Tuesday 26 May 2015

Blast From the Past: Little Women

Originally published in 1868-9 by the Roberts Brothers

My edition: the beautiful Penguin Clothbound Classics hardcover – surprised, right?

What’s it about?
Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth – the four ‘little women’ enduring hardships and enjoying adventures in Civil War New England. The charming story of the March sisters, Little Women has been adored by generations. Readers have rooted for Laurie in pursuit of Jo’s hand, cried over little Beth, and dreamed of traveling through Europe with old Aunt March and Amy. Future writers have found inspiration in Jo’s devotion to her writing. I this simple, enthralling tale, Louisa May Alcott has created four of American’s literature’s most beloved women.

Why now?
The need to finally read this has been niggling since Christmas when hoardes of people on my Twitter feed were having their yearly comfort Christmas re-read. I needed to know what I was missing!

The verdict:
I have to admit that this is perhaps my least favourite classic of the year so far. Being beloved by legions I was expecting to fall head over heels in love with the March sisters, but it fell a little short for me.

From the very beginning, Amy, Jo, Beth and Amy are very distinct and different: Amy is a little selfish and obsessed with society; Jo is a writer, an adventurer and a tomboy; Beth is the youngest, quiet, sweet and happy and Meg is fed up being poor and wants to be a part of fashionable society. Keeping them under control is the seemingly perfect Mrs March and their housekeeper Hannah who is pretty much a part of the family. Mr March is off fighting in the American Civil War. Jo was my immediate favourite. She sees beyond the confines of her sex and wants every freedom that boys have. And she can’t understand why she shouldn’t. I love that she’s a reader and a writer and wants to go on epic adventures, all while not having a romantic bone in her body. She’s a breath of fresh air. With the exception of Beth – who could dislike Beth?! – I found the other three March sisters pretty annoying, if I had feelings about them at all!

I think my feelings around their characters may have something to do with how they were used by Alcott. Every character in this novel has a distinct fault and Alcott uses these faults or quirks to preach morality and values, even to the cost of the girls’ dreams and personalities. Preachiness is one of my pet peeves. You can deliver values and morality in a way that isn’t glaring in your face and I think they’re more effective. I know this was written in the late 1860s and for children, it still didn’t sit right with me.

Jo was the balance of the two themes in the novel, I feel. She was the March sister who desired the most independence, the most ‘unfeminine’ things, the one who didn’t want marriage and babies and the keep house but she was still loyal and loving to her family, worked hard and looked after those she loved. She was my very favourite from beginning to end. That’s why the whole Laurie debacle made me ragey. I knew from just being in the literary world that Laurie married another of the sisters instead of Jo, but I was still desperately hoping that I had remembered wrong. As Jo and Laurie grew up together and experienced more I felt like they were moving towards it and ripping them apart was cruel. I almost felt like it was Alcott’s punishment to Jo for being so against what a women should want out of life that she doesn’t get the rich, charming, beautiful boy who understands and loves her completely as her husband. I feel that if Jo wasn’t to marry Laurie then she should have stuck to her guns and not married at all. And I really didn’t like the Amy/Laurie match – it didn’t feel as genuine as what I’d seen build for 350 pages. I was quite cross. Though everyone got a happy ever after, though very realistically, not the happy ever after they all desired, I felt that Jo almost wasn’t done justice in her ending and that feeling is the only thing that makes me want to read Little Men. I need to know that Jo is really, genuinely happy with Mr Baer and that Laurie made the right choice about Amy.

The subjects of marriage, love, family and poverty are the main themes in Little Women and the way they approached changed and altered over the course of the novel. This story does span around 20-odd years after all! Though I loved watching Meg soften, Amy sharpen, Jo turn into a confident, hardworking young woman and Laurie transform into, well, an older charmer really, I much preferred part one of the novel. The friendships and games and trials and tribulations of childhood and their teenage years were ironed out in the second half of the novel when it became clear that the March sisters were becoming women and had to start acting like it. Though I understand that marriage really was one of the only ways for a woman to have a secure life, it still made me thoroughly sad as they began to almost groom themselves for it, although Jo was traditionally late to the party, of course.

Sadly, Little Women wasn’t for me. I had none of the nostalgia for the story or the March sisters and I became really frustrated by the preaching of Louisa Mae Alcott and the injustices towards Jo. But I am glad I read it, if only for Jo and Laurie.

Still not convinced?
- It’s a treasured novel from childhood and early teens for many, many book lovers.
- You need to know whether you’re a Jo, an Amy, a Meg or a Beth.
- The trauma of the Jo and Laurie saga is something you need to experience.


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