Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott: the ambiguous feminism of a classic from my childhood

Little Women, published in 1868, is one of these books which made their way through the decades and continue to fascinate and rejoice us with their grace, their wit and their tenderness. I was a huge fan of Little Women when I was a kid. I read it twelve or thirteen times; I could relate to each of the girl’s main feature and longed to be part of the family. I was fascinated by the strong and pure friendships they developed with people outside the sanctuary of their home, and with their exuberant imagination and the many games they invented.

I don’t know exactly what pushed me to buy it a month ago, but I suddenly remembered that this book had been an important part of my growing-up and that I could now read it in its original language. At first, I was almost nervous at the perspective of re-reading it after all those years: you know this feeling, when you haven’t met a friend in years and wonder whether you’ll still get along together? Strange as it may seem, I felt something similar!

My awkwardness grew when I felt disappointed with the first chapter. I knew the first page by heart and was happy to discover it in English but then, I found the whole thing a bit cheesy. If you recall, the novel opens on the girls’ dismay at the strange Christmas they are about to spend, what with their father away at war and no presents, and they finally decide to use their money to make gifts to their mother. I couldn’t really believe in this display of generosity and good intentions and was looking at it with quite a derisive and sarcastic eye.

However, quite rapidly, I grew immensely fond of my girls again. I totally forgot to be sardonic, the better to admire and revel in the girls’ pure hearts, their mother’s loving support and the complicity of all those around them, from Hannah to Mr Laurence and of course, Laurie. It felt like going back home after years. Believe it or not but I cried, I laughed, I worried, I hoped, just as if I were part of the family. The chapter when Beth slowly overcomes her fear of her old neighbour, Mr Laurence, and plays the piano in his house totally melted my heart. Again, I admired and loved Laurie so much that I longed to have such a friend in my life, and I immensely enjoyed all the chapters when the girls imagine new occupations, be it the collaborative writing of their weekly newspaper, “The Pickwick Portfolio”, their outdoor afternoons as part of “The Busy Bee Society” or the picnic with Laurie and his British friends, to name but a few.

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, Oxford University Press

Most of all, I re-discovered Louisa May Alcott’s style. I had read it in French many times and knew the characters very well; delicate Meg, messy Jo, timid Beth, sophisticated Amy and expansive Laurie. However, I discovered one more character: the narrative voice. It may be that I didn’t pay attention to it when I was a kid; it may be that the translation didn’t honour its playfulness. The fact remains, it’s as if I heard this voice for the first time, and for the first time, it made me smile, independently of the characters’ antics. It reminded me of that of James Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, or Lewis Carroll: a voice that is kind, full of tenderness for its characters, that describes their inner thoughts with the suppressed smile of someone who is fond of them even though s/he knows their darker inner thoughts and flaws. This voice made me enjoy the book not only for its story but also for its style, so deliciously and delicately witty.

For the first time, I consciously noted how educational this novel is. Divided into small chapters, it makes an easy read for children, and almost all of the episodes end with a morale, often told by Mrs March, the wise and benevolent mother. What impressed me was the fact that, contrarily to many novels of the time, the characters do not necessarily find comfort in religion. The example that Mrs March sets is much more striking because she raises her daughters to be good women, good wives, good neighbours, independently of their religious convictions; although she does advise them, from time to time, to confide in “their Father”, she also gives them keys to improve their character by themselves, thanks to efforts and dedication, and she confesses to Jo, who is prone to fits of anger, that she subdued her own wild character thanks to her husband’s help and support.

To do credit to my academic training, I was a good girl and read the introduction of the novel, where I discovered how much Little Women owes to Louisa’s own life. This, I think, partly explained how the characters could feel so real, so true and authentic, and why they moved me to tears even now that I’m a grown-up. [Spoiler here. You might want to skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t read Little Women and intend to] I learnt in the introduction that Louisa, who was much like Jo, had three sisters, one of them, Elizabeth, who died at a young age. Beth’s character is a tribute to Elizabeth, and Louisa said that writing Beth’s death revived the trauma of losing her own sister. Beth’s death is the darkest moment of the novel and I cried each time I read it (yes, including this time). As a kid, I was deeply upset and resented the injustice of the death of such a pure and beautiful character, and I didn’t understand why Louisa would do that. Knowing that it was drawn from her personal experience made this part of the story, as well as the chapter when Jo deals with her loss, even more tragic and grievous.

Much as I adored re-reading Little Women, there were however some passages about the role of women that made me grind my teeth. With my adult eyes, I discovered that the novel was rather ambiguous on the feminist issue, in so far as it saysthings and showsothers. Of course the novel was written and published in the 1860s so the context was much different than it is today. Louisa May Alcott, like all writers, was a great observer and drew inspiration from her surroundings, be it the immediate family cluster, or society in general. And what society said at the time was that young girls’ chief ambition had to be “how to make a good marriage”, that women had to become good wives, devoted and submitted to their husbands, and live within the boundaries of their home, with no financial independence whatsoever. This was, however, quite different from the example Louisa had at home, where her mother, tired of her husband’s bankruptcies, decided to manage the family affairs and to allow their girls to “acquire a trade”. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that Louisa was a modern woman: she lived for her writing and never married, not wanting to devote her life to a husband. She was involved with the Women’s Movement, which aimed at “freeing women from male domination”, and letting them have independent lives, as Valerie Alderson explains in the Introduction (all the biographical elements I’m mentioning here are detailed in Alderson’s introduction in the Oxford edition).

Strangely enough, though, Mrs March seems to be meeker than Abigail, Louisa’s mother, was. The adult and feminist me winced when reading some pieces of advice given to the girls, insisting on how tamed they had to be. Meg becomes quite the little housewife, trembling, because of her expenses, when she shows her financial accounts to her husband or struggling to cook nice meals and be always smiling and supportive, even though she’s had a hard day with the kids. However, I cannot deny that her husband is not the dominant and abusive male and even though he shows some irritation and impatience at times, the happy couple builds a welcoming and loving home for themselves, based on dialogue and sincere love (so Mrs March’s pieces of advice are not so bad, in the end). Contrasting sharply with Meg’s polished life is that of Jo, muddled, hectic and ambitious. Jo sets a counter-example and becomes a unique little woman: her family and her writing are her priorities and Louisa accepted to marry Jo only because many readers asked her to. However, she adamantly refused to marry her to Laurie (who thus becomes pretty Amy’s husband) and imagined an awkward and endearing man who is, to my opinion, just perfect for my dear Jo, who can, in turn, know the joys of love (for why shouldn’t she, after all?) without relinquishing her freedom and projects. The reader is thus given different examples on “how to be a good wife”, and only our personal preferences can make us decide which is best, for the three sisters are all happily married, and each has a life style that perfectly satisfies them.

Have you read Little Women? How feminist do you think it is? And have you recently read books from your childhood? How did it feel?

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