30/11/2000

Little Women (by Louisa M Alcott)

'Little Women' is a classic teenage novel by Louisa M Alcott.

It's the story of the March family, set in the 1800s in the USA. Mr March has gone away to be a chaplain in the war, leaving behind his wife and four daughters. They are only just surviving financially, and the book opens with the well-known sentence, spoken by one of the daughters, 'Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents!'

It's a character-driven novel about growing up, rather than a story with significant plot. Each chapter covers a different incident, featuring one or more of the girls and their friends, sometimes falling into scrapes, sometimes showing extreme generosity, sometimes learning a little and maturing. If it were published today, it would probably have been combined with its sequel, 'Good Wives', and sold as a family saga. Indeed, the filmed version of 'Little Women' did combine these two books into one movie.

All four of the girls are cleverly introduced, with their personalities clear to see, on the first page of the book. Meg, the eldest sister, is all that a mid-nineteenth century mother could want of a daughter. Well-behaved and modest, she enjoys helping her mother in the kitchen, paying calls to elegant friends, and going to dances. She cares about her appearance, but since she's careful and an excellent needlewoman, she can usually look her best. Her comment about Christmas is that it's 'dreadful to be poor', as she looks down at her old dress.

Jo is a complete contrast to Meg, and is perhaps the clearest character in the book, much of which is told from her perspective. She is considered to be similar in personality to Louisa M Alcott herself. She acts impulsively, makes friends readily, and finds it extremely difficult to deal with the conventions of society. She's the kind of girl who would probably have been much happier 200 years later. Nevertheless she cares deeply for her family, and is extremely loyal to them. Jo speaks her mind - it's her complaint that opens the book.

Beth, the third sister, is an invalid. She spends a lot of time lying on her couch, coughing; unable to do many chores, or to go to school. In a sense she's the least believable of the girls, since she's given an almost angelic character - loving, dutiful, eager to learn, dispensing wise advice, and willing to do anything to help those even worse off than she is. Yet while she could have seemed annoyingly virtuous, the author manages to make her seem very human. Beth is musical, and longs for a piano - something the family cannot possibly afford. Her comment about Christmas is typical: 'We've got father and mother and each other.'

Amy is the youngest, and rather like a caricatured spoiled princess. She cares a great deal about her looks, and about what people think of her, and is the most resentful about the family's straitened circumstances. Yet she too is passionately devoted to her mother and sisters, and longs to grow up. Her words after Jo's grumble are that it's unfair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls to have nothing at all.

Mrs March, or 'Marmee' as the girls know her, is a hard-working, deeply devout and loving mother, who suffers patiently the hard life she has to lead, looking after four daughters on her own, knowing that her husband may never return from the war. She deals patiently and constructively with each of the girls. When I read this as a mother myself, I found her an excellent role model! I could enter strongly into her sorrow at not being able to give the girls what they wanted, and most of all seeing her third daughter suffering so much pain.

The book is enlivened, and given a male influence, by the March family's next-door neighbours, the elderly and rather crusty Mr Laurence, and his student nephew, known as Laurie. They are extremely wealthy, but well aware that the pride of the March family will not allow them to receive gifts of money.

Despite having been written nearly 150 years ago, and with some situations which aren't relevant to modern life, the personalities and emotions of the characters in this book are realistic and often very moving. There are, inevitably, moments of 'preaching' when the author gets in the way and tries to push her viewpoint directly on the reader, but compared to many books of the time this is low-key and not too intrusive. These bits can always be skimmed!

I read "Little Women" first when I was about nine, and enjoyed it as the story of four girls growing up. I admired Meg, sympathised with Jo, felt inspired by Beth, and could see Amy in some of my friends. In my teens, I could appreciate better the very low-key romantic element which appears later on in the book, much to Jo's annoyance!

As an adult, I can relate to the mother as much as I can to the girls. Perhaps because of the lack of major excitement or twists, it's an easy book to re-read every few years, knowing that I'll be transported back to another world, to delightful people and to touches of humour that I've forgotten. I've read the book at least six times, and am sure I'll read it again in a few more years. 'Little Women' can still make me chuckle in places, just as it can still bring tears to my eyes in others.

As with most classics, this has been published many times in both hardback and paperback, and is widely available both new and second-hand. Do be careful to avoid the 'abridged' editions. I read one of these once, and found it very disappointing. It missed out the author preaching, but it also missed out a great deal of the girls' thoughts and simplified the language in a way that made it seem unrealistic.

No comments: