Sunday, December 13, 2020

Little Women: Louisa May Alcott

Little Women was the book that came up for me to read in the last Classics Club spin. I was happy about that because I had just purchased this very nice edition and was eager to read it.

I think I read this book when I was younger. However, it is possible I just remember what I saw in movies over the years. The story was somewhat familiar to me but my memories were garbled so that there were enough surprises to entertain me. 

I had mixed feelings before reading Little Women; I thought it would be too old-fashioned in tone and themes. There is a good bit of moralizing, which isn't appealing, but that does fit with the times it was written. 

Thus it surprised me that I found this such an enjoyable read and also that I continued thinking about it for several days after finishing it. 

The story focuses on four sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy) and their mother, Marmee. Mr. March has volunteered to serve as a chaplain in the Union Army during the Civil War, and he is stationed far away. The fear that they will never see him again weighs heavily on all of them. The family once was well-to-do but Mr. March made some bad business decisions so that they have now moved to a smaller home and have to mind their pennies. Right next door, however, is a very rich man and his grandson, Laurie. Over time the girls and Laurie become good friends. 

I did not realize that the book was in two parts (and is sometimes published as two separate books). The first part begins when Meg, the oldest, is 16 and Amy, the youngest, is 12.  The second part follows the girls as they approach their twenties and are thinking of marriage.

My favorite character is Jo, who is headstrong with a temper, and doesn't want to fit in with the expectations of the day related to marriage, being dependent on a man, and taking care of a home. I was not at all like that when I was young and ended up with a career by accident, so it isn't that I really understood her yearnings. I think Jo balances out the other characters who want to be married, and preferably to someone with lots of money (except for Beth, but I am not addressing that at all).

I like that the story is told in episodes of the girls lives; each chapter is almost like a short story that can stand alone. They all go through trials and tribulations. I was never bored with the story.

My edition of the book was a Penguin Deluxe Edition and had a Foreword, an Introduction, and a section on "how the read the book" for both children and adults, which I found useful. There was a glossary in the back of the book, also useful and entertaining. Usually I could figure out approximate meanings of words I was unfamiliar with, but often reading the notes in the glossary helped even more by explaining books that were popular at the time, etc.

I enjoyed the introduction (and other sections), and learning more about Alcott and how and why she wrote the book. I never thought of this book as a children's book, but it was written for children which explains a lot of the moralizing. Actually, nowadays, it seems like it would appeal more to adults, as a picture of what times were like in the 1860s, than to children.

Reading an article in LitHub, I found it interesting that Louisa May Alcott wrote the following sentence in a response to a letter from a young writer: "I do not enjoy writing 'moral tales' for the young, I do it because it pays well." 

I nearly forgot to mention one of my favorite themes in the book. Throughout the years the March family celebrates Christmas. The book begins at Christmas, with Jo complaining that it won't be Christmas without presents. They find ways to make it nice anyway. The Christmas celebration the next year is lovely. This is the perfect book to read in December.

Moira at Clothes in Books has featured Little Women (and other books by Alcott) on her blog often. See this post about Christmas in wartime.


Publisher: Penguin Books, 2018 (orig. pub. 1868).
Length:    464 pages
Format:    Trade Paperback
Setting:    Massachusetts, US
Genre:     Fiction, Classic
Source:    I purchased this book in 2020.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Bronson Alcott was quite the moralizer so I am not surprised there's some of that. I was obsessed with this family for years and read many biographies about them. Especially interesting is Fruitlands, the utopia he tried to establish. Visiting their house in Concord is fun. They still have Amy (May's) drawings on the wall. Bronson was a terrible provider so they were often hungry.

Kay said...

It's been years since I read this book. Think my first time was when I was about 10 or so. I actually liked other books written by Alcott better than this one and maybe some of the movies were more fun. Glad you enjoyed it. I had also forgotten how well Christmas was portrayed in it. I might do a reread one day.

Cath said...

I read this in my teens and loved it to bits.... absolutely adored it. Oddly, none of what you describe rings a bell, like Kay I don't remember anything about how Christmas was portayed for instance. Possibly I should reread it myself next year.

Rick Robinson said...

I have only watched the film on TCM, but have considered reading it. It's a maybe.

Margot Kinberg said...

I loved this book when I was younger. And I always identified with Jo more than with the other sisters. I agree with you, Tracy, that it's nice that the book is set up so that the reader can enjoy the stories as separate entities. I know this one's not everyone's cup of tea, but I loved it.

TracyK said...

Patti, I don't know that much about Alcott's life but I had read that the small role that Mr. March played in the book was based on her experiences with her own father and his role in the family's life. Also it is interesting that the characters in the book are so close to her own family and experiences.

Last night I read some of the Contextual Essays from my edition of the book, and one of them covered Bronson Alcott and his spiritual beliefs and how little money they had, etc. It was very interesting. Other essays were "The Civil War and the Northern Home Front" and "Growing up Female."

I would love to visit the house in Concord but I am not much of a traveler, so I doubt if I will get there.

TracyK said...

Kay, very interesting that you liked other books she wrote more. I had not thought of reading more by her, I will have to look into that.

I remember when I read Jane Austen's books that the Christmas celebrations were minimal, and the contrast here was surprising to me.

TracyK said...

Cath, I remembered nothing about the 2nd half of the book. Which may mean that I am just remembering movie versions. Rereading it could be interesting for a comparison.

TracyK said...

Rick, I enjoyed the writing and a picture of what it was like during Civil War times but it is long and reactions are split so much. Some people really dislike the book. I might want to watch one of the versions again.

TracyK said...

Margot, I was surprised to read so many reviews that either disliked the book or found it just so so. And people disliked the choice that Jo made about marriage, whereas it seemed right to me. But then, if we all looked at things the same way, it would be a dull world.

Katrina said...

I think I was about ten when I read this one for the first time and loved it. I also read Good Wives and Jo's Boys and have read them again as an adult. I agree about the moralising and love that comment by Alcott. More recently I enjoyed her books Eight Cousins and An Old-Fashioned Girl, they're well worth reading.

TracyK said...

Katrina, I will look into other books by Alcott, with both you and Kay having liked them. I just read your review of Eight Cousins and it sounds like a good one to try.

Clothes in Books said...

Thanks for the shoutout Tracy. I cannot be objective about this book because I loved it so much when I was young, and re-read it so often - also my 1st copy was given to me by my grandmother and had formerly been owned by my aunt. So, I am very glad you liked it so much!
Did you like the films? I liked the recent one very much, and also the one with Susan Sarandon and Winona Ryder. There was also a very good TV adaptation a few years ago.

TracyK said...

Moira, the only film adaptations I remember seeing for sure are the one with Katherine Hepburn and the one with Winona Ryder. I am sure I liked the first one and probably liked the second one too. I think I must have seen another early adaptation (with June Allyson?) and probably have seen the early ones more than once. I have not seen the more recent movie, but I would not mind seeing it sometime. It is all very hazy memories, so I am glad I read this and that it was a better experience than I expected.

Nan said...

I almost envy you just coming to LW. I love it more than I can say. I still have my copy that my mother gave me and wrote in. It was my 11th birthday and she wrote, "You have read this book so many times dear. Now you have this one you won't have to borrow it again. Love, Mom" I wonder if she ever, ever thought I would still have it all these years later. It is time that I read it again. But every time I read it I think that just maybe you-know-who- won't you-know-what.

CLM said...

I read all of Alcott repeatedly as a child, and like most readers identified with Jo, especially her writing and her temper. I especially love Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, and An Old Fashioned Girl. I just wrapped a copy of An Old Fashioned Girl for my 7th grade niece and I hope she is willing to try it.

I recommend to Little Women fans that they read The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton, which is set in Concord and the main characters visit Orchard House. I am not sure why it never occurred to my mother to bring me there. I didn't see it until I was grown up. My mother read Little Women too young and when Beth "put her needle down for the last time" my mother thought she was just tired of sewing and didn't realize she was dead!

Nan, that is lovely you still have your inscribed copy! Maybe you will read it to your granddaughter!

Tracy, maybe you should do one of those historic coast-to-coast train trips (not the kind where a murder takes place but where one can jump on and off depending on interesting stops along the way). But perhaps those don't exist post-9/11.

TracyK said...

Nan, That is a lovely story of the copy of Little Women that your mother gave you. I don't know where I got my love of reading; neither of my parents enjoyed reading fiction like I do. My mother's mother did read a lot, maybe that is it.

Reading Little Women has certainly sparked my interest in reading more about Alcott.

TracyK said...

Constance, thanks for the suggestion re The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton. I have read some books by Langton, and I can see how she would make good use of that setting. I still have five of Langton's books on my TBR piles, but not that one. But it should be easy to find.

That is a good suggestion about traveling by train, that is actually something we had considered, and maybe we will try it one day. (Although I had not heard about historic coast-to-coast trips.)

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi TracyK, Great review. I have never gotten around to reading Little Women though I did enjoy the movie starring Wynonna Ryder and Susan Sarandon. I've made attempts to read the book but I never get past the beginning "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents". I think that's a mistake to stop at the beginning because as I understand the book gets more complex the further in you read. Its a classic for a reason.

TracyK said...

Kathy, this is a classic that has endured the test of time and still is very popular, but it is also a book that elicits strong reactions to some of its themes, like the picture of women as submissive to men. Yet I think the picture of Jo balances that out, not that she is perfect either. When and if you get around to it, I think you will find good aspects in it. I enjoyed the read and liked that it got me interested in the author's life.

CLM said...

I think one used to be able to jump on and off impulsively, which would be fun. Now you have to make reservations in advance but with planning (and traveling at the right time of year) one could make it a pretty amazing trip, stopping to visit key mystery bookstores on the way . . . hoping they survive the pandemic.

With unlimited funds, one could take the QEII to England after reaching the East Coast!

TracyK said...

That definitely sounds like fun, Constance. Especially going to bookstores. Of course you would have to cart the books around. Maybe someday.

col2910 said...

Tracy, I'm glad you enjoye dit, but not one for me.

TracyK said...

Col, I was actually leery of reading Little Women, but I was finally convinced, and I am glad I got so much out of it.