Good Wives (by Louisa M Alcott)

I re-read Louisa M Alcott’s classic novel ‘Little Women’ about four months ago, so decided that it was time to re-read the sequel, known in the UK as ‘Good Wives’. She apparently wrote it in response to a huge demand from her readers to find out what happened to Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March, the four girls in her original story. In the US it is still apparently considered to be part two of ‘Little Women’.

The book opens with quite a lengthy introduction, which I had completely forgotten about. Perhaps I read an abridged version last time, although as it’s sixteen years since I last read this book, my memory is quite vague. I had of course recalled the main points of the story but few of the details. The introduction takes us through a three-year period, telling us what has happened to each of the girls and some of the other important characters.

We are then taken directly into Meg’s wedding to John Brooke, evidently the first ‘interesting’ thing that happens since the announcement of their engagement at the end of ‘Little Women’. The wedding is simple, with family and close friends present, and we then hear nothing more of Meg and John until a few chapters later, when we see the first tensions arising in their domestic bliss.

Meanwhile we see Amy, youngest in the family, attempting to develop different artistic skills. She joins a class, where she finds it hard to make friends, and then decides to host a picnic lunch. This makes an amusing chapter, although I could also feel Amy’s stress and embarrassment when things go wrong. That chapter is followed by a look at Jo, the strongest character in the family, and - based on the author herself - a writer.

There’s not a great deal of plot, as these books are character-based. Each chapter gives an incident in the lives of one or more of the girls, with some humour, some stresses, and one very sad chapter towards the end. Inevitably there’s a fair amount of authorial aside, including some preaching and moralising - but the author evidently expects it to be taken with a large pinch of salt, and even comments, sometimes, on her commentary.

Inevitably a book first published in 1869 - nearly 150 years ago - is in places very dated. Feminists may decry the expectations put upon women of the era, and the idea of a husband being the head of the household. But the girls are surprisingly modern in their outlook, with distinct personalities. None of them, except perhaps Beth, is too good to be true. They all have their faults, and we see them mature and develop over the course of the book. Meg and Amy learn to be less envious of the good fortune of others, for instance, and Jo learns to be less outspoken.

‘Good Wives’ was originally written for teenage girls, but I suspect some modern teens today would find it too slow-moving. They might not have the maturity to appreciate the slow-moving but tender love stories that develop, or appreciate the morals and philosophies expounded.

However, I have always loved these books, and enjoy them just as much in my fifties as I did when I was in my teens. Highly recommended, but it’s best to read ‘Little Women’ first. Regularly re-printed, including some inexpensive and free editions for the Kindle as it is long out of copyright. Widely available second-hand. Make sure you get hold of un-abridged versions, as the shorter ones miss out rather a lot.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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