The Guardian top 100 novels in English has led me to some strange reading experiences, but there are few novels I would have been less likely to read than this, Alcott’s semi-autobiographical tale of growing up in a strangely unreal nineteenth century America.
‘Little Women’ was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. Alcott wrote the books rapidly over several months at the request of her publisher, and follows the lives of four sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March— from childhood to womanhood. The novel is extraordinarily saccharine – the girls/women rarely err, and if they do so it is only for the mother – ‘Marmee’ – to intervene with a moralising lecture on the Christian thing to do, which immediately puts things to right – for example.
“My child, the troubles and temptations of your life are beginning, and may be many; but you can overcome and outlive them all if you learn to feel the strength and tenderness of your Heavenly Father as you do that of your earthly one. The more you love and trust Him, the nearer you will feel to Him, and the less you will depend on human power and wisdom. His love and care never tire or change, can never be taken from you, but may become the source of lifelong peace, happiness, and strength. Believe this heartily, and go to God with all your little cares, and hopes, and sins, and sorrows, as freely and confidingly as you come to your mother.”
There is a really vast amount of this improving stuff.
The first half of the novel, published as a separate book but now considered the first half of the wider work, is set during the American Civil War. The family’s father is away serving in the Union army as a chaplain, and even though he re-joins the family at the end of the first novel, he remains a vaguely defined character with barely half a dozen lines of his own across the whole novel. The absent father is of course one of the most dominant tropes in children’s stories, but this lack of definition pervades the whole novel – the setting is Concord, Massachusetts, but the town and environment is so weakly explored that it could really be anywhere. The war is distant and has no impact on the lives of the characters other than the men who slip away to fight and reappear in passing a few chapters later – their stories are not allowed to intrude. While the March family is portrayed as poor, the golden rule of Victorian literature – that no family is too poor not to have servants – still applies, and the family are also able to patronise with charitable endeavours the local dirt-poor German and Irish immigrants of the town.
As what is effectively an updated version of ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ (there are lots of references to Bunyan throughout ‘Little Women’) this novel formed the template for generations of children’s, and specifically girls stories. To give her credit, Alcott does have the guts to kill of one of her main characters, but the dying is done so gracefully and with such patience that it seems more like a blessing than a tragedy.
What possible reason could any 21st century reader have for revisiting this novel? Are there any redeeming features or points of interest? Frankly, I struggled to find any. Some critics have claimed it as a feminist tract – the March family are mostly strong independent women, but they all find fulfilment in marriage (apart from the sister that dies, of course). The gender constraints they face are accepted as a fact of life, and even the feisty Jo, the character closest to Alcott, who herself did not marry, succumbs to a proposal from a father figure in the end.
But I will just have to accept that I am not and never was the target audience for this novel, and that my inability to appreciate it should take nothing away from those who enjoy it as younger readers, and continue to return to it for its comforting familiarity.