, it's with me. I grew up and, unlike the March girls, got feminist. As a child of about the same age as Amy I could enjoy their young adventures with their conveniently rich and handsome neighbour Laurie, think it sweet when Jo finally finds the man of her dreams, and probably didn't pay much attention to the lessons on being a good little wife from their saintly mother. As an adult I'm disappointed and annoyed that Jo has apparently sacrificed her promising writing career for an old man with a comedy german accent. A man moreover who seems to randomly turn up again after not being heard of for three years. I don't understand why she can't do both, but in this world if you're a women you should know your place (in the home, looking after your husband) and be content.

I shouldn't be completely negative. The young protaganists do feel like real people (well, maybe not saintly Beth, but she's the typical child innocent who turns up all the time in Victorian fiction to teach us all a lesson in suffering), and you do get a strong impression of what it's like to live in their world. Thinking back over it, I did enjoy the story, I just wish the Pilgrims Progress preachiness could be unwrapped from the coming of age tale.

Does this mean you can't go back and revisit old childhood friends? Definitely not! Last time I was over here it was to sing the praises of Diana Wynne Jones whose books I've never stopped enjoying. However, tread carefully and don't be too upset if you find that you're now more mature than the dated playfellows you've left behind. I'm going to try this experiment again and see if another classic American children's novel Anne of Green Gables has fared better. Maybe I'll come back and tell you how I got on if, as I'm sure a proper Miss March would say, Mel permits me the indulgence.

*really, it does. I checked with google


  1. Definitely an interesting perspective on the book. I haven't read all of it myself (as much as i have a fascination with the time period, I find most of the literature from it to be unbearably dry), but I can easily understand how morals can turn into preaching all too easily.

    I will point out, though, that Anne of Green Gables isn't really a classic American novel so much as a Canadian one, what with it taking place in Canada and all.

  2. Sorry, my mistake. It's been a long time since I read it, and it must have got stuck in my head that it's set in America.

  3. Hah! I enjoyed reading this post very much. I somehow wasn't a fan at all when my mom tried to ply this book on me in my youth. I definitely wouldn't like it now, I'm pretty sure!

    On the Anne of Green Gables note, though: it remains one of my favorite classic novels for girls. I re-read it every couple of years or so, and while I know that my childhood nostalgia definitely informs the way I read it in adulthood, I think it stands up. I gave it to my husband to read a few years ago, which he did under protest. At least for the first few chapters, but then I couldn't pry his fingers away from the book. He loved it, too.

    Trust Mark Twain's judgment: Anne Shirley is one of the most delightful child creations in all of literature!

  4. Yes maybe this one is not for me, but then I have never read it so I could not say how I would feel now

  5. You know if you take in the setting of the time, I honestly don't think Jo HAD a promising career. It would be impossible for someone who still had to find ways of caring for the family to have a job such as that. Plus, the world they lived in was rebuilding and women were not welcome in what would be a "man's" job. Her chance would have been better during the war, but she was still a child then. It might have worked out for her later in life when women started getting a little more recognition. I would have to think on how old she would have had to be though... hm... something to ponder!

    Your view about them being goody goody is quite valid. That is why I still think it was a good child's book. I've always seen it as such because that is when I became acquainted with the March sisters. So, that part doesn't bother me too much as long as I continue to see it as such.

    Great thought out post!!