All the President's women

Genteel in the Thirties. Syrupy in the Fifties. Right-on in the Nineties. Helen Birch on the lasting appeal of Little Women
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Germaine Greer loves it. Liz Forgan thinks it's "truly dangerous stuff". For Gloria Steinem, "it was my ritual and my rescue", Camille Paglia thinks it's a horror story and Sally Brampton says it is "the most irritating book I've ever read".

The book in question is Little Women, currently being exhumed and reexamined by publishers and pundits everywhere, thanks to the success of its latest celluloid incarnation (reviewed opposite). This, the fifth adaptation of the popular classic, is directed by Gillian Armstrong with an all-women team of producers and scriptwriters, and stars Hollywood hot babes Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon and Samantha Mathis. Already there are six versions of the book on sale in the US; one, Laurie Lawlor's "novelisation", with its eight pages of film stills and the exhortation "Meet Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy - and join their fun, mischief and adventure!", has already sold over 300,000 copies in the States.

Since it was first published in 1868, Louisa May Alcott's story of four girls growing up in Concord, Massachusetts during the American Civil War has been one of the most revered and reviled books ever written. For generations, little girls have curled up in armchairs and wished that they could join the jolly ho ho March clan and share the daily microdramas of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy as they squabbled and struggled and cared and loved and looked out for each other and tried their hardest to be good.

This was a world where all childish divisions could be repaired with a hug and a homily from Marmee, where goodness and gentleness were rewarded, death seen in soft-focus and where Marmee never ran out of sweet ways to make the medicine go down. Despite their poverty, the March family never seemed to run out of ice-cream, bon-bons and cakes; all they were missing was lashings of ginger beer. There can be few girls who grew up in the Fifties, Sixties or Seventies who didn't long to be one of the March family, or at least wish they could swap their own vile, irksome siblings with one of these fantasy sisters.

I first read the book when I was about nine, deep in my Malory Towers, St Clare's and Chalet School period. Like many defrocked, doll-destroying little girls, I wanted to be Jo, the tomboy archetype and mad March hare, who was "tall, thin and brown" with just "one beauty", her hair, and who wanted to be a writer. Others identified with Amy, the pragmatic, self-assured youngest sister, who was determined to marry rich. Meg, the prissy, vain, goody-goody oldest one had fewer fans, while most of us barely shed a puppy tear over the death of the insufferably saintly Beth before scampering on to the next domestic adventure.

And there were many of them. Little Women and its sequels, Good Wives, Jo's Boys and Little Men were in many ways the precursors of the Jackie Collins / Barbara Taylor Bradford mini-sagas. Although they are trite, cloying and as horribly moralistic as any Blyton book, there is more to them than a spoonful of sugar. Like the Woman of Substance series, Little Women and Good Wivesplaced women at their centre and took issues of love, ambition and female independence as their focus - this at a time when women did not have the vote.Instead of a solitary heroine, Alcott gave us five different versions of femininity and five ways of exploring its limitations. She modelled Jo on herself; it is Jo's battle between selfishness and self-sacrifice, ambition and convention that anchors these otherwise rambling narratives. When Beth dies while performing one of her apparently endless acts of charity, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that this is Alcott's own critique of female martyrdom. (Significantly, it is after Beth's death that Jo gives birth to her first book.)

Alcott never married. She supported herself through her writing and campaigned for women's suffrage; her father was an educational reformer and Transcendentalist who was close enough to Emerson and Thoreau to exchange vegetarian recipes with them. And the book takes as a given the education of women. With Jo, Alcott created one of the first fictional career woman who also married for love and whose husband took care of the kids. And although the March girls constantly twittered about finding the right husband, Alcott presented them as living quite happily without men (the patriarch has been conveniently dispatched to the war; when he returns, it's as a complement to the wallpaper). Those men who were allowed to enter the fantasy had to fit in. Jo rejects the handsome, rich and sensitive boy next door and chooses an old and ugly husband who lets her do her own thing.

Not that all this came without compromise. Hand in hand with the family's charity toward the poor and immigrants, comes a goody-two-shoes philosophy which says that female anger must be controlled and pleasures sacrificed. In the new film, this ethos is explicitly linked to the Transcendentalist beliefs rather than the condition of femininity.

Like Frankenstein and Dracula, the story of Little Women is both archetypal and Protean, capable of being recast and reinterpreted by different generations. Just as Coppola's 1992 Dracula played up the sexuality/ blood / Aids dimension, so the various remakes of Little Women have been steeped in the social concerns of their era. The two silent versions have been lost, but in 1933, the heart of the Depression, George Cukor brought new resonance to the theme of hardship and genteel poverty, while playing to the first gallery of women voters with his emphasis on Jo's (smart and perky and played by Katharine Hepburn) aspirations to be a writer. In 1949, when women in Britain and America were being lured back into the home with the promise of fridges and gingham curtains, Mervyn Le Roy slapped on the vaseline and presented a syrupy portrait of the ideal American family, with dumpy, doughy June Allyson as Jo.

For the Nineties, Gillian Armstrong delivers Little Women Communitarian style, a tempered vision of an idealised community that excludes no one and offends no one. Strands of Alcott's own biography (this was, after all, an autobiographical novel) are twisted and weaved into script and plot without missing a beat in the heart of the original. In place of the dutiful wife, Marmee, comes Susan Sarandon, wry and brisk and well able to take care of herself and her family. (While Alcott's father talked Transcendentalism, Alcott's mother, Abba, was often the breadwinner.) In place of her Christian homilies comes practical advice: "Laurie is a man... and so he is not so easily demeaned" and pragmatic scolding: "I won't have my girls being silly about boys", along with a powerful sense of community responsibility. The Alcotts' opposition to slavery is also given an airing, as are Louisa's views on suffrage and the corset.

All this takes place in a family home modelled as a kind of Arcadia, with clouds of forget- me-nots around the garden and soft, candlelit interiors. Costumes look like they've been repaired and worn in; make-up is scarce. This helps us to collapse the contradictions between the cloying, sentimental bits and our own cynicism. It allows us to cry without feeling manipulated, and to relive the whole delicious experience of reading the book without giving in to it. Do you want to join the Marches? the film asks. And in the US thousands of women have said yes. And I'm willing to bet that Bill Clinton wants to, too.