Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’, the original young adult fiction

Whether they’ve read it or not, it’s a book title most women will have come across.  Written by Louisa May Alcott, and published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, Little Women is a text that has cemented its position as an enormously popular, inter-generational novel.  This gentle coming-of-age story—set in New England and set against the backdrop of the American Civil War—follows the four March sisters as they grow and overcome the challenges of illness, financial hardship and questions of character while their father is away fighting with the Union armies.

As a 10 year old I made a feeble attempt to get through the novel, but with its older, mannered style of English, the content felt dry and failed to capture my imagination.  However, now being a ‘Little Woman’ myself, I decided that it was time to try again.  I was sceptical going in.  How would a text nearly 160 years old be relevant to me now?  And how would it be any different from the other classic texts I’ve read with a strong female focus, such as Pride and Prejudice?  To be honest, in parts it didn’t fare well when compared to such works.

Written for a younger audience, Little Women lacks the complexity that I’ve come to expect from classic texts with a female protagonist, like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, or the scope of contemporaneous wartime novels such as Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869); admittedly, some tough competition.  But Alcott was fully aware that she was not crossing any literary boundaries, describing her work as ‘moral pap for the young’; but it was pap that paid well.  For a less demure, ‘Little Womensy’ view of Alcott, read this.

1949: L-R: actors Margaret O'Brien, Elizabeth Taylor, June Allyson, Janet Leigh, and Peter Lawford sit around a table having tea, in a still from director Mervyn LeRoy's film, 'Little Women.' (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1949:  Mervyn LeRoy’s film, ‘Little Women.’ (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This is not necessarily a failure.  For a reader just entering their teens as opposed to almost leaving them, Little Women would make a great introductory text.  The language is straightforward and without any heavy symbolism which needs to be interrogated through robust discussion and analysis.  However, I was slightly underwhelmed.

I’ll give credit where credit is due.  It can’t be denied that this is a progressive text, and it’s impressive how relevant the themes have remained so many generations later.  The feminist tones drew me in first—a plight so familiar, and so passionately fought for still today.  I went in hoping to find a kindred spirit in my namesake; eldest March sister Meg, and to an extent, I did.  Responsible, rule-abiding, the ‘mum’ of the group; yeah, I could relate.

But the heroine of the text was Jo; an opinionated, passionate, tomboyish middle-child who captured the essence of the modern woman.  That Jo as a character should shine through is no surprise given the way her struggles in the novel contoured those of the book’s author.  Jo challenged the restrictive expectations placed on young girls to be feminine, and was determined to follow her dreams.  She pursued her goal of being a writer wholeheartedly, despite the hurdles faced by women to make a name for themselves in fields dominated by men—a challenge still relevant today.

Impressive also, is the platonic friendship developed between the March sisters and new neighbour, Laurie.  In an era when boys and girls largely interacted for courting purposes only, it was refreshing to see a text where romantic intentions didn’t have to underpin all female-male interactions.  Admittedly, this comes undone in part two of the text; but hey, an impressive effort while it lasted.

Orchard House; the house that young adult fiction built

A strength of Little Women in general is this lack of focus on romance.  There was no re-evaluation of one’s character in order to be a more suitable wife, no condescending (see: ‘romantic’) proposal from a man who has to overcome social stigmas about the ‘unsuitability’ of his suitor’s family (Pride and Prejudice I’m looking at you), and no ticking spinster’s clock where a woman’s appeal withers with each day.

Instead, the focus was on family; a universal experience and theme which everyone is familiar with and stands the test of time.  The March sisters were encouraged to better themselves for themselves, to support each other in an uncertain environment, and to remember that wealth can come and go, but your values define you forever.  Throughout the novel you watch the sisters grow from girls to young women, and you can’t help but get a little bit attached.

Has this novel become a new favourite of mine?  No.  But was it an unexpectedly heart-warming story that I could connect with?  Yes.  It may not move quickly, and it may not set you on the edge of your seat, but it is a worthwhile read.  Whilst it might not have been perceived by Alcott herself as some proto-feminist tract, it is a book which inspired generations of women writers from Joyce Carol Oates to Simone de Beauvoir.

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