I must give dues to my brother for this title – which cries out to be a spoof.
For 20 years, I considered that Louisa May Alcott’s 1860s classic of a New England family was very worthy of one: saccharine self giving, bucolic innocuity, inoffensive innocence, all heading towards the only telos for these female penned classics: early marriage – or death.
Like so many of the repeatedly adapted literature – the latest screen offering is no 3 in 25 years, and the second in only 2 – the title could so easily be confused: My Younger Sister, Wives and Daughters, and tellingly, the sequel of this saga – Good Wives. And yes, this sort of story appeals to the (my little) pony loving girl who wants to grow up to find a good loving neighbour to marry and to produce foals of her own.
Fed up of the pure-so-as-not-to-offend classics, I was perturbed when this turned up on a book group reading list 2 years ago. I cringed often. The opening dialogue is what modern writing schools deride as exposition – giving information via clunky dialogue. I fished out the 1994 film, which I mercifully found second hand for only 50p, and expected to return it after a single viewing.
But I discovered from that book group a different Little Women. Having just seen the new Greta Gerwig film, I have further sought out the alternative, if not real readings of LM Alcott.
When I first read the book, before seeing any adaptations, I saw much of Jo in myself and hoped for a Teddy. In realising that Jo was not destined for this lovely friend, but an older foreigner (I couldn’t imagine being or loving a 40 year old at half that age), I stormed across my university corridor to throw the book at my friend. Gabriel Byrne in the soon following film didn’t assuage that feeling. What was Louisa up to? She’d set up the romance we all wanted and then gave this man to the snub nosed vain younger sister. It was like comparable Anne of Green Gables not getting Gilbert. The Canadian TV with Megan Follows dangled an older man at her whilst away – who’s not in the novels – but she swiftly turns him down and back on course to her childhood friend. But not Jo.
There’s much in common in these east side of North America tales: female writers with the same initials living in a rural close community; semi autobiographical vignettes creating a long running series; an imaginative impassioned heroine striving to be good, and a childhood male friend who’s always loved her, but needs to move away and dabble in other romance to come back to marry her.
And – a scary dose of scarlet fever, replete with brow mopping, and a memorable tragic death.
For me, there really is one Little Woman – the other three sisters are backdrop to Jo, foils and catalysts to her character.
The writing advice both Anne and Jo are given by their male friends is to drop the fanciful racy stuff they’re churning out, and write what they know…local tales about and for local people. Something I took on board, but I see more kindred now in the pirate adventures of sinners who may or may not repent…
I discovered in 2017 that Little Women’s writing advice is the opposite of what LM Alcott wanted. She preferred her pirate stories to the best known tales (there are many others) which she called ‘moral pap’ – exactly what I had come to see them as. Louisa (May we be on first name terms) grew up in a community which practised Transcendentalism, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Louisa’s father was visionary but poor. Amos Bronson Alcott persuaded his publisher to take his work if his daughter gave him the ‘moral pap’ for girls she had been persuaded to turn out (instead of her colourful preferred genre). So Little Women was born out of family loyalty and financial need. Louisa’s racier work was published under a pseudonym. (Amen sister!)
Louisa didn’t marry and didn’t want Jo to, but her publisher and her public demanded it for all of the girls – save Beth, who died too soon. On lesbian website After Ellen, a 2007 piece by Browne points out that a later character in the story, Nan, remains single to pursue a career. This same article states that Little Women took 43rd place in a LGBT book list, surprising the author, and me… but then, it made sense…
Jo March is boyish and does not behave with the decorum expected of a proper young woman – much to her older sister’s chagrin. Jo often says she’d like to be a boy, and dresses as one in the Pickwick Society meetings and charades. It might be that in her era, women had such little rein that she may have simply perceived that being male gave her more options. (Her neighbour shows us that rich men also had reins.) Jo is possessive over her sisters, but marriage can feel a kind of loss to a long running closeknit set up. But then there is the quote from Louisa about having loved many women and no men, and one wonders if this isn’t so much a modern queer eye but actually what was intended. I note that unlike Anne Shirley, Jo March is not allowed a female bosom pal. The companion Jo does have is a brotherly one. They play silly juvenile games – unfitting for these old before their time Little Women. Louisa didn’t want the relationship with Teddy to be a prelude to marriage and felt that Jo would turn Laurie down. It took me two decades to agree.
Greta Gerwig, who made Ladybird and is partner of Noah ‘Squid and the Whale’ Baumbach, has brought the alternative reading to the fore. Laurie is played by an actor known for a same sex relationship role (Timothee Chalamet from Call Me By Your Name). Saoirse Ronan’s Jo seems distinctly tomboyish and her haircut, picked up in Timmy Timato’s parody, is a choppy ‘dykey’ style – cf the very different crop on Winona Ryder.
I’m uncomfortable with the implication that being non gender standard or like the opposite sex is synonymous with being gay or trans. That’s something I write against in my own novels. Neither Jo nor Laurie have same sex potential companions to demonstrate or deny this thesis.
This version also brings out the writing dilemma for Ms March, reflecting Ms Alcott’s. She’s made to give an unsatisfactory ending regarding the German professor, as well as standing up to publishers wanting to pay her pittance and take the copyright. This made me cheer in the cinema, although I also know that paid writing and acclaim come far too soon to writers in fiction.
It focusses less on the other aspects of March/Alcott life, which the Gillian Anderson film did pick up: Jo discusses Transcendentalism with Prof Bhaer, which he points out is an old German philosophy; Meg March is ribbed for not wearing silk because her family deride the child labour used to make it; and Susan Sarandon opines about women’s roles in hers as Marmee. I think there’s even a critique of the medical world: rich patriarch neighbour turns up announced with his personal physician for Beth, but the doctor can’t do anything both his methods put Beth more at risk.
Marmee March is sent for, and not only a mother and sisters’ love and care aid Beth, but she knows to draw the fever out by the feet with natural remedies.
Aunt March represents the world that is being critiqued and broken free from. Money, decorum, right by privilege… No wonder this aunt chooses vain, money loving Amy to be her globetrotting companion over Jo. Aunt’s death isn’t hugely mourned – she’s just got a house to make into a school to begin a new kind of education – like LM Alcott’s father did. No film really dramatised the real reason that Amy was punished and removed from the local school. The book says that the girls were governed by love alone, which is extraordinary for the day. Yet love can be a manipulative source – pleasing Marmee or Father to do good and strive towards perfection is as much a bit in the mouth as fear and punishment.
Note what little role Father plays… he’s absent even when he’s present again. This is a Women’s family, with a female head – who gets her slippers prewarmed – and a matriarch ruler Aunt, whereas next door, it’s the Laurences who are the male refraction of that: a repressive, rich household with a kind heart against a poorer, freer, less conventional clan.
Father is given a bigger role in the BBC/Masterpiece version of 2017/18 – the writer working for 2 decades on his book, which I sympathise with, but his daughter gets her validation through quick publication and fees, even when it’s not her best work or what her heart’s in. Research has made me wonder if I don’t have more sympathy for Amos Alcott than his daughter. Even the author of the website about him criticises Amos Bronson Alcott, but these detractors are applying their own conventional materialistic standards to a man who flouted the glory and profit ridden institutions who line their pockets. I found him intriguing and extraordinary, and perhaps it is unfair that his daughter – who conformed by churning out the stories her public but not she wanted, putting earnings first – is better known than her trailblazing philosopher and educational pioneer father. Whatever Louisa felt about him – she satirised his Fruitlands farm experiment – or the likes of Harriet Reisin who made a book and film about the family, Mrs Abigail Alcott stood by her husband and the purity of his principles. And for that, I admire both parents.
I’ve written before of Kate Winslet’s roles being often about the corset coming off, or in the case of Marianne Dashwood, putting it on. I think that many stories, women’s period especially (yes I know what I’ve just written) are about that dichotomy. Which is Little Women?
Jo and Laurie are both beasts not living like Aunt March’s dog – good, squeaky, housetrained creatures all for show and taking orders. Marmee is the tamed Jo, in whom Jo’s spirit still resides.
Beth comes pre-tamed, and thus can leave the world early, having attained the goodness that her sisters need to continue to work on for some years yet. The ideal of Transcendentalism, selfless, ungrudging Beth accepts illness and death without fear or regret. Meg is proper, and quickly accepts the life that most women then – and til recently – wish for. Although not rich, she becomes wife and mother whilst young, leading the others towards what could feel like compromise. Meg is to Jo what Diana is to Anne Shirley – yoking herself to roly poly Fred Wright/John Brooke in dull domesticity, not a marriage we’re meant to get excited over. They both stay local whilst our real heroines start travelling.
I’m still struggling with these books, for its queer queer portrayal as much as its ideals, which includes that swift publication and earning are preferred over keeping to one’s principles. And I’m still perturbed that Little Women with its central thesis of abnegation remains so popular. Maybe I’ll be assembling some plastic ponies in front of a video camera after all.