Some Questions about Little Women


Like many people in the UK, my favouite thing on TV this Christmas was a new adaptation of Louisa M Alcott’s, Little Women – it was beautifully done.

After it finished, I nearly fell off my chair laughing at this tweet from friend and favourite author Hilary McKay:

Hilary McKay‏ @hilary_mckay 28 Dec 2017

#LittleWomen I think someone should write volume 5 (Wising Up At Last) when Jo looks at Laurie, screams I WAS INSANE and runs off with him to Italy.


(She also called for Mr March to be sectioned, yes still laughing.)


1) So my first question is: WHY HAS NO PUBLISHER COMMISSIONED HILARY MCKAY TO WRITE THIS? It would be the best book ever. Come on, someone, make it happen. If you’d seen the reaction on Twitter you would see it would be a sure-fire bestseller…

Little Women


2) My second question is this: what is the book that Marmee gives to each of the girls on Christmas Day? For the 40+ years since I first read the book I have gone back and forth between Pilgrims Progress and The New Testament. What does everyone else think? I have read and re-read the passage, and I still can’t tell.

The storyline seemed to suggest PP, but as I grew older I thought ‘well hardly…’ because surely so obscure, and four copies to hand all with different colours? It seemed so unlikely, and you couldn’t imagine it happening in other books of the era. But if you research this, you find out that Pilgrim’s Progress was a massive all-time bestseller in the USA at the time, much more so than it was in Victorian Britain. I read this fascinating excerpt from an article on the book, pointing out just how universal the book was in young women’s (particularly) lives:
it remained a part of the popular American imagination and, as such, became a book frequently read by American girls and the girls they read about in their fiction. Almost every fictional girl read it, from Alice Humphreys in The Wide Wide World, to Elsie Dinsmore, to Rebecca Rowen Randall of Sunnybrook Farm. The March sisters were not alone in their fervor for Christian's journey.
The book as originally published has an epigraph which is adapted by Alcott from Pilgrim's Progress (it is not found in every edition of the book):

Go then, my little Book, and show to all
That entertain and bid thee welcome shall,
What thou dost keep close shut up in thy breast;
And wish what thou dost show them may be blest
To them for good, may make them choose to be
Pilgrims better, by far, than thee or me.
Tell them of Mercy; she is one
Who early hath her pilgrimage begun.
Yea, let young damsels learn of her to prize
The world which is to come, and so be wise;
For little tripping maids may follow God
Along the ways which saintly feet have trod.

So… what do other readers think? And what did they assume when they first read it?


3) I have to whisper this one. Does Jo get more annoying as we grow older? Was she always annoying? I think she gets a free pass because of the terrible incident where Amy destroys her book. But then… she is rude and silly and clumsy. She can’t be bothered to be polite and pleasant, and therefore she misses out on a trip to Europe – but who can blame Aunt Carrol for preferring the company of Amy, who knows how to behave, and isn’t some overgrown childish tomboy? Jo never wants anything to change – though presumably that applies only to squelching on the lives of her sisters: if she had gone to Europe would that not have been change of the kind she resisted?

No wonder she has no friends at all – Laurie was her only friend, and OF COURSE we all wanted her to marry him, but honestly, he had a narrow escape. Jo in the later books is completely dreary, pompous and priggish, and her views on child-raising are hair-raising.

When her husband suggests that “needlework is not a fashionable accomplishment [for girls], my dear.” Jo replies:
“Sorry for it. My girls shall learn all I can teach them about it, even if they give up the Latin, Algebra, and half-a-dozen ologies it is considered necessary for girls to muddle their poor brains over now-a-days.”
Jo, Jo, how could you have become that person?

4) I was interested that there were many mentions throughout the four books of cricket – was it played in the USA in the 19th century? The first conversation Jo ever has with Lawrie centres on cricket...

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Samantha Ellis, in her marvellous book How to Be a Heroine has some good sour analysis of Little Women – you can read more of her views on the books in this excellent Guardian article.

There have been previous posts on Little Women, on Eight Cousins, which is also by Alcott, and on Hilary McKay books.

The picture of the girls is from my inherited 90-year old copy of the book, and shows the girl having their Pilgrims’ Progress meeting, spied on by Laurie.
Each wore a large, flapping hat, a brown linen pouch slung over one shoulder, and carried a long staff. Meg had a cushion, Jo a book, Beth a basket, and Amy a portfolio... 
“Mother likes to have us out-of-doors as much as possible, so we bring our work here and have nice times. For the fun of it we bring our things in these bags, wear the old hats, use poles to climb the hill, and play pilgrims, as we used to do years ago. We call this hill the Delectable Mountain, for we can look far away and see the country where we hope to live some time.”
























Comments

  1. That illustration is from the 30s. Victorian girls would not have had bare arms in the day time! The copy I read had circa 1880 fashions in the illustrations. Is it Meg who gets the makeover? Her friends curl her fringe and Laurie says she looks silly. (Quick check - books written in the 1860s.) Must read again!

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    1. Even when I was a young girl, reading my aunt's ancient copy, I could see that that picture wasn't right - but I always liked it. Jo burns Meg's hair, and then on a separate occasion Meg's friends doll her up, like a... doll. And yes, we DON'T approve. I really enjoyed reading the first book again, even though it has a very severe moral tone, and is very priggish...

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  2. I love these questions, Moira! I've always thought it was Pilgrim's Progress, myself, but I could be very wrong about that. In any case, there are those questions that keep coming up over time. At one point, for instance, we learn that Amy calls Laurie, 'my lord.' Really??

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    1. Oh that's a great takeaway Margot, I hadn't noticed that. Full of interest! The funny thing is I always remembered the book, and Alcott, as being very feminist - but her strong opinions wouldn't necessarily go down well with today's women.

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  3. I always found the book too saccharine, read all of the other Alcott books just because there were so few books aimed at my age group growing up. I think Laurie had a lucky escape too.

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    1. You're right, there just wasn't so much around was there? I did like the first one, but found diminishing returns with the rest of the series, and re-reading confirmed me in that view.

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  4. Surely it must be the New Testament? It says it's "the beautiful old story of the best life ever lived" and that would not fit with PP - both because the main character never actually lived - he's fictional - and also because he makes all sorts of mistakes, which is the point, since he is a version of the Medieval character "Everyman" and stands in for all of us.

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    1. I take your point, but would someone refer to the NT as an 'old story'? and Christian succeeds in the end, making it a good life. I do go back and forth on this one... And the descriptions I read of the importance and universality of PP in that era made surprising reading...

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  5. I always thought it was Pilgrim's Progress, just because there are so many references to it throughout the book (even the chapter titles). And I have just spent some time on my lunch break learning about cricket in the USA. Wikipedia says it was especially popular in the East coast corridor between Philadelphia and New York, and that as late as 1855 there was more cricket coverage than baseball in the New York Times. But then baseball became more popular during and after the Civil War.
    I feel sorry for poor Meg - shamed for wanting to have a silk dress and look pretty, and ending up stuck in the house with crying babies and jelly that won't set.

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    1. Yes, the whole book is representing PP, and the book obviously had such a role in their lives.
      That's very interesting about the cricket - thanks for sharing, that was news to me.
      And yes, Meg got a hard road: Brooke was nice, but her married life sounded stifling (in trouble for spending too much time with the children!) and dull. And surely a silk dress wasn't too much to ask for, at any point along the way...

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  6. Never mind Jo running away with Laurie - she had her chance with him! What about poor Dan in Jo's Boys - the best of the boys and my first literary crush. He falls in love with Amy's daughter, but Jo says that of course it's quite impossible and the only woman who could marry him now would be the wrong sort, the sort of woman who would be no good for him - or words to that effect. So he has to go off and die nobly fighting for his beloved Native Americans. He had served a year for (justified) man-slaughter, but I never understood why someone nice wouldn't have married him. I'd like an alternative universe in which he and Amy's daughter run away together and live happily ever after. After all the books are awash with Christian moralising; it seems people can be forgiven and reborn etc but not if that means marrying your daughter or niece. Rant over - I'm answering your third question which is that yes, Jo does get more annoying!

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    1. Yes! That storyline had passed me by until this recent re-read, and I was very taken aback at the way it worked out, poor Dan. I didn't at all understand why it couldn't have worked out properly. I didn't really get what the trip to Washington on Dan's behalf was all about, was I just not paying enough attention? (I couldn't quite bring myself to read it yet again to see what I'd missed.)

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    2. I don't remember a trip to Washington, but it's been a while since I read these. I'll be putting them on the To Read pile. A little bit nervous about rereading though. My favourite character from another children's book who had been spirited, heroic and rebellious when I read the book aged 10ish turned out to be an awful brat by the time I was in my thirties! (Charlotte in 'Crowns'.)

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    3. Always so chancy rereading those favourites! I don't know Crowns, is it a good book?

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    4. ... I think Laurie goes to Washington to get permission for Dan to go back to Native American lands? But I am very hazy about this, despite having read it in the past month...

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    5. 'Crowns' by Katherine Hull and Pamela Whitlock was my most favourite book in the world when I was about ten. Imagine a younger 'Peter's Room' - so no subliminal teenage sexual stirrings, no real-life betrayal - but just four cousins hiding in a room at a party and imagining their own world where they could be kings and queens. Charlotte is an adventurer and explorer, Andrew a rather mystic, hippie drop-out. Rob and Eliza fall into traditional gender roles, Rob is a 'good' king and Eliza sits around enjoying pretty things. Before the fantasy section, we get snippets of their real lives in the run-up to the traditional Boxing Day childrens' party where their fantasy adventure happens. There's a bit Clothes In Books might like - the girls pass a clothes shop on their way home from school every day, and they've given the mannequins names and personalities. They want to stop and talk about what the mannequins are wearing each time they get a new look, but the bored nanny hurries them on.
      If you can find a copy I suggest reading it near Christmas as there's some good Christmassy details. I didn't go on rereading it into adulthood as I did with other favourite childhood books, but I did buy myself an expensive second-hand copy because I regretted losing my original one, in memory of having once loved it so much!

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    6. Ann that sounds fantastic, just the kind of book I'd have loved as a child. I have just found a copy and ordered it - it was expensive but from an Oxfam bookshop so I could tell myself good cause. By the sound of it I will do it as a Xmas book at the end of this year - but also by the sound of it I won't be able to hold off reading it till then! I hadn't recognized the name, but the authors wrote The Far Distant Oxus, which I did read from the library many years ago.

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  7. Anne, you are right! The injustice to Dan was awful, mind you Bess was impossible, he'd have gone nuts, but Josie might have done.

    Answers to questions:
    1. Beyond me. What are they thinking of?
    2. New Testament. Marmee far to prudent to buy 4 copies of a book they already read and knew (!) practically by heart.
    3. Poor Jo. She does get more annoying, but she also encourages Nan to be a doctor and lets the frightful result of the Amy/Laurie catastrophe be shoved around in a wheelbarrow. And she's nice about Dan's crabs and beetles and whatever he has in that bundle. So.
    4. Cricket always puzzled me too. I wonder if it's baseball in the American editions.

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    1. Well we'll give you carte blanche to sort it out any way you can...
      Jo won't be annoying in the new future you give her, she will be happy and fulfilled.
      See Susanna above on cricket - fascinating!

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  8. Definitely the law of diminishing returns with these books. But I want to put in a word for Jo marrying the Professor. Jane Smiley writes 'there could be no Prince Charming less appealing in the eyes of an eleven-year-old reader. To an older reader, he is far more attractive - intelligent, kind, comfortable and well educated, in every way more suitable for the volatile Jo than Laurie.' When I reread Little Women recently, I tended to agree (but, then, I married a professor myself!).

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    1. Jane Smiley on Little Women? Now that I would like to read - did she write an intro?
      I can see the point, I really can, but I'm still always persuading myself, he is still always second best. And she did make poor Laurie so sad.. And the Prof was so against her writing, and said her gothic tales were immoral... I did like some things about him. I think Laurie and Jo could have made a go of it!

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    2. It's in her book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, which includes the pieces that she wrote on 100 books of which Little Women was one. It is available as an expensive paperback - it is a whopping great book, but is reasonable as an e-book. I think you'd get a lot out of it. Looking at it again I saw that she didn't enjoy reading Ulysses either . . .
      BTW I think she wrote one of the masterpieces of modern American literature, A Thousand Acres. Have you read it?

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    3. I LOVED A Thousand Acres, I think it is an extraordinary book - so yet another one we agree on. Also loved Moo - did that come up when we looked at campus novels? And Ten Days in the Hills. She's a remarkable writer - even though there are quite a few books I've never bothered to read and probably never will (horses put me off). I feel I must have at least seen the book you mention, it's ringing a faint bell, but is obviously unmissable. Did they serialize it in the Guardian at some point maybe? Anyway, off to look it up. And no doubt buy... (you are getting your own back.)

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    4. Found a cheap 2nd-hand copy and have ordered.

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  9. Oh dear. Time to confess....another classic novel I've never read. I did try it once many, many years ago but I lost the will to live long before the end and have never gotten back to it

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    1. Fair enough! How old were you? I read it as a very young girl and loved it, but I rather think if I'd first looked when I was older I would have been very impatient with all the moralistic stuff and the anti-vanity code.

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  10. 1) Does seem a little surprising that no publisher has accepted the bait ( the original is long out of copyright, which is another incentive). When they do continuation novels nowadays, they tend to want to turn them into detective novels, so how about an older Jo and Laurie solving the Lizzie Borden case? Perhaps they could call it LITTLE WOMAN, BIG AXE!

    2) It does seem likely that it's something like PILGRIM'S PROGRESS. There is a preachy aspect to the original novel that doesn't really make it into most screen adaptions. On the other hand, there's a vague possibility that it might be Marmee's privately printed autobioraphy MY DISGUSTING LIFE--ADVENTURES IN PERVERSION. This would explain the plain cover, not to mention the fact that the girls want to read it straight away on Christmas morning.

    3) There's a touch of the Holden Caulfields in Jo, in that depending on your age when you first read the book, along with other things, you can see her as either a charmingly gauche heroine or a pain in the backside. The adaptions normally try to make her more of a go-getting tomboy, but she did come across as much more annoying in the latest BBC adaption. Mind you, Amy suffered the worst in this version. She normally comes across as a spoilt 12 year old when she burns Jo's book, but played by a 20 year old she's downright creepy. Adaptions also try and soften the blow of Jo falling for Professor Bhaer. In the book he's not handsome, but the movies often try to soften the blow by making him older but still good looking. This reaches its pinnacle in the Winona Ryder version, where he is played by the smouldering, Byronic Gabriel Byrne, and everyone in the movie has to pretend that he isn't good looking! I am quite fond of the version played by William Shatner, where he is essentially Captain Kirk with a cod-German accent.

    4) Like Susanna says, Cricket was a big deal in Victorian America. Baseball probably overtook it in the end because soldiers and POWs could stage a game very easily with just a bat and ball, whilst Cricket requires wickets and defined boundaries. The returning soldiers returned with a greater interest in Baseball, and the rest is history.

    ggary

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    1. The first thing I have to pick on is - William Shatner??!! In what far-off universe was that...
      Yes Gabriel Byrne was a mixed blessing - always lovely to look at...
      I would read both Little Woman, Big Axe (inspired title) and also Marmee's secret life.

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  11. Little Women is on my list of classic books to read. I have no idea if I read it when I was younger or not. But saw an adaptation of course, for sure.

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    1. Look forward to hearing your views when you do get to it Tracy. I wonder if it will seem familiar - but then would anyway from those adaptations...

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  12. I too loved the TV version though wasn't very taken with Amy - but then I'm not fond of her in the books anyway. I'm pretty sure the books were Pilgrims Progress for the reasons given above. I assume Marmee bought the books unbound and had them covered for the girls - wasn't this common at the period? Or maybe if it was so popular some enterprising bookseller brought out special gift editions.

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    1. Good point about the binding. Gift editions also seems likely given the ubiquity and pervasiveness of the book....

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  13. I first read Little Women when I was about ten and I never, ever wanted Jo to marry Laurie. He and Amy deserve each other - pair of spoilt brats. Professor Bhaer for ever! I like adult Jo too.

    The book surely has to be a New Testament, or maybe just the gospels; "the best life ever lived" has to be Christ. Also, Jo says they need directions, like Christian, and Mrs March says the books they'll find under their pillows are the guide book - and Christian got his from Evangelist.

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    1. Thanks for this. You were very precocious - I think most people want Laurie and Jo to marry when they read as a child, then maybe change their mind when they re-read in a more mature way!
      You make good points about the book, but I am still not coming down definitely either way after hearing people's fascinating views...

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