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ClassicsOnline Home » ALCOTT, L.: Little Women (Abridged)
Little Women, closely based on Louisa May Alcott’s own experience of family life, was first published in 1869 and has never lost its extraordinary power to move and delight: from the heartrending story of gentle Beth to the humorous adventures of tomboyish Jo, and Meg’s vain attempts to cut a fashionable figure in ‘society’.
Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott was born in Pennsylvania in 1832, and died
in 1888. Her father was the impractically idealistic Bronson Alcott, member of
a New England ‘consociate’ Christian community, which attempted to live by high
moral standards involving deliberate self-sacrifice for the common good.
While Alcott was running a school, he insisted on allowing a
black child to share in its educational benefits: as a result, the school was
forced to close. Admirable and advanced as his moral standards undoubtedly
were, the eventual result was that he and his family were plunged into debt.
Louisa, one of four daughters, took it upon herself to mend the family’s
fortunes and in September 1867 she agreed, at a publisher’s request, to write ‘a
girl’s book’ — rather against her will. She had been writing since her
childhood and had already been published, but Little Women was to be her first
success — a runaway success, in fact, and in spite of both her and her
publisher’s initial reservations.
Those already familiar with the novel will by now have
recognized Louisa as the model for Jo, the tomboyish, imaginative second sister
of the story. In fact, Alcott set out quite deliberately to base Little Women
on her own memories of family life, something which in part accounts for the extraordinary
warmth and truth of the writing. She changed some of the names, and made her
father into the more heroic — but conveniently absent — figure we find in the
novel. Alcott said that Mrs. March, modeled after her mother, was ‘not half
good enough’. Given the extraordinary virtue of Mrs. March, this is praise
indeed. One of Alcott’s sisters was actually called Beth, and she too became
seriously ill with scarlet fever: an entry from Alcott’s journal of the time notes
that ‘she sews, reads, sings softly, and lies looking at the fire.’ And again:
‘Last week she put her work away, saying that the needle was too heavy.’
Listeners to this edition of Little Women will have to wait for the sequel to
discover Beth’s eventual fate, but meanwhile few will fail to be moved by the
chapter in which the crisis of her illness arrives in the early hours of the
morning, as the family awaits the urgent return of Mrs. March.
Alcott’s capacity to arouse a variety of emotion in her
readers (or listeners) is one of her greatest strengths as a writer: not only
does she write with remarkable ease and intelligence, she also conveys absolute
sincerity and truth to life. The squabbles and the reconciliation, jealousies,
generosities and absurdities of family life are wonderfully described. This is
perhaps the more remarkable given the strong, at times almost cloying, weight
of religious and moral emphasis: chapters are typically concluded by a
miniature sermon from Mrs. March, explaining the recent errors of the girls.
Indeed, the whole novel is loosely based on the idea in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s
Progress of life as an experiential journey leading (if we keep on the path)
towards the Celestial City. Stronger than all this, however, is that sense of truth
to life which was, fortunately, Alcott’s abiding virtue. Humor is never far
away — especially in the form of Laurie, the boy next door whose kindly
vivacity occasionally leads him into scrapes. But what all the characters have
in common is the capacity to learn from their mistakes — and if this sounds too
good to be true, rest assured that it is not. It’s interesting that the book
has been filmed several times, and with some success, most recently in 1994:
unless children become quite radically unlike the creatures we know today, the
novel will never date.
Generations of children — boys as well as girls — have come
to love Little Women and its sequels with a passion, which few other books for
younger readers can arouse.
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
Liza Ross has appeared on stage in the West End and in
repertory across Great Britain, including Wings and The Front Page at the Royal
National Theatre. She has made many television appearances including After the
War, Poor Little Rich Girl, Two’s Company and The Month of the Doctors. Her
film work includes Batman and The Shadowchasers. She has also worked
extensively as a voice artist.
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ALCOTT, L.: Little Women (Abridged)