Simply charming, a must-read for anyone who has forgotten the power of Alcott’s storytelling. Harmless morality tales inside that teach without being overly preachy, resolve to be good, etc. etc. The unnamed Mrs. March, mother to the four sisters, reveals her own struggle to be good when Jo comes to her for advice for overcoming her temper: “I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo; but I have learned not to show it; and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.” The unnamed Mr. March is conveniently away from home fighting for the Yanks in the Civil War, but he does make an appearance later in the book after being nursed back to health.
Jo is the star, the independent whirligig of energy who channels her creativity into stories that she sells to make money for the family (and later hones to art after abandoning the cheap thrilling trash that she was paid to write). Amy is the visual artist, sketching and sculpting, lucking out into a European tour with her aunt after Jo rashly said she doesn’t enjoy taking favors from people. Meg is the oldest, settling into a family of her own way too soon for Jo’s liking. Beth is in the middle, the musician who dies early after being weakened by scarlet fever that she never truly recovers from. Jo discovers Laurie, her next door neighbor, is a capital chap, and they horse around for years until it seems likely that Laurie has fallen in love with her. Jo takes a governess job in NYC in order to create distance and possibly get Laurie to love Beth. In the end, Laurie and Amy start their own family, Jo marries her German friend, the professor.
Alcott was pressured into marrying Jo off, and did not want to. (From her journal in November 1868: “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please any one.”) She churned this off in ten weeks, ending part one with a plea, “So grouped the curtain falls upon Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Whether it rises again depends upon the reception given to the first act of the domestic drama, called ‘LITTLE WOMEN’.”
Parts of the book seem to spill directly from Alcott’s soul: “Then she tried a child’s story, which she could easily have disposed of if she had not been mercenary enough to demand filthy lucre for it.”
Despite Alcott’s loathing of marriage, her book isn’t quite the underground feminist novel that it could have been. While Jo cavorts around with the freedom of a boy, when it comes to describing Meg’s twins, Demi and Daisy, Alcott caves into the cultural baggage of the sexes by making Demi (the boy) precocious, adventurous, inquisitive, and educated while Daisy (the girl) learns to stitch and “made a galley-slave of herself and adored her brother.” Puke.
The version I read (Modern Library, pub’d 2000) had terrible notes compiled by Random House, and they truly were random. On one page, they’d explain a character name, but make no reference to who Madam de Stael was. But then they’d insert a footnote to explain something that was entirely clear by context, that Killarney was in Ireland. I did pick up that there was an earlier Speed the Plough play (Thomas Morton) by references to the frequently mentioned Mrs. Grundy. (I recently saw the Mamet play Speed the Plow and am getting a copy of Morton’s to compare/contrast)