ISBN 9780451529305 / 9780062645340
“Don’t laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragic romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded faces beautiful in God’s sight. Even the sad, sour sisters should be kindly dealt with, because they have missed the sweetest part of life, if for no other reason.”
Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March live in Civil War era Boston with their mother, Marmee. Their father is away at war, and the two older girls have gone to work to support the family. Beth stays home to keep house, while little Amy is still at school. Little Women is a quiet, domestic coming of age novel that follows four very different sisters as they grow up and find their place in the world. Together they befriend their wealthy but lonely neighbour, Theodore Laurence, and his grandfather, weather sickness and loss, and face difficult choices about marriage and family in the aftermath of the war.
I first tried to read Little Women when I was about eleven years old, after receiving a boxset as a gift. I found it exceedingly boring, and put it aside after only a few chapters. I next picked it up when I was about thirteen, and utterly devoured it. Along with many a previous reader, I was charmed by Jo, vexed by Amy, and felt cheated by Laurie’s disposition at the end of the novel. After attending a reading of The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper at Brick & Mortar Books in January, I decided that is was well past time to revisit this classic.
What struck me most on this third reading was how condescending and moralizing Little Women is. It is full of asides, lectures, and reprimands that bog down the delicate characterizations and loving depiction of a family. Knowing more about the history of the novel, this is now less surprising. Alcott was induced to write the books by her publisher, who saw an untapped market for clean literature for young women. Alcott herself was not precisely a traditional woman; she was an unmarried career woman who supported her parents and siblings with her craft. And it was precisely this responsibility to care for her dependents that persuaded her to accept her publisher’s offer, and to publish not one but two installments of Little Women, and then two later sequels. In short, Alcott knew that she was pandering, but she had a family to support, so she wrote what her publisher wanted. The subtext of the book is more complicated than that, of course, but the bad taste remains.
While the lecturing tone of the book is now decidedly unappealing, I was as drawn to the characters as ever. The focus is on the interactions and interplay between the sisters, though their neighbour Theodore Laurence of course plays an important role. The March sisters have a pleasingly realistic air, likely helped by their basis in Alcott’s own family. It is this fact that Elise Hooper draws on in her historical novel, The Other Alcott. The story follows Louisa’s youngest sister, May, who lives under the shadow of her fame as the inspiration for the much-hated Amy March. May aspired to be an artist, and illustrated the first edition of Little Women. But while her sister’s novel was a critical success, May’s illustrations were panned.
If Jo is the rough but shining favourite of Little Women, then The Other Alcott tries to imagine what it would be like to be the youngest sister of the person who penned this fictionalized version of herself. Hooper’s Louisa is prickly and temperamental, using her position as the family breadwinner as a right to exercise control over those she supports. Yet she has mixed feelings about her success with such pandering material, and little patience for her fans. May’s dreams of being an artist are constantly subordinated to her family responsibilities, and with little idea of how to support herself as an artist, she labours under a heavy weight of obligation to her wealthy sister. That weight is especially burdensome when the character of Amy March in Little Women reveals all too clearly how May thinks her sister must see her.
The Other Alcott follows May into Europe’s art scene at a fascinating period when the Impressionists were beginning to rock the French art establishment with their radical ideas. Women were finding ways to study art, despite prevailing ideas about the indecency of such an endeavour. So in addition to a difficult and well-drawn family tension, the novel also has a great historical backdrop to work with. Hooper occasionally inserts her historical research about the Alcotts or May’s artistic contemporaries in a way that is less than fluid, but it seems to be a stumble born mostly of enthusiasm for her subject. However, it is all this information that helps the novel form such an intriguing counterpoint to Little Women, adding context, and taking the part of the most maligned sister. And May’s own life is more interesting than anything Louisa imagined for Amy.