I was in 9th grade, at the time part of the middle school where I grew up. Our English teacher assigned our all-boy class two papers about authors – one English and one American. We were required to read one work by each author for our papers. She had a list of 35 English writers and 35 Americans, one for each person in our class. Our choices, however, were determined alphabetically, which meant whoever was last would get the two no one else wanted. Which meant me.
No one wanted to read a play by William Shakespeare, which meant he would be my English author. And the last American author on the list (remember this was an all-boys class) was Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888).
When my name was called, general laughter erupted. The teacher, with her soft Alabama accent in a roomful of New Orleans boys, was irate. She loved Alcott, she said, and she loved Little Women. And if any of us ever wanted to understand girls, we should read the Alcott novel. I knew what I had better read for my report.
Louisa May Alcott originally published Little Women as two books, Part 1 in 1868 and Part 2 in 1869. The story is based on the lives of Alcott’s sisters, family, and friends. A first read of Part 1 by her publisher found it boring, until he had his two daughters read it. Then he had more girls in the target audience read it. The 2,000-copy first edition sold out almost immediately.
The book has been as popular in Britain as it has in the United States, even though the setting is Civil War Massachusetts (Part 1) and Massachusetts and Europe for Part 2. G.K. Chesterton, when he read it, said it had anticipated the Realism School in literature by about 30 years.
To read it today, you also realize how it anticipated the television mini-series. It’s episodic chapters are almost ideally suited for the small screen (see the 2017 mini-series version developed by Heidi Thomas, she of Call the Midwife). The well-loved work has been adapted countless times for stage, movies, and television. It’s even been adapted as a musical and for anime.
And Little Women is well-loved with good reason. It captures of the lives of the four March sisters living between childhood and adulthood (thus the title, “little women”). The family is living through the Civil War period, with their father serving as a chaplain with the Union army. Each chapter centers on a particular sister – Meg the wise one, Jo the headstrong one with a burning passion to write, Amy the pretty and artistic one, and Beth, the youngest, most frail, and kindest of the girls. In their father’s absence, their mother Marmee presides over the family.
For all four girls, and the next-door neighbor Theodore (“Laurie”), the story is something of a coming-of-age novel. While the story is set during the Civil War, the war itself rarely intrudes, until in Part 1 Mr. March is taken ill with pneumonia and Mrs. March travels to Washington, D.C. to care for him. Part 2 occurs after the war is over.
It’s a well-written, engaging story. As you read, you come to like these sisters, and you keep reading o find out what will happen to them and their mother. I have to admit, having seen the 1994 movie version, I can only identify Susan Sarandon as Mrs. March, although Emily Watson did a fine job in the 2017 BBC television series. Those two adaptations stick very closely to the original novels.
I read the work thinking there would be more about the Civil War than I had remembered from my first reading back in high school. There’s not. The war is a distant and unrelated event in the story. Even Mrs. March rushing to her husband’s bedside is never detailed.
But it’s still a good story. Alcott wrote well, with passion and with humor. Some of the predicaments that Jo and Amy in particular get into are close to hilarious.
For my ninth-grade papers, I read Julius Caesar and Little Women. My lack of choice ended up standing me in good stead with the teacher, who gave the class a Southern evil eye, daring anyone to laugh, when I read my paper (as we were required to do). I saw a few grins, which quickly disappeared when she turned her attention upon the miscreant. No one laughed.
Top illustration: A drawing of the March house.