Little Women (by Louisa M Alcott)

In between reading new books, I’m re-reading some of my favourites. This time I decided to indulge myself with a much-loved book from my childhood. ‘Little Women’ is probably Louisa M Alcott’s best-known book; it’s been made into various films, and has three sequels. First published in 1868, it’s more rambling (with typical author asides) than today’s literature, but still a good story, with delightful characters.

I first read this classic as a child, and re-read several times in my teens. I read it aloud to my sons nearly seventeen years ago, when they were fourteen and twelve. Despite the old-fashioned writing, and the mostly female viewpoints, they enjoyed it very much. However, I had not re-read it since then, so while I remembered the story and most of the subplots well, I’d forgotten much of the detail, and some of the minor events and conversations.

‘Little Women’ was intended for teenagers, but is the kind of book that can be read by anyone from the age of about eight or nine upwards. The four March girls, when the story opens, range in age between sixteen and twelve. They are described in the first pages, and their characters are quite diverse. Meg, the oldest, dreams of dances and fashionable clothes. Jo, close in age to Meg, is tomboyish, considering herself the ‘man’ of the household in their father’s absence. Not that this is a broken family; Father is a chaplain in the American civil war.

Beth and Amy are the younger girls, and are very different from their sisters. Beth is sweet and loving, but also quite frail and shy. Amy is a classic youngest child, long before psychologists identified the idea of a ‘spoilt princess’. She is pretty, and popular, but also very hot-tempered and independent.

We first meet the family when they’re discussing how difficult it is to be without money at Christmas. It’s clear, though, that theirs is a genteel kind of poverty. The March family still has enough to eat, and employs Hannah, who cooks for them and does some of the household management. Meg and Jo are both out at work, and there’s no spare money, but they’re not in nearly such dire straits as other families who are mentioned in the book, without food or warmth of any kind.

As a different contrast, the March’s closest neighbours are the wealthy Laurence family. Mr Laurence is considered bad-tempered, and his grandson, known as Laurie, is lonely and shy. But Laurie - who is sixteen - gets to know the girls, and is accepted into their family circles as an adopted brother.

The author acknowledged that there was a strongly autobiographical slant to ‘Little Women’, and this is perhaps what makes the people seem so real. It’s a character-based novel that takes place over the course of a year; it ends with Christmas a year later. There’s a fair amount of moralising, as the girls all decide to be ‘pilgrims’, working harder and trying to overcome their faults. But along the way there’s some humour, some very moving scenes, and many glimpses into life in the United States in this era.

I enjoyed re-reading this very much, and recommend it highly. It has been continually in print in many different versions, both printed and ebooks. Make sure that you have a full edition; the abridged ones miss out some of the author viewpoint comments, but also miss out many of the girls' own thoughts and feelings.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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