Back when I was 6 years old and I passed the entrance exam for my junior school, my mother took me to Waterstones and told me to choose a book as a congratulations present, with the proviso that it must be a ‘proper’ book. After putting aside some disappointment that I wouldn’t be getting a Barbie doll instead, and given that all other books looked decidedly boring and picture-less, I decided upon a copy of Little Women that came in a fetching pink illustrated case with decorative cover. The closest thing Waterstones had to a Barbie doll in the classic fiction section.
I quickly discovered that there were no pictures and I never read it all the way through. But, from watching film versions, I’ve always known the story and thought that I didn’t really like it. I didn’t want to read it – I thought it was pious and goody two shoes, which is a bit ironic since I wouldn’t say I was the world’s biggest rebel.
However, this book came up on a roll of the dice decision on my next book to read and I am really glad that it did. I really, really enjoyed it, despite all of my previous misgivings. It follows the lives of the four March girls from childhood into early adulthood as they live out their simple life in New England in the 1800s and is thought to be loosely based on the author’s own life and that of her sisters. The traditional edit of the book now includes what was previously a sequel, Good Wives, and tells the story of the girls into their married lives.
Little Women has always been a popular novel and I think a huge amount of this is down to the authenticity of the writing and the story. Everyone knows a Jo or an Amy, a harum scarum tomboy vs. a spoilt younger sister. Every family with girls can identify with the sisterly relationships presented in the book, and I think many mothers and daughters have strong parallels to the emotions felt by Marmee and the interactions between her and her girls. My preconceptions of this book were that it would be old-fashioned and dull, with prim and proper girls living conservative lives. Whilst in today’s modern society the faith and tradition element of their lives do feel, at times, a little outdated, it’s remarkable how much more has endured to remain relevant. I felt there were a lot more parts of the book that I identified with than I didn’t.
I definitely preferred the first half of the book to the second. The time where they are girls is my favourite – they have such fun creating imaginary games, writing plays, playing outdoors and being fully immersed in the joy of childhood and it creates a truly charming and nostalgic picture of what it’s like to be young. For each of the girls, there comes a moment when they then step out of this age of innocence and realise that they are now ‘Little Women’ and need to face adulthood. Jo is my favourite character – to be honest, she is most people’s favourite. I think she gets a bit more narrative attention than some of her sisters but she has the most spirit and therefore the most interesting stories to tell. Her struggle with reconciling being a lady who meets the expectations of society, and her desire to do what she wants and not let being a woman stand in her way are both endearing and inspiring, and it’s Jo that everyone is rooting for throughout the book. Her good intentions and her temper frequently collide, as they so often do for everyone, and her conversation with Teddy about why they shouldn’t be together is both heartbreaking and familiar. She is, I think, by far the most well-developed character in the novel and I would guess she was probably Alcott’s favourite too.
The things I didn’t like about the book: this might be controversial to some, but I don’t like the character of Beth. Not because she’s inherently bad, quite the opposite, but I feel that she is more of a plot mechanism rather than a proper character. She’s very under-developed, doesn’t really seem to have a full personality and I do feel like the sole purpose of her existence in the book is to die (apologies for spoilers, but I think most of the world knows that one). It’s not that I didn’t find her death incredibly sad, but I was frustrated with the fact that the only things you can recall about Beth is that she is good, she plays the piano and she gets sick a lot. Others can disagree but I felt like Alcott could have put more of a focus onto her so she had more of a role to play before she dies.
Similarly, I don’t love really how the story ends up for Amy and Jo. There is a huge amount of debate around the Amy-Jo-Teddy situation with many people distraught that Jo doesn’t end up with Teddy and others pleading the opposite, that it’s exactly the right scenario for them. I personally don’t mind that Jo and Teddy don’t end up together – I quite like it, it suits Jo’s personality, it’s more realistic as oppose to fairy tale but I think the difficulty with him ending up with Amy is again in the writing. Alcott puts so much attention into creating Amy’s character when she is young, but she doesn’t manage to persuade her readers (or certainly not me, in any case) that Amy has changed for the better enough to deserve Teddy. As a child, Amy is the youngest – she’s a bit of a brat, she’s self obsessed, vain and, at times, cruel. I think we are expected to see her travels to Europe and Beth’s death as enlightening experiences for Amy to make her a better person, but I wasn’t left convinced. They didn’t have the power of characterisation that the stories about her as a girl did. Therefore, it leaves a bit of a bitter taste to see her end up with Teddy who, for all his faults, is definitely a catch and a hero of the story. To layer on top of this Jo ending up with a much older, rather serious German professor is a bit frustrating. However, again, I think a lot of this comes down to the care which Alcott took in telling this part of the story. I could see Jo with an older man, but his conservatism seems to be at odds with her wild nature, and I couldn’t see the fire and passion in him that is so central to Jo’s personality. I honestly think that she was much better at writing and characterising the girls as children, but didn’t have as great an attention to detail in rounding out their personalities as they got older, and weaving a plot to suit those girls.
Fundamentally, it’s only really some of the plot turns that I don’t love but it didn’t stop me from enjoying the book. In fact, it gave me plenty to discuss in forums or in this very blog post. It was much more relatable than I thought, and the levels of Christian piety weren’t as high as I thought they would be, nor did they grate on me as much as I thought they would (other than when Jo decides she has to stop writing semi-erotic stories even though they make her money – cheers, Mr Baer…)
All in all, I’m glad that this book continues to be popular and I will definitely recommend it to any women I know that haven’t read it. Some of the mother-daughter relationship passages are really beautifully written and very poignant, and Alcott has captured the complications of childhood and adolescence in girls incredibly well. Given that I didn’t enjoy the later parts quite so much, it hasn’t made me desperate to read the sequels, Jo’s Boys and Little Men. I think I like to stick with the girls as I think they’re seen best, as children, still learning who they are and all the possibilities of life.
Star rating: ♥♥♥♥♥