Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith
For a book the author dismissed as “moral pap for the young”, Little Women has had an enduring hold. A slew of writers (Margaret Atwood, Simone de Beauvoir, J.K. Rowling, Susan Sontag, Jhumpa Lahiri, among them) claim this book as inspirational to their careers. The book is over 150 years old – it continues to attract new adherents.
In this one brilliant novel, Louisa May Alcott gave full rein to the contradictions that defined her. Born into a talented literate family, her father was a visionary transcendentalist philosopher (Emerson and Thoreau were family friends), an idealist whose “experiments” rarely put adequate food on the table. Her mother was “ballast to his balloon”, the pragmatic matriarch who sustained her daughters’ earthly needs. The father co-founded Fruitlands, a doomed utopian commune about which Louisa later wrote Transcendental Wild Oats, a satirical and very funny commentary – the diet was vegan, the shoes canvas, the showers cold, and the men urgently engaged in philosophical discussion in advance of any storm, leaving the mother and children to hastily harvest the meager crops (no root vegetables because they reached down rather than up towards the heavens). Louisa grew up in genteel destitution and was determined to avoid this fate as an adult. She wrote Little Women, a family story for girls, reluctantly, for money, and she channeled all of her own rebelliousness into Jo, her autobiographical double.
Little Women is a family story in which not much happens, except for the transformation of four girls into young women. Meg, Jo, Amy, Beth – each has a distinctive persona and each is given time and a voice – grow up under the wing of Marmee, their wise and loving mother – the moral compass. Jo is the heroine, but the book’s richness is due to the quartet. Jo, the tempestuous willful one, chafes against the constraints imposed upon her sex and her writing aspirations, yet she is sustained by the cocoon of family with all the moralistic goodness it borrows from its Concord surrounds. She can rebel, as Louisa herself did, but she is never far from the sisters and parents who nurture her. Cozy domesticity around the hearth and a turbulent writing life in the garret – those are the opposing poles.
What Louisa preferred to write was in stark contrast to her famous novel. Under a pseudonym, she wrote gothic pulp fiction – lurid melodramatic tales featuring strong willed heroines, deceitful, intent on exacting revenge, with titles like Pauline’s Passion and Punishment. They featured sex, spies, and hashish, a far cry from the family tranquility of her books about the March family. She never made public her dual writing career lest it scare off her followers. Little Women was an immediate success and the royalties assured her (and her family) a comfortable living. Yet she disdained her readers and delighted in sabotaging their conventional expectations.
Louisa was not without her share of sentimentality. One of her three sisters died at the age of 22. She had Beth, the fictional sister, follow suit. Beth, the impossibly kind, shy, selfless girl who Jo loves deeply. Her death would wring tears from a stone.