Little Women, mostly

Journal: 034

Book Cover

You guys all grew up reading Little Women I’m sure. Milly did, and Gee says that she and Psyche did, though I don’t remember giving it to them, but I didn’t. No sisters, no copy in the house. So I read/listened to it for the first time just a week or so ago and thought the first sentence of my review was going to be “I couldn’t find a way into reviewing this book which you all know by heart – no trucks!” BUT. In Part II, Chapter 23* a distressed Jo steps out into traffic without looking, into the path of a … truck. I pictured a costermonger’s barrow

Image result for costermonger barrow

though Websters suggests any “strong horse-drawn or automotive vehicle for hauling” so I’m not sure what Alcott intended.

*I wrote ‘2/23 truck’ on the back of my hand because that is my notebook when I am driving, but Ch 23 is actually in Part I, and now I can’t find the quote.

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) wrote Little Women in two parts, which came out in 1868 and 1869. It is generally regarded as fictionalised autobiography and as a novel for children. I’m sure most of you read it at around 12 or 13 but it seems to me to be directed more at young women getting ready for adulthood and marriage.

At the beginning of the novel Mr March, father of the little women of the title, is away at the American Civil War, as a chaplain (on the Union side) so the year is around 1862. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter came out in 1850, Elizabeth Gaskell’s first, Mary Barton, was published in 1848, all of Jane Austen’s had been out for 30 or 40 years, but the two works which Alcott has Jo reading are The Vicar of Wakefield (secretly, for amusement, when she’s meant to be reading sermons to her wealthy, aged aunt) and Fanny Burney’s Evelina, both dating from the previous century. I wish just one author would write, “I rushed down to the bookshop for the latest xxx”, Dickens maybe, who was then at the height of his popularity. Of course the work which is central to Little Women is the older again Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan (1678), another “first novel written in English” (here).

There is of course nothing I can tell you about the book itself. I found it a bit preachy but am used to that strain of Christian duty in books of that time; and I probably preferred Anne of Green Gables (1908, I hadn’t remembered it was so ‘recent’). I would though like to say a little about ‘the Independent Woman’. Jo speaks at length about the advantages of being unmarried and of course she famously refuses to marry the boy next door. Alcott herself remained unmarried, supporting herself as a governess and writer (her family’s connections with Thoreau, Emerson, the Underground Railroad are fascinating (wiki) and I would like to read more).

“An old maid, that’s what I’m to be. A literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse, a family of stories for children, and twenty years hence a morsel of fame, perhaps, when, like poor Johnson, I’m old and can’t enjoy it, solitary, and can’t share it, independent, and don’t need it. Well, I needn’t be a sour saint nor a selfish sinner, and, I dare say, old maids are very comfortable when they get used to it, but…” and there Jo sighed, as if the prospect was not inviting.

Americans, it seems to me, are afraid of independent women and even strong characters like Marge Simpson and Roseanne eventually bow down to their husbands, so I was disappointed but not surprised when Alcott not only married Jo off to the older Bhaer but made Bhaer, not Jo, the principal of Jo’s school.

At nine they stopped work and sung as usual

Project Gutenberg has a generously illustrated version (here). The illustration above is “At nine they stopped work and sung as usual”, by Frank T Merrill (here).

That’s a scrappy review, I know, but I wanted to say something about it. Now I am listening to Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot which is a fiction about an amateur Flaubert biographer – really just an excuse for talking about Flaubert, and about what we can say about writers – which I am finding both interesting and enjoyable, and about which I might write a similarly scrappy review. If I get time. And there’s the rub. I’m stuck in Melbourne. Again. After only one day home in Perth. Here, mum is in hospital after a hip replacement (she’s quite well thank you, though tired). B3 is down to see after her and picks me up from the truckstop in Dandenong each day when it’s clear there’ll be no work, and drives me up to mum’s hospital (Knox).

Meanwhile, back in Perth it’s all happening. Kim (Reading Matters) has just come from London to live and work; Nathan Hobby has handed in his PhD thesis* and is now facing the world as “full-time parent, part-time writer, part-time librarian”; and Jess White is visiting us for the launch of Hearing Maud. Hopefully I will shortly catch up with them all.

see also: Melanie/GTL’s recent post on US women’s comedy (here)

Recent audiobooks 

Katharina Hagena (F, Ger), The Taste of Apple Seeds (2013)
JD Robb (F, USA), Brotherhood in Death (2016)
JD Robb (F, USA), Apprentice in Death (2016)
Truman Capote (M, USA), The Grass Harp (1945)
Frank Herbert & Bill Ransom (M, USA), The Ascension Factor (2012)
Ann Barker (F, Eng), Ruined (2009)
Ben Bova (M, USA), Moonrise (1996)
Louisa M Alcott (F, USA), Little Women (1868)
Lisa Jackson (F, USA), Innocent by Association (1986) DNF – I stopped reading this book, and would advise you to never read this author, when the heroine was kidnapped and fell in love with her abductor. Why women authors advocate violence as a way of winning women is beyond me (in my own defence, I was expecting a crime thriller not a modern bodice ripper).

Currently reading

Eleanor Dark, Waterway


*Nathan Hobby: 100 word version of my thesis, sounding more scholarly than it is in reality: ‘Astir With Great Things’ is a biography of the early life to 1919 of Katharine Susannah Prichard (1883-1969), an Australian writer and political activist. Critically engaging with Prichard’s autobiography, Child of the Hurricane, the thesis builds a fuller account of her early life with archival material. The thesis narrates Prichard’s literary development and the writing of The Pioneers and Black Opal. Exploring Prichard’s political radicalisation against the backdrop of World War One, the thesis also considers the intertwining of Prichard’s personal life with writing and politics, including the effects of her father’s suicide and her brother’s death in the war.

20 thoughts on “Little Women, mostly

  1. I recall reading Little Women and loving it, but I’m not sure how old I was. I suspect it may have been tail end of primary school. My dad used to take us to the local library every Saturday morning (in non-netball season) and I know that by the time I was 13 I had moved into the adult section cos I’d pretty much read everything in the kids section. I don’t actually remember any detail of the story and I’m not inclined to go back for a re-read. I’m intrigued why you chose to read it?

    Hope your mum is okay… it’s amazing what they can do with hips these days… but the hardest part is coming home and not doing housework/bending over etc. My MIL was a bugger for ignoring doctor’s orders!

    Have finally moved into a flat… new furniture arriving in dribs and drabs… and hopefully I’ll have an internet connection sorted in the next few days although it’s practically bankrupted me to connect to the NBN!!! Then the job hunt will go into full swing!

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    • Mum’s fine thanks, might even be enjoying the attention given that all four of her sons have been in Melbourne over the past week. But she’s finding the physio a trial.

      I read Little Women because a) I prefer old books to new books; and b) I am using as much of my audiobook reading time as possible to catch up on classics. I was surprised when my daughter said she’d grown up with it because I don’t remember us having a copy – perhaps it never left the girls’ room.

      You might fine the NBN is overrated – it was Turnbull’s job as Communications Minister to make it as ineffective as possible, otherwise Labor might get credit for good policy – in my flat, which has fibre to the wall, I don’t see any difference between the landline and internet via my (G4) phone.

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      • I’m expecting to be disappointed with the internet here. In London it is super fast everywhere. Sadly, 4G in this flat is a bit poor, but elsewhere, such as the coffee shop downstairs, it’s pretty good. Toyed with not bothering but I’ve got a couple of ongoing work contracts for UK companies so need to be able to access the internet for research and also to upload content 🙄

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  2. O how I would like to be in Perth for that meetup with you, Kim and Nathan!
    Little Women… I read it as a child and still have my copy but I suspect that if I read it now I’d hurl it across the room. My recollection is that it’s soppy. I get depressed when I see parents who ‘remember that they loved it’ buying these dreary old classics for their children. Parents who wouldn’t dream of reading a C19th classic themselves because they ‘can’t relate to it” inflict them on their children, it’s bizarre.
    But of course, LW belongs in its place and time. Children’s books were moving out of their religious phase with sanctimonious stories about little boys and girls helping the poor, the maimed and the (Not Very) socially outcast. (Sad widows, especially of dead soldiers serving king and country, were ok, but scarlet women, of course, were not, even if their lovers were kings and dukes). So for its time, it was mildly adventurous…

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  3. I’m afraid I’ve made sure my kids and grandkids have all the classics. Gee would tell me off if I tried to skip read the Water Babies, she wanted every word.

    There is a lot of overt Christianity in LW, Beth going straight to heaven and so on, but I wasn’t tempted to chuck it. Not like the romance at the end of the list.

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  4. I read LW as a child and probably a reread or two in my teens. I loved Jo – for holding her ground and making choices and knowing her mind – these things still strike a chord with ‘little women’.

    I read Geraldine Brookes’s novel, March, which is about the absent father in Little Women. I found it interesting, however, not sure what I would have thought if I’d read it back-to-back with LW.

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    • I’m glad young woman can still be inspired by Jo. That is my argument about the Independent Woman in Australian Lit.- that Australian girls and women could be inspired by a whole body of writing that is still largely suppressed or misrepresented.

      I’m not a fan of Geraldine Brooks, I think she rewrites history (and I think she should be regarded as an American rather than an Australian author).

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  5. I’m another who read it as a child. I so wanted to be a tomboy like Joe. I then had to read it a few years ago for a university lit module on children’s fiction and could cheerfully have thrown it into the rubbish bin more than once. So didactic……
    But I’ll give Alcott credit for knowing how to structure a novel to appeal to different types of readers. Having four sisters with different interests and personalities made it easy for a reader to latch on to the one they liked best. It was interesting how Alcott would switch the focus between each girl a chapter at a time so no reader would get bored….

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    • I take it you agree that LW is children’s Lit rather than YA. At 10-12 I would probably have preferred to read about children my own age, eg William Brown, Tom Brown, Seven Little Australians.

      There is no doubt C19th children’s lit, and plenty of adult lit, was directed at moral instruction. As a confirmed non-believer I tend to regard that as background noise and disregard it.

      I noticed, particularly when I accessed the Gutenberg edition to write my post, how chapters were structured each around one girl/woman. It hadn’t occurred to me that that would allow readers to identify with their favourites. I thought everyone wanted to be Jo.

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  6. As the eldest of four girls myself, this book was a huge hit with me during my childhood. I probably read it for the first at about age 10 and reread it so many times during my tweens and teens that I’ve long since lost count! I always wanted to be Jo, but realistically was probably more like her insecure, romantic older sister, Meg growing up. I didn’t channel my inner Jo until my twenties!

    As a completely non-religious person, I curiously never minded the overt religious message, simply taking the message about being kind instead. I always finished the book determined to be a kinder person. For me the love and warmth and belonging of the March family was something I craved and couldn’t get enough when I was young.

    There’s a fascinated (though rather lengthy) bio about LM and her father Bronson that won a pulitzer prize a few years back, Eden’s Outcasts – http://bronasbooks.blogspot.com/2019/01/edens-outcasts-by-john-matteson.html

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    • See that’s what I want to know, why do Australian girls channel their inner Jo but not their inner Sybylla? I’m with you, in that it is the kindness and acting for the general good that comes across, rather than the religion (and I think that may have been true too of LMA’s father, from your review). Perhaps that’s the answer to my first question – girls in particular are inspired to kindness rather than to the rebellious independence advocated by Miles Franklin.

      I have read a little Thoreau, no Emerson, but would still like to know more about this period. The Alcotts sound like hippies.

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  7. Ah! I see now why you mentioned women deferring to their husbands in my review of We Killed (the book of female comics). It’s true, I’m always disappointed by how many American sitcoms, both human and animated, have an idiot father leading his family and a strong wife who always follows her man. You see it in The Simpsons, Family Guy, Home Improvement, The King of Queens, etc.

    I’ve never read Little Women, but there is a famous film version with Winona Ryder that practically everyone has seen. I’ve read articles about how we should stop thinking of it as a girl’s book and teach it in the classroom to children (most teachers won’t due to the concern that it won’t appeal to boys — you know, and all those teen-age boys headed off to WWII stories really made me think about my situation in a classroom in 1999.

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    • I’m glad (sort of) you confirm my initial impressions of women’s attitude to marriage in US comedy. I’ve put a link to your post at the end of mine. I don’t know about teaching Little Women, I don’t think the bottom half of a typical year 7 class could handle it, but I do believe strongly that children must be encouraged to read (and watch film) CRITICALLY and that books like Little Women should be made available to those kids who are ready to go to that level. What we are to do with children whose parents have no regard for reading I do not know. As for boys I think teachers probably make the situation worse by giving boys action fiction in the hope that they will read something/anything rather than leading them into reading character-based fiction.

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      • When I look at books like Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden, I cannot fathom any child I know being able to read those books at the recommended ages (I think Anne is recommended for around age 9??).

        I also think that persistent attention to “stories” vs. “girls’ stories” makes stories that focus on girls seem like something “other,” which is a big problem. I read an article recently about this book a woman wrote that marketing doesn’t know how to categorize. They want to call it “women’s fiction” but it’s also really “smart.” I mean, come on, even the wording people use in the conversation is offensive.

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      • That’s been a problem in Australian Lit. forever, the distinction between “real” literature and women’s literature, to the extent that historically at least women were written out of the canon – ie books taught by men – altogether. As though books about our most important personal relationships are less worthy than books about … what? Men failing at their various adventures, which covers most (old) men’s lit in Oz.

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  8. This is fascinating, I don’t think I’ve come across anyone else who’s read this as an adult without it being a re-read. I devoured it in my tweens, I would imagine – by 12 I’d “done” the whole of the children’s and the one case of teens’ books in our local library and was on the adult books. I remember liking the religious bits because they were woven around Pilgrim’s Progress but also that it’s a bit twee in places. I loved Jo and I’ve got nice mid-century copies of them all, presumably passed down to me.

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    • Audiobooks have been good to me and I’ve been able to catch up with quite a few YA classics – Little Woman, Anne of Green Gables, Tolkien, Alice through the Looking Glass – they’re all well written and worth reading at any age.

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    • As you can see I think American women’s deference to their husbands is overdone. But as for your ‘hmm’, I’m not sure how tolerant Bhaer would have been of his wife’s working hand in glove with her ex boyfriend.

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