Disclaimer: I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.
“Alcott’s novel is not what it at first appears to be. What seems like a tale from a simpler time turns out to be the product of a difficult and sometimes troubled life. What appears to be a sweet, light story of four girls growing up is also very much about how hard it was (and is) to come of age in a culture that prizes a woman’s appearance over her substance.”
In 1868, Louisa May Alcott published Little Women, a work for girls that had been requested by her publisher. It was not the kind of thing Alcott usually wrote, but she had compelling financial considerations in supporting her parents and siblings that prompted her to take the leap. The result would be a best-selling novel first published in two parts, but known in America today as a single story, which has remained alive through the generations, adapted into stage plays, radio dramas, films, and television mini-series. 2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the novel, and in Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, University of New Orleans professor Anne Boyd Rioux examines the legacy of the novel in the American canon and popular culture, arguing that while the novel has a special place in readers’ hearts, its acknowledgement as a significant work of American literature has been circumscribed by sexism in a society that continues to devalue women writers, young female readers, and especially works that center their experiences.
Anne Boyd Rioux is an academic, known for her studies on the work of American novelist and poet Constance Fenimore Woolson. However, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy is written for a general audience, inclusive of the many types of reader that have appreciated Little Women over the years. The scholarship is not lacking, and the book includes a significant section of notes and references. Rioux clearly comes down in favour of the historical value of the text, and argues for it to be taught more broadly, but she is also able to acknowledge the complexity and contradictions of its feminist legacy, and the many different ways that readers have interpreted Alcott’s choices. In the UK, for example, where the book is often published in two volumes, many readers remain blissfully unaware of a second part of the novel in which (spoilers!) Beth dies, Amy and Laurie marry, and Jo puts her dreams of becoming a writer on hold when she marries Professor Bhaer and opens a school. And American readers who never continued on to Little Men or Jo’s Boys may feel betrayed by Jo giving up her dream, never realizing that she picks up her pen once more in the sequels, and becomes a famous writer.
Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy might be considered a biography of both Louisa May Alcott, and the novel she wrote, though significantly more of the book is dedicated to the latter. Whereas the early part of the books draws heavily on existing biographical work about Alcott, the later chapters incorporate more of Rioux’s own exploration and analysis of the work and its legacy. There are chapters dedicated to examining the various editions the book went through, and how the different illustrators have put their mark on, and changed perceptions of, the book over time. I found this section particularly interesting given that the edition of the book I am most familiar with has a cover image, but no interior illustrations whatsoever. Rioux also analyzes the choices made in the various adaptations—including a 1933 version starring Katherine Hepburn as Jo, a 1949 version with June Allyson, and the 1994 film starring Winona Ryder that is best known to my own generation—and the role media played in keeping Little Women alive in the public imagination. This certainly rings true to how the book initially came into my own life; the box set I first read was published simultaneously with the 1994 film adaptation, with an introduction by Anna Quindlen. Rioux notes that the early film versions were heavily driven by romance, despite the significant emphasis placed on familial relationships in the book, but does not delve further into how romance tends to be feminized and devalued.
A significant part of the book is dedicated to addressing the feminist issues that have hindered the work’s path to being considered a classic or taught in schools. In the early days, the book was actually considered too radical and insufficiently Christian, since Alcott’s transcendentalist upbringing did not jive with more conservative Christian practices. The Sunday School market actively encouraged a boycott of her work for many years for this reason. Meanwhile, despite the novel’s initial popularity with boys and girls, adults and children, over the years Little Women’s target audience has been circumscribed, and it has gained a reputation as a sappy novel suitable only for young girls. According to Rioux, the devaluation of books for girls has played a significant role in preventing Little Women from taking its place in the American canon of great novels, alongside works for boys like Tom Sawyer, which has suffered no such limitations. Rioux does acknowledge that the length of the book might also be a limiting factor for teachers, and suggests teaching only the first part of the novel, as it was originally published, to overcome this hurdle.
My own relationship with Little Women has been as complex as this history acknowledges. On first encounter, I found it incredibly tedious, and if memory serves, it was actually Laurie’s romantic mooning that drove me off. On second pass, only a couple of years later, I was gripped by the story, which of course hadn’t changed a jot since my last attempt. This time I was devastated by what I perceived as Laurie’s betrayal of Jo. Yet on rereading the book this year for the first time in well over a decade, I was struck most by its lessons on morality. It is almost incomprehensible that the book was once considered insufficiently Christian given Marmee’s preachy asides and little lessons. This isn’t a book that is easily encompassed, and Rioux does her best to incorporate the complexities and contradictions inherent in Alcott’s legacy, which inexorably shape how we view the book today.
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