It is a familiar favourite which has resonated through the generations. But, as Ryna Ordynat explains, the complex family background from which Little Women emerged is less well known.
In the 150 years since it was published, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has never been out of print. The story of the March sisters struck a chord with readers – especially young girls – early on, and continues to resonate today.
The book’s continuing popularity is evident in the many film, theatre and television adaptations. This year alone, it has been adapted into a film set in modern-times – starring Sarah Davenport and Allie Jennings – and a heavily stylised television mini-series, featuring Emily Watson and Maya Thurman-Hawke. It is scheduled for yet another major Hollywood adaptation in 2019, directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Meryl Streep, Emma Watson and Saoirse Ronan.
Little Women follows the lives of the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, as they endure hardships, learn life lessons and build enduring bonds on their passage from childhood to womanhood. The first part of the book depicts the girls’ childhoods – their struggles with poverty and their own personalities and faults and how they overcome these obstacles. The second is about them entering womanhood, marrying and becoming good wives, mothers and women.
The genteel poverty the March family endures is based on the real poverty the Alcott family experienced. The difference is that the poverty of the Alcott family was mostly imposed on them by Louisa’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott, a renowned Transcendentalist educational reformer in his day.
In stark contrast to the book, and at a time when social conventions actively discouraged and frowned upon women undertaking paid employment, Bronson Alcott’s noble willingness to, as he put it, ‘starve or freeze before he will sacrifice principle to comfort’ resulted in him not supporting his family financially. This forced his wife and daughters to provide for the New England family, and in Louisa’s case to write for money.
Bronson was wholly supported and encouraged by his wife, Abigail (Marmee in Little Women), to the complete bafflement and increasing frustration of Louisa. One of Alcott’s biographers suggests that the familiar sentimental tone in Little Women of poverty being dictated by circumstance, and something we should learn to bear, comes from her trying to cope with, and somehow justify her father’s outrageous lack of concern for the family’s financial well-being.
Louisa Alcott was devoted to and dominated by her parents, especially her father. His world-view was based on the romanticised and spiritual idea of inherent goodness and perfection of human beings. For many years, Bronson Alcott insisted to his daughter on the need for simple stories for boys and girls about how to overcome selfishness and anger, faults which he constantly pointed out in Louisa. Eventually, Bronson’s ideas made their way into Little Women, where the March sisters strive to achieve their perfect ‘womanliness’.
Louisa was a problem and a disappointment to her father – she was impatient and energetic, always ‘subject of her instinct’ and showing what Bronson called early signs of ‘impending evil’.
Alcott made the choice to remain unmarried, yet, against her wishes, but mainly due to the demands of her publisher and her growing fan base, she did make Jo marry in the end.
Alcott may never have written Little Women at all, had she been more financially successful in the types of gothic fiction she excelled at and enjoyed writing. But she dreaded debts ‘more than the devil’. And her publisher pressured her with continuous requests for a book for girls – and a promise to publish her father’s book, Tablets, if she wrote one.
The death of Jo’s younger sister Beth is a memorable and tragic event in Little Women. Beth is the shyest of the sisters and lives a very secluded life. Her death is portrayed by Alcott as a sort of ‘self-sacrifice’ as she gives up her life knowing that it has had only private, domestic meaning.
Alcott’s sister Elizabeth, or Lizzie, did in fact die due to complications of scarlet fever. Beth’s death in the book is written to resemble a typical trope of Victorian literature – the sentimental, suffering, pathetic yet angelic ‘ideal’ child. But Lizzie died in 1858, aged 22: in pain, angry and frightened, resenting the invisible, stifling life that was imposed on her largely by her parents. She may also have suffered from anorexia. Alcott witnessed the death of her sister in horror.
Ultimately, Little Women’s themes of love, grief and sisterly bonds still appeal to us. As Robin Swicord, who will produce the upcoming 2019 film adaptation says: ‘It’s really taking a look at what it is for a young woman to enter the adult world’. (She adds that ‘given the material, it’s always going to be romantic.’)
Yet many of the themes and morals of this book are sentimentalised and outdated today. They were inserted for reasons of convention, in order to provide moral instruction, or to appeal to the requests of a publisher.
Alcott wrote Little Women because her father wanted her to, and he dictated its terms, morals and lessons. It was an instant and enduring success, even though she did not want to write it, and it forced her to relive some of the most difficult years of her life. For readers (and viewers) today, understanding these circumstances enables a much more authentic, multi-layered and complex interpretation.
Ryna Ordynat is an academic at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia; this article also appears at theconversation.com