MARMEE'S GIRLS

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy - the four sisters in Louisa May Alcott's classic novel `Little Women' - have been setting standards of womanliness for generations of young girls. As a third film of the story is released, HERMIONE LEE examines the book's lasting popularity, and SOPHIA CHAUCHARD-STUART talks to some contemporary role models about its influence

Lively, simple books are very much needed for girls," Louisa Alcott told her publisher. She was right: Little Women did very well when it came out in 1868, and with the 1869 sequel Good Wives (called Little Women, Part II in America), it became a huge bestseller (100,000 copies within one year). Little Men and Jo's Boys followed: "girls" couldn't get enough of the March family.

Alcott was 35 in 1868, and she was no novice. As a child she'd put on melodramas and written stories. She had published Hospital Sketches, from her wartime nursing experience, and under the pseudonym AM Barnard she had been filling magazines with popular sensation stories, "blood and thunder" tales of vamps and insanity, drug addiction and gothic horrors. In Good Wives, Jo March teaches herself to write such stories of "love, mystery and murder" from studying the illustrated magazines. She gets her plots from local papers, and does her research from "police records and lunatic asylums". But she is "living in bad society"; "unconsciously, she was beginning to desecrate some of the womanliest attributes of a woman's character".

Little Women is all about womanliness. Each incident in the family story of Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy and Mrs March has a moral (usually delivered by "Marmee"). The domestic and social adventures of the girls teach them, like episodes in Pilgrim's Progress, to be kind, self-disciplined, sincere and, above all, unworldly. Alcott, who had to write for money to pay the family's bills, turned poverty into a moral virtue in Little Women: "Rich or poor, we will keep together and be happy in one another." She herself once called this kind of writing "moral pap". But the less pious side of her moralism is her pleasure in simplicity and directness, freedom of expression and lack of artifice, which gives Little Women its attractive tone.

Alcott's anti-materialism is in the spirit of Concord and Boston, where she grew up. Like Emily Dickinson, she "sees New Englandly". Her father Bronson Alcott's philosophy of Transcendentalism, shared with Emerson and Thoreau, was one of self-reliance and idealism, divinity not in church but in nature, a Utopian belief in the potential of the individual, set against the growing materialism and confor-mity of 19th-century America. A thin line always divides Utopianism from crankiness, and Bronson Alcott's experiments with communal life at "Fruitlands" (where only aspiring vege-tables that grew upwards were allowed, and no slave-picked cotton could be worn) was an economic disaster for his family.

Louisa Alcott never married; she supported and looked after both her parents till their deaths, and died, at 56, two days after her father. But in Little Women, the father is absent. (He is a chaplain at the war.) Part of the book's pleasure is that it's about girls without men and intimacies between women (and unfashion- ably allowed for the possibility that it could be "better to be happy old maids than unhappy wives or unmaidenly girls, running about to find husbands"). Part is in its nostalgic, sentimental celebration of rural small-town American life. Part comes from its energetic straightforward talk, its innocent slang ("fiddlesticks", "spandy nice", "niminy-piminy").

But the main attraction, of course, is Jo, whether she's curled up in the attic eating apples and crying over The Heir of Redclyffe, or burning her dress and spilling coffee over herself at her first party ("Oh, dear, what a blunderbuss I am!"), or befriending the lonely boy next door, or wanting to kill her little sister and then plunging into abysses of remorse. The passion, restlessness and drama Alcott put into her sensation stories and reproached herself for in Little Women come out in Jo, the unwomanly tomboy heroine resisting (but finally having to submit to) the constraints of womanliness.

MARINA WARNER, writer and historian

I haven't read the book for years and don't remember much of the story. What I do remember, and

which I returned to when I wrote about Joan of Arc, was that it is very difficult for a woman to be heroic without being boyish. Jo, with her almost bisexual name, was the antithesis of the "little woman" and the book made it plain that one could only get access to mainstream activity if one sacrificed that idea of the "little woman" completely.

DIANE ABBOTT, MP

Little Women was one of my favourite books. I remember it particularly because it was the first book I ever bought for myself

when I was still in junior school. I loved it because it is a strong female book, and the women in it are very independent.

KATE JONES, editorial director, Hamish Hamilton

This is without doubt the most influential book of my childhood. I would guess it is the Fever Pitch of

most girls. I both love it and hate it and I certainly know it off by heart. The book is a curi-ous mixture - encouraging independence and crushing domestic obedience. There is a heavy Christian element, of course, but I have always managed to read Little Women whilst ignoring all the Pilgrim's Progress stuff. Rather than want to be Jo, I felt I was Jo - hopeless at dances, useless about clothes and boltingly indiscreet and shy at the same time. And her indifference to material success has always appealed to me. Jo's great moment is cutting her hair off to save her father - I loved that - and I have a dreadful feeling that the whole book is about girls and fathers rather than girls and husbands. Or in Jo's case, they become one and the same when she doesn't marry dashing Laurie (well suited to the preening Amy, I'm afraid) and marries Bhaer.

When I feel depressed about the way my life is going, I curse Little Women for encouraging me to believe that going about good deeds quietly is the only way to go. But it taught me the attractions of kind, grizzled chaps with little glasses - I'm living with one.

SHENA MACKAY, writer

It was a very important book for my two sisters and myself. We read it so many times we were practically word perfect.

Like most people, we liked Jo the best and went on to read Good Wives. I was rather doubtful of going to see the new film (which is an amalgamation of both books), but it was rather good. Nobody really looks quite how you imagined them, but that aside, I really enjoyed it.

I think it's important to remember that Louisa Alcott wrote about how she would have liked family life to have been rather than her own experience. Little Women is about being poor and trying to be good, but often failing, and also about teaching young girls how to be female. It does have a strong moral tone, which even as a child can be hard to take.

I loved the chapter headings like "Meg goes to Vanity Fair" and specific moments from the book that come back to me time and time again, include Jo standing in the rain under the umbrella with Professor Bhaer with her hairpins slipping out, and the awful time when Jo thinks Aunt March is going to take her to France, even though she has shot herself in the foot by saying "French is a silly, slippery sort of language."

I edited a collection by women writers a few years ago for Virago and included sections from both Little Women and Good Wives.

CAMILLE PAGLIA, academic and writer

Well, this book made a huge impression on me when I was young and then, when I saw the

movie later, I loved Katharine Hepburn in the role of Jo. Of course the character of Jo is the one I identified with very strongly in the Fifties, with her flamboyant personality.

But, for me, the book is a kind of horror story; it makes me extremely uncomfortable as it recreates the very claustrophobic, imprisoned scene in America in the Fifties, the feeling of being trapped in this Victorian time-frame - a very arid, parched, limiting feeling. And I hated the end when Jo was forced to capitulate to social conventions. So, for me, it replays my experience growing up in the domesticated America of the Fifties.

I haven't seen the new movie. I think I'll wait until it comes out on video. I'm not a great fan of the ability of American moviemakers to recreate the vanished settings of the past. I think the British do it better.

As for the casting of Winona Rider as Jo: well, I'm not a great fan of a lot of these young actresses. They're all little whelks, indistin-guishable from each other. They all have this winsome quality they mistake for acting - another reason why I'm not exactly stamped- ing towards the cinema to see this one. Susan Sarandon though, I adore. She is, of course, my age and we women of this age in America have a certain feistiness. There's a whole new young generation of wimpy women in America, that's why they identify with this new brand of feminism - espoused by Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf. They're just like newborn kittens, a pathetic "don't hurt me please" quality to them which drives me crazy. I'm really not surprised that this movie is being made at the moment.

JULIA NEUBERGER, rabbi and writer

I loved the book when I was growing up, but I was deeply sentimental then and far less critical than I

am now. My 15-year-old daughter has Little Women on her bookshelf but I'm not sure she's ever read it. I think she preferred What Katy Did, which was a far better book. I feel that the portrayal of women's opportunity in Little Women is not one I would like young girls to associate with now. As to the characters, I identified with Jo and Amy alternately: Jo because she always ended up doing the right thing and Amy because she was the real rebel.

LYNNE TRUSS, writer

There was a chap who wrote to Woman's Hour after the serialisation of Little Women a couple of years ago. He said that he had

always classified women in terms of Jos, Megs, Amys, Beths and Marmees. He had found it a foolproof system, but on the other hand often turned around to find himself living on his own.

Personally, I find it extremely odd that anyone should want to be Meg, Amy, Beth, or especially Marmee. Jo is the great heroine - clever determined, and apt to exclaim "Christopher Columbus!" despite that not being very lady-like. When I was about ten, I was struck low by bronchitis, and after my recovery my older sister confided she'd been worried I would die, "like little Beth". At the time, I thought this was rather touching. Now I guess she just wanted me to croak.

The odd thing about hearing Little Women on the radio was that it reminded me where many, many of my assumptions came from - about sisterliness, personal sacrifice, and, most of all, The Pilgrim's Progress. At university, I had wondered why I knew the book so well without ever having read it. The answer was Little Women.

JOANNA LUMLEY, actress

I played Jo in the school play and all I can really remember is the bit where she cut her hair off. My own hair was quite short at the time and

they gave me a rather tatty hair piece to wear at the beginning of the play. My school was a Community school with a capital "C" and I remember we had these "women of the Community" who came to see that production of Little Women. During the haircut scene, I ran my fingers through my hair in what I thought was a boyish sort of way and one of these wonderful old women muttered loudly, "You shouldn't have done that, looked better before dear." I was quite disheartened.

I could never understand why Jo didn't marry Laurie and went off with that Prof Bhaer instead. An awful name anyway. He was so much older and kind of tweedy - when you're young you would recoil from someone like that.

JULIE BURCHILL, writer

I read Little Women when I was ten. I remember fancying Jo and I was as disgusted as she was when Laurie tried it on with her. When

I saw the film I didn't fancy Jo anymore because she was played by June Allyson and I didn't like her one bit. I astonished myself by fancying Meg because Janet Leigh was so gorgeous. (Whenever I see the shower scene in Psycho, I can't look because, to me, he's killing Meg, from Little Women!)

I identified with Amy, who I have remained very much like, my friends tell me. I thought that Marmee and all the men were disgusting. I don't think it's a revolutionary or subversive book at all; the filmmakers are just kidding themselves. I think it may have a sartorial influence on young women today, corsets and stuff. I also like that thing Meg and Jo do at the ball of wearing one glove and carrying the other. I used to do that a lot when I was a punk.

Good Wives, the sequel, is pretty disgusting. If Louisa May Alcott had really been sound, she'd have written a trilogy, and called the last one Divorced Lesbian Sluts.

SUE LIMB, writer

I hadn't given Little Women a thought since putting it down for the last time some 35 years ago, but now I come to think of it, it has dis-

tinctly feminist overtones - which more skilled interpreters than I have long since identified. Of course, everyone identifies with Jo. Her sisters are the usual feminine role models: Meg the mother, Amy the beauty, Beth the saint, all subtly unattractive and boring by comparison to the vivid, energetic Jo. She is often stigmatised as being "boyish" but we know this isn't a heartfelt criticism - it is the rejection of her sisters' destinies and characteristics which is heartfelt.

All I can remember in detail now is how Amy ends up with Teddy - a monstrous travesty of justice, just like in real life. They row out in the boat, he pops the question and "They added their own little tableau of happiness to the something or other news dissolving in the lake" - I must have read and re-read that bit to remember it almost word for word now.

I remember feeling disappointed when Jo ended up with the fat German professor - though his name was Bhaer, he wasn't the real Teddy - and having lost Teddy I felt Jo should go on being exciting all on her own. There's a kind of Dorothea/Casaubon feeling in Jo's capitulation to Prof Bhaer.

BARBARA FOLLETT, Emily's List

I remember the book very well. I read it when I was nine and it had a profound effect on me. I remem-

ber it most because of the character Jo, who didn't want to be a girl. At that age, I didn't want to be a girl either and, in fact, I called myself "Bob" for years.

Beth irritated me profoundly, and I wasn't upset when she died at all. I don't recall many of the scenes; apart from Beth dying, which irritated me, and Meg going to the ball.

Maybe it was more poignant to me growing up during the Fifties because of the suffocating cultural situation of the time. But maybe things haven't changed all that much.

I think it is still relevant today for young girls because it is about the stereotypes of growing up female, learning to live within those boundaries or reject them. For me, Jo denied those boundaries, Amy identified with them, Meg bought into the system and Beth just gave up.

DONNA MCPHAIL, comedian

I haven't read the book since I was very young but I do remember I read it three times. I hate historical books, the women were usually

wimpy and didn't do anything really interesting, but Little Women affected me as a kid because the women in it opened their mouths and actually said something apart from "Please..."

I remember wanting to be Jo quite desperately. She was mouthy, boisterous and adventurous - and what was strange was that the family seemed to encourage it. The other sisters were developed as strong, defined characters too, which is hard to find in contemporary books.

I think it's a really good idea that they're making a film of Little Women, although I don't know how many girls between the ages of ten and 14 today would have read it. I hate Winona Ryder with all my heart, so I'm not sure how I'll feel about her as Jo, but Susan Sarandon as Marmee - well, she can do no wrong in my book.

SALLY BRAMPTON, writer

Little Women was one of the most irritating books I ever read. Meg was poisonously good and I always hated her, mainly because

I thought I should be like her. I identified with Jo - not for the usual reasons - but because of her hair. At that age I would have died to have had lovely long thick hair. I was devastated when she cut it off and I don't think she should have done it - not even for her family.

I do think it has resonance for young girls today, if only for something to react against. I'm not sure about the new film. Physically, Winona Ryder isn't my idea of Jo. I imagined Jo would be rather strapping with a bouncing fringe and lovely long, thick, red hair. Yes, that moment when she cut off her hair worried me for years.

KAREN ARMSTRONG, writer and broadcaster

It was a most important book for me when I was growing up in the mid- Fifties. I read it over and over

again, as well as the sequels - though none of them, except perhaps Good Wives, had the same impact. I think the reason for the book's resonance is that it presents girls with almost archetypal patterns of womanhood. It shows four different ways of being female and this is exciting when you are growing up yourself and trying to forge your own identity. I think that despite some of the more "puritanical" elements (the Pilgrim's Progress theme is rather nauseating and I notice that they left it out in the film), the book has a relevance today because it shows girls that they don't have to conform to any conventional pattern, if they don't wish to.

I am slightly embarrassed to confess that when I was growing up the character I identified with and loved the most was Beth, by far the least interesting character of the four, who seems to give up on life and die out of a sheer weight of virtue. I think that the reason was that I was intensely shy in those days. People find it difficult to believe, but it is true. I knew girls who were like Jo or Amy and they terrified me - I felt that they were another species. So, like Beth, I felt that I could only reach out into the world vicariously, just as Beth relies so much upon the more effective and exciting Jo. I suppose it was my Beth-like leanings that took me into a convent where I could die to the world. I think there might have been a kind of despair within me there: that the world outside would be too much for me. And everybody seemed to love Beth because she was so good...

ELIZABETH WILSON, academic and writer

I'm sure I read Little Women several times. The thing I most remember about it was Beth dying.

I didn't like that at all, I found it incredibly morbid and depressing at that age (I think I must have been about eight or nine).

The character of Jo really made very little impact on me. I didn't see her as a portrayal of an independent woman at all. I suppose at that age you just accept what you're told, and, although I was vaguely aware that there were messages in the book - such as when Jo rejects Laurie and then he marries Amy - I don't think I understood them. And I certainly didn't understand at the time why she would prefer the professor to young, glamourous Laurie.

I suppose if I had to pick which character I identified with most it would be Amy. But maybe that was being counter-suggestible as Amy is portrayed in the book as the least admirable character.

Comments