TOAST Magazine

Little Women | A Story of Womanhood

BOOK CLUB

Chloë Asby explores its continued appeal...

In Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend – currently on stage at The National Theatre in London – there’s a scene when the two young protagonists recite and memorize Little Women. They read it for months: “So many times that the book became tattered and sweat-stained, it lost its spine, came unthreaded, sections fell apart.” The girls dream of being like Jo March, of writing their way out of poverty – not, in their case, genteel poverty in rural New England during the Civil War but the gritty slum poverty of postwar Naples.

Lenù and Lila are among the millions of girls who feel an affinity for a March sister, a key element of the instant and enduring popularity of Louisa May Alcott’s novel. Little Women has been read obsessively, and the story has also been obsessively retold. Since its publication in two parts in the late 1860s, it’s been adapted for the screen eight times, from a silent film in 1917 to a 1994 production starring Winona Ryder and Kirsten Dunst – and now Greta Gerwig’s highly anticipated and equally star-studded version, set to be released on 27th December. What is it about these little women that we seem compelled to revisit them, generation after generation?

Alcott introduces the four sisters in the first four sentences of the book:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

“We’ve got Father and Mother and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.

Actually, they don’t have their father, who despite being too old to be drafted is serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. They used to be wealthy but Mr March lost the family fortune. They live with their Marmee – “not elegantly dressed, but a noble woman” – and Hannah, both a servant and a friend. Meg works as a governess while Jo is a companion to Aunt March, a fussy old lady from whom she hopes to wheedle a trip to Europe. Together the four of them help with housework and entertain themselves (as well as Laurie, the grandson of the rich old man who lives next door) with their own plays and newspapers.

Alcott’s narrator provides a physical description of the Marches early on – “as young readers like to know ‘how people look’” – but allows their characters to emerge more gradually. Still, it doesn’t take long to grasp their different ambitions and sensibilities, strengths and flaws – which we identify with. Their father’s absence until halfway through makes room for wild and unruly Jo to be the man of the house. The fifteen-year-old has coltish limbs, flyaway clothes and “the uncomfortable appearance of a girl who was rapidly shooting up into a woman and didn’t like it”. Keeping her in check with regular reminders of what’s proper and what’s not is Meg, the oldest, who’s pretty and rather vain. Amy, who has an artistic eye, golden ringlets and a yearning for a Grecian nose (she tries to reshape hers with a clothes peg), is “a regular snow maiden”. And finally there’s Beth, who’s painfully shy and content in her own world, peopled with a half-dozen cast-off dolls and a litter of kittens.

We follow the March sisters as they learn who they are and how to be women. The two older girls watch over their younger siblings – “playing mother”, they call it. Moments of sisterly affection, as when all three fly to Amy’s rescue after she’s struck by a teacher for smuggling into school a brown-paper parcel of plump and juicy pickled limes, are balanced out with bouts of sibling rivalry. Anyone who as a child read the book, or watched one of the films, will surely have the line “You’ll be sorry for this, Jo March” committed to memory. 

It’s a tale about striving to be good – each sister “trying to be cheerful in spite of wintry weather, hard work, and the unsatisfied desires of pleasure-loving youth”. Jo, who has a quick temper and sharp tongue, must follow the example set by their mother, who, when she’s angry, folds her lips tight together and leaves the room. As she learns to be a woman, Jo also learns to write – something that, like Alcott, she must do not just for love of literature but also for money. Alcott herself grew up poor with three sisters. She wrote thrillers for the popular press, and Jo pens The Duke’s Daughter and The Curse of the Coventrys to pay the butcher and the grocer. 

With Little Women, Alcott turned her attention to the everyday. The focus is on ordinary scenes of family life and moments that define us: making and losing friends, arguing with siblings, falling in and out of love – and grief. Beth’s death might be the first experience young readers have of mourning, and the episode is foreshadowed early on. “There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.”

When Alcott published Little Women, it was an immediate success – though it was only after her publisher’s daughters read and loved the manuscript that he agreed to print it. His condition: all four girls must either die or marry. That constraint gives the ending a fusty and conventional feel, dated like Marmee’s verdict on matrimony: “to be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing that can happen to a woman”. Of course, Marmee also confides in Jo, “I am angry nearly every day of my life”. 

We each choose which little woman to relate to, and no doubt Greta Gerwig, representing the most recent generation to adore Alcott’s tale, will pick out a special thread to spin her own story of womanhood. 

Words by Chloë Ashby. Greta Gerwig's Little Women is in cinemas December 26th.

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