Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868)

When I first read Little Women, it was my mother’s copy from when she was a girl. It contained both Little Women and Good Wives, though I didn’t understand that until this summer.

Here’s a picture of the copy I spent time with this summer; I’ve had it since I was about 10 years old and, yes, it was only $2.95 with the $5.00 discount applied to the original price of $7.95.

You can imagine my young reader’s glee at having found such a bargain.

(And perhaps you can imagine my disinterest in the companion R.L. Stevenson volume: there was more of Meg in me in those days than there was of Jo.)

My relationship with the March sisters goes back to my days as a young reader. Younger than any of the characters are when the novel opens: Meg 16, Jo 15, Beth 13, and Amy 12.And we weren’t close. I had a girlfriend who revisited it regularly (although there was one scene she always skipped), but I didn’t re-read.Afterwards, I revisited my favourite scenes (Amy being punished at school was the best, just as I’d loved the scene when Anne — of Green Gables — cracks her slate over Gilbert’s head in school) but it wasn’t a particular favourite.

Returning to it as an adult, it’s easy to hypothesize that that’s because of its moralistic side, but obviously, given my affection for the Carr family stories, I had a high tolerance for that as a girl.

But there it is: I am a Not-so-Little Woman now, so perhaps it’s only natural that I take the preaching more personally than I once did. For certainly I would have failed my Marmee in so many ways.

(And, in my moaning about that, there are two SPOILERS below, also marked out.)

All of the bookishness that I recall from my reading this in younger years is still there. Jo is reading The Heir of Radclyffe, eating apples in the attic. Meg is toasting her feet and reading Ivanhoe. The sisters play at having their own Pickwick Portfolio (my second favourite part of the novel). The novels of Miss. Burney and Miss. Yonge are referred to by the narrator. And Marmee gives the girls Pilgrim’s Progress and suggests they read it regularly.

Well, yes, it’s the latter which should have clued me in: this is a prescriptive volume. It’s How to be Little Women and Good Wives, How to live your life once you’ve found Little Men and had Little Children.

But how can a mother ever be as good as Marmee?

“The first sound in the morning was her voice, as she went about the house singing like a lark; and the last sound at night was that same cheery sound, for the girls never grew too old for that familiar lullaby.”

How can the little women not come up short? Though all, even the rebellious Jo, who speaks the next bit, do try.

“Well, we can’t have it, so don’t let us grumble, but shoulder our burdens and trudge along as cheerfully as Marmee does.”

When the novel opens, Mr. March has been called away because of the war. Marmee reigns supreme. Or, at least it seems so.  But when Mr. March is on the scene, readers learn that he has been the Good Patriarch all the way along, even unseen.

“To outsiders, the five energetic women seemed to rule the house, and so they did in many things,; but the quiet scholar, sitting among his books, was still the head of the family, the household conscience, anchor, and comforter; for to him the busy, anxious women always turned in troublous times, finding him, in the truest sense of those sacred words, husband and father.”

This is because even Marmee — who seems so flawless, the perfect mother — has had to turn to her husband for guidance.

“Yes; I asked him to help me so, and he never forgot it, but saved me from many a sharp word by that little gesture and kind look.”

That little gesture?

Mr. March puts his finger to his lips when he spots Marmee’s temper getting the best of her.

Jo’s temper has gotten the best of her, so Marmee confides this fault to her repentant daughter.

[What is it about this that niggles me so?  I must be a cranky reader. First, I’m irked that Marmee is too perfect. Then, I’m annoyed that she’s not. Or am I just irritated that Mr. March knows it.]

But back to Jo. She, unlike me, finds comfort in this scene.

“The patience and humility of the face she loved so well was a better lesson to Jo than the wisest lecture, the sharpest reproof. She felt comforted at once by the sympathy and confidence given her; the knowledge that her mother had a fault like hers, and tried to mend it, made her own easier to bear and strengthened her resolution to cure it; though forty years seemed rather a long time to watch and pray, to a girl of fifteen.”

She learns from Beth, who embodies the principle of self-sacrifice, as well. SPOILER So much for her literary ambitions: Jo resolves to take care of her father and mother and make a happy home for them.

“Jo…learned to see the beauty and the sweetness of Beth’s nature, to feel how deep and tender a place she filled in all hearts, and to acknowledge the worth of Beth’s unselfish ambition, to live for others, and make home happy by the exercise of those simple virtues which all may possess, and which all should love and value more than talent, wealth, or beauty.”

The Jo that I remember was a headstrong and passionate writer, independent and determined. The Jo that I find in my re-read is content to set aside her writing to afford herself the opportunity to be a Good Wife.

Well, it’s what Marmee wants for her. And for all her girls.

“I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good; to be admired, loved, and respected, to have a happy youth, to be well and wisely married, and to lead useful, pleasant lives, with as little care and sorrow to try them as God sees fit to send. To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman; and I sincerely hope my girls may know this beautiful experience.”

Really? To be loved and chosen is the best and sweetest thing. Sure, there’s a defense of the Old Maid a few pages later, but it pales with the loved-and-chosen bit.

And of course the book is not called Good Spinsters, it’s Good Wives.

So there has to be a fair bit of talk about marriage. SPOILER Mainly thanks to Meg who has been the first of the March sisters to be officially loved and chosen.

But even though she is a Good Mother (presumably thanks to the example of the Mostly-Perfect-Marmee, for readers don’t see Meg’s husband making any significant gestures towards her), Meg struggles with being a Good Wife.

“As she was a womanly little woman, the maternal instinct was very strong, and she was entirely absorbed in her children, to the utter exclusion of everything and everybody else. Day and night she brooded over them with tireless devotion and anxiety, leaving John to the tender mercies of the help, for an Irish lady now presided over the kitchen department. Being a domestic man, John decidedly missed the wifely attentions he had been accustomed to receive; but, as he adored his babies, he cheerfully relinquished his comfort for a time…”

It’s okay, though. Don’t panic: Marmee will set her straight. Meg wasn’t being selfless enough, but she can try harder.

And she does. Soon it’s Meg who is advising Jo on the subject.

“Marriage is an excellent thing, after all. I wonder if I should blossom out half as well as you have, if I tried it?” said Jo…
“It’s just what you should need to bring out the tender, womanly half of your nature, Jo.”

Of course it’s completely unfair of me to expect anything other from this novel. Published in 1868, Little Women was written to satisfy a readership of which I’d likely have been part as a woman of those times.

The publisher sold out of its initial printing and could not keep up with public demand.  “The great literary hit of the season is undoubtedly Miss Alcott’s Little Women, the orders for which continue to flow in upon us to such an extent as to make it impossible to answer them with promptness.”

I’d likely have been a Better Woman if I’d’ve read Louisa May Alcott’s bestseller when it was fresh off the press.  But, as it is, I am hung up on the question of who is making gestures at Mr. March, and that’s getting in the way of my being a Good Reader.

What are your thoughts on Little Women?