Little Women was never one of my absolute favourite books, although I've read it a fair few times, seen the 1990s film and a West End play. It's a strange thing, but every time I read this book I seem to come to it with a different attitude, and take different things away from the reading. As a child I viewed it as similar to What Katy Did, but a bit more grown-up - possibly because I was a bit more grown-up when I first read it. I came back to it a year or two ago, intending to read the whole series, but stopped at the end of Little Women [volume one] after feeling bogged down by all the moralising. Frustrated, I found the girls too good to be true, their faults only there to be overcome and an over-keenness to be lectured by their "Marmee."
That was just about a year ago. This time around I wondered if I was reading the same book, because Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy were refreshingly real, made up not of a single fault there just to be overcome, but flesh-and-blood teenagers with understandable struggles against hot tempers, jealousy, discontent, crippling shyness among others. The girls' friendship with the boy next door, Theodore "Laurie" Laurence was refreshing for the era, a cosy, platonic companionship full of fun, games and silliness that you just don't get in Victorian literature. I noticed scenes and chapters I must have only skimmed before, because they felt quite new to me. Perhaps these were the scenes omitted from the film, of which I may have retained more memories.
That's not to say I didn't find the moralising a little heavy-handed at times. In the chapter Meg Goes to Vanity Fair, Meg is rebuked first in the text, then by Laurie and finally by Marmee, for allowing herself to be made-over by her rich friend-of-a-friend for a party, and acting the part. Looking at it one way I felt quite cross, asking "What's wrong with dressing up once in a while?" and wondering if the moral here was that one shouldn't act above one's station, an idea that appalled the twenty-first century English girl who - until very recently - had an idea that class boundaries were fairly fluid. Looking at it the other way and I know quite well what Alcott's point was. After all, I tut when watching Grease to see Sandy dressing up in her leather catsuit and smoking cigarettes just to gain the respect of someone who isn't worth it. Here, Meg is doing just the same thing (I'm just picturing her in that tight catsuit!) by pretending to be someone who she isn't, just to try to fit in. We see the same in enough high school dramas nowadays.
Similarly, I was riled in part two when Professor Bhaer - and Miss Alcott - preach about the evils of writing and reading gothic thrillers and sensational stories. (Maybe I'm just horribly degenerate.) On the other hand, Alcott satirises Jo's attempts to write the sort of sickly, moralistic Victorian fiction that makes Little Women look positively riotous, the lesson being that Jo should write for herself, write what she knows and loves, and not merely what sells - something that still holds true for writers today.
I, as well as probably most girl readers of Little Women, and certainly Alcott herself, identify best with tomboy Jo, the independant woman, the writer with the hot temper and burning ambition. As a small girl I had some sympathy with shy Beth, but nowadays she comes across not as a human being, but that device of the sicklier Victorian literature: the good girl who essentially dies of being too angelic and insipid. I have to confess I've never liked Amy very much, finding her spoilt and a bit of a snob.
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