Thursday, February 3, 2011

Little Women

I'm not sure what it is about cold weather that makes me want to read stories about families, but there you go. I suppose it could be related to fond memories of winter fun as a kid: board games after dinner, building snow houses with my dad and sisters, baking cookies with my mum, and, of course, reading in front of the wood stove. That is a very cosy feeling, and nothing quite brings it back like a dip into Louisa May Alcott's classic, Little Women. Perhaps I'm slightly biased because I have sisters, but Little Women has to be one of the best books on how the relationship between sisters works, at least based on my experience.

Alcott's story of the March sisters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, their Marmee, and their neighbour, Laurie. It's a coming-of-age story, really – a bildungsroman with a composite cast, although it focuses most on Jo, the second-eldest of the sisters. Jo is a dramatist, a writer, and a bit of a free spirit. The novel is set, as best as I can tell, during the American Civil War (not that war has much to do with the story, except to explain the father's absence for most of it as well as the March family's relative poverty); this kind of explains why the family, despite seeming modern in its sensibilities, remains staunchly conservative in many ways. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though. A novel about the tension between propriety and impropriety, about women who are growing up in a world that is subtly changing, makes small details (such as the whereabouts of a glove) rather shocking and exciting.

Of course, Little Women hinges on the relationship between the sisters and Marmee. As in every family, there is jealousy and favouritism (Meg and Amy together, Jo and Beth together), but mostly their is camaraderie and love. There is no real mention of outside female friends, which leads the reader to the conclusion that the sisters really just have each other and Marmee to rely on and learn from. But, of course, there is also Laurie, their handsome scamp and kindred spirit from next door.

Laurie's name is actually Theodore Laurence. He lives with his grandfather and is tutored by Mr. Brooke so that one day he can take on the family business. Laurie, like Jo, has a great imagination and as an implied only child, he delights in the company of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. After gaining entry to the sisters' secret world of games and society, Laurie quickly becomes a focal point. His grandfather helps out when Beth falls ill, he creates some romantic tension, but mostly he is a wonderful friend, in on all the jokes and rather desperately in love with Jo. I must admit – and I'm sure I'm not alone here – that I had quite a crush on Laurie through most of the book, a feeling that would be inevitably dashed by the end, only to return with each subsequent read.

And that is the power of Alcott's story. She makes you believe that this time, for this one reread of the story, things will work out differently. Maybe this time you'll find out what would have happened if Jo had married Laurie (although, secretly, I was always glad she ended up with an intellectual); maybe this time Beth won't die, I mean, she makes it through her first illness, right? Little Women is such a rich and textural story that Alcott gets you all caught up in the detail and carefully woven fabric of her characters' lives – really, you don't stand a chance. Even though you know what will happen, you still hope it might not, or hold your breath until it does, squirming at the edge of your seat.

Little Women was originally published in two parts: Little Women and Good Wives, but most versions are sold as a combined story under the better-known title. Together, the story carries you from youth into adulthood. The March sisters grown and change, but don't let go of their childhood personalities completely. In many ways, Alcott's characters are real people in their habits and styles, and by allowing them to grow into, rather than out of, themselves, they become more like friends or family than names on a page – perfect for visiting on a cold and snowy day.

Little Women
by Louisa May Alcott
First published in two parts in 1868 and 1869 (cover image shown from Signet Classics edition)

1 comment:

  1. I've been reading about Louisa May Alcott all my life but just read Little Women this summer (go figure!). I just loved it! The character development is so rich and textured, and the fact that the book is so autobiographical makes the characters seem even more real.

    I blogged about Little Women extensively this summer on my Louisa May Alcott blog at http://booksunderskin.blogspot.com/2011/02/little-women.html - come on over for a visit.

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