2018 marks the 150th anniversary of one of my favourite books. Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, was first published in 1868 and has never been out of print. Charting the lives and loves of four sisters from their teenage years to motherhood, the story starts one Christmas Eve. While it might not be everyone’s cup of tea – or coffee, as seems to be the preferred beverage of Civil War era Massachusetts – December in the sesquicentennial year of Alcott’s most famous work seems the perfect time to reflect on why the story of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy has meant so much to me.
I believe that what first enamoured me to Little Women was the language and the character development, both of which (despite my reputation as a bookworm) were quite different to anything I had previously encountered. I borrowed a well-thumbed paperback copy from a friend when I was about nine or ten, and remember telling my Dad that I liked it better than Enid Blyton books because it was ‘more descriptive’. In the first chapter, Alcott introduces the sisters through several pages of dialogue and immediately conveys a sense of their personalities and relationships with each other, before she steps back from the conversation to present readers with ‘…a little sketch of the four sisters, who sat knitting away in the twilight…’.
This familial cosiness established at the start of Little Women is replicated numerous times, including at the end of the book as Meg becomes engaged and another Christmas celebration begins. Good Wives, the second part (only published separately under this title in the UK), was in the school library and as I naturally wanted to know ‘what happened next’, it wasn’t long before I had read this too. When I later won some book vouchers in a writing competition, my first purchase was the complete Penguin Classics set of the March family saga: Little Women, Good Wives, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. Those four books still have a firm place on one of my bookshelves, despite their now hanging covers and faded spines.
While Little Women is largely domestically orientated, as opposed to the ‘adventures’ of Blyton’s Famous Five series, I had evidently already outgrown the latter: there are only so many holidays in the year and before I’d reached high school age myself I was confused as to how Julian, Dick, George and Anne (oh, and Timmy the dog) didn’t seem to age in spite of the twenty-one books they featured in. The maths just didn’t make sense. Meeting Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy in Little Women and seeing each of them grow across the year the first book spans was probably far more meaningful to my pre-teen self than another unlikely escapade with perpetually glorious weather and unending ginger beer. The lives of the March sisters seemed far more real and their fates of greater importance, even though they were situated in a more historically distant time.
Alcott loosely based Little Women on her own family and each sister has what I see as their own chapter early in the book that allows the reader to become better acquainted with their individual characteristics. There are elements of lessons learned – Meg and Amy come to appreciate that money isn’t essential to happiness; Beth conquers some of her shyness; Jo her anger – yet the story never feels contrived. Although some of the narrative could appear very rooted in gender stereotypes to a 21st century reader (poor Jo thinks she’s an old maid at the age of 25, for example), the sisters are encouraged to be independent and the joys and sorrows of the story are felt as deeply by the male characters as by the women. The fact that there are tangible heartaches as well as happily ever afters is undoubtedly another reason why the story of the March family has continued to resonate so strongly.
Twenty years after I first read Little Women and Good Wives, I still revisit the March sisters at least once a year – and not just to enjoy the books. For our wedding in 2017 I took some lines from the scene where Laurie and Amy confess their love to each other as one of several quotes that we stood in book hedgehogs on the tables. Yesterday, as I decorated our Christmas tree, the recent BBC adaptation seemed the perfect drama to have on the telly in the background (though overall I prefer the 1994 film starring Winona Ryder). Ultimately, whether told on page or screen, Little Women is a story about family, love and loss, and pursuing what makes us happy – themes as relevant today as they were 150 years ago.