By Louisa May Alcott
Strangely and completely by accident, I’ve gone straight from a book written for boys; full of adventures, the outdoors and fun to one written for girls; full of manners, gloves and sewing.
I think Little Women can only be read bearing in mind the confines of its time. Books for children were written with a strong didactic and moralistic tone and with a strict gender divide. This story, written for girls, follows four sisters growing up in a conventional patriarchal society their destined roles to become young ladies and make good marriages. But within these parameters this is a story of four individuals following their own paths and finding some independence albeit within the domestic sphere.
The moral tone is set quickly within the coziness of Book I ‘Little Women’. Charity, a sense of duty and self-sacrifice are the most imperative values, with a strong work ethic and family love providing the framework for the girls childhood. Right from the start Jo is the star, setting herself apart from the others by challenging the society they live in.
“I hate to think I’ve got to grow up and be Miss March, . . . It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boy’s games, and work, and manners.”
Jo is , from the beginning a rebel, but as I read on I didn’t think she was so much rebelling against being a girl as against the role of being a girl. She wants to be able to run, to not wear gloves and to be financially independent so that she “need ask no one for money”. But most of all she wants to write. And she’s allowed too.
“Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and “fall into a vortex,”
The family leave her to write, she can wipe her pen on her “scribbling suit”, she doesn’t sleep or eat, but gives “herself up to it with entire abandon”. They don’t tease her or laugh at her or belittle her efforts but understand that she is doing something important and they believe in her. It’s because they take her writing seriously that makes the scene when Amy burns Jo’s manuscript so real. Only a sister would do something so truly mean and Jo’s reaction is equally realistic:
“. . . I told you I’d make you pay for being so cross, . . .” Amy got no farther, for Jo’s hot temper mastered her, and she shook Amy till her teeth chattered in her head: crying, in a passion of grief and anger, -“you wicked, wicked girl! I never can write it again, and I’ll never forgive you as long as I live.”
It reminded me of my brother and me – something to do with Donny Osmond, a notebook and then not talking for weeks!
Mrs March is their authority figure. She is a powerful symbol of guidance and hope, always charitable and kind, teaching that a cultivated mind and moral righteousness are better than any amount of material possessions. But I’m afraid I found her preachiness stultifying, especially in Book 1. I wanted her to lighten up and laugh. Education is important to her, she let’s Jo write, so why then does she say:
“I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good; to be admired, loved and respected . . . To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a women”
Why is beauty the first thing she wants for her daughters? I wanted Alcott, as an independent women herself to be braver. But then I suppose, she had to make a living.
Book 2 ‘Good Wives’, I preferred. Meg, Jo and Amy leave home and go into the world. Jo is in New York in what I think is the most interesting part, and maybe the most comfortable because this is Louisa Alcott writing about being herself, (or so it seemed to me). Stepping away from the life that’s expected of her, but for which she has no time (unlike Amy, who we see handsomely rewarded for playing, and understanding, the part) she’s leading her own life and writing, writing, writing for all she’s worth because it’s what she loves. Jo seems right in New York and I was thrilled by Mr. Bhear – what a modern man. Not a romantic hero, but a man comfortable in his own skin.
Being married, having children, loving her house and linen cupboard, Meg has taken the conventional path. But we aren’t shown a domestic idyll. In Meg’s jam making scene she is tired and harassed, but when she asks her husband for help; instead of helping he laughs at her, belittling her and her silly worries. Instead of “his pretty wife. . . running out to meet him”, he gets a real life women. This trait of not valuing work that doesn’t carry a salary, that millions of people (mostly women) do all around the world, every day of the year, really makes me cross and I’m grateful to Alcott for highlighting this and for showing a more realistic view of marriage . Marmee cautions Meg:
“He has a temper, not like ours, – but the white, still anger that is seldom stirred, but once kindled, is hard to quench. Be careful, very careful, not to wake this anger against yourself, for peace and happiness depend on keeping his respect. Watch yourself, be the first to ask pardon . . . “
Crikey! Reading this today it seems incredible that anyone would put up with this behaviour. But in her marriage Meg has no rights, her husband has absolute power, so Mrs. March’s advice is actually very realistic. If she can learn to ‘manage’ her husband she can have some form of independence within her home.
I cheered when Amy threw a tantrum over not having lobsters for her party. A girl with spirit making a noise.
I’m interested and surprised that Alcott, who seems to have cherished independence and spirit included Beth. I understand from an autobiographical point of view that she fits in with Alcott’s own sister who died, but Beth seems to be such a Victorian trope. The model of ‘The Angel in the House’ of Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem. A passive, submissive, self-sacrificing women, she is above all things pure and literally too good for this world. Is she there, because this character was expected in books for girls at the time, in the same way that everyone has to get married? Or is Alcott highlighting the ridiculousness of this character as a type? This idealised vision of womanhood compared to Meg, Jo and Amy – our realistic heroines?
This is my third read for The Classics Club challenge.