I’ve been watching Little Women on near repeat the last few days to cope with being in the epicenter of the Pennsylvania Covid-19 outbreak. I re-read the book in the last month for the tenth time, but the first since I was fourteen and I’d nearly forgotten just how near and dear it is to my heart.
From the Back Cover of the Pictured Edition:
Little Women transcends the boundaries of time and age: it is as popular with adults as it is with young readers. The beloved story of the March girls is a classic American feminist novel, reflecting the tension between cultural obligation and artistic and personal freedom. But which of the four March sisters to love best? For every reader must have their favorite. Independent, tomboyish Jo; delicate, loving Beth; pretty, kind Meg; or precocious and artistic Amy, the baby of the family? The charming story of these four “little women” and their wise and patient Marmee enduring hardships and enjoying adventures in Civil War New England was an instant success when first published in 1868 and has been adored for generations since.
I started re-reading Little Women because I decided that the bookstore needed more book clubs and I was inspired by Atomic Books in Baltimore to begin a Page to Screen Book Club. After much debate, I decided to start with Little Women and we would have a different staff member moderate the club each month. March 10th the first meeting. In the bookstore. In Montgomery County. In the epicenter of the Covid-19 virus outbreak in Pennsylvania. Needless to say, no one showed up. So we’ll try again in April, and as a former film major and screenwriter, I cannot wait to start this club.
I grew up with a soft and tattered covered copy of Little Women that I read over and over again, so ardently did I wish I was Jo, because my little sister was certainly Amy, and I believed that if I read it constantly, my wish would come true. And she would turn into a kinder and gentler sister, like Beth. That was my wish until my sister had a dreadful fever as a child and my grandmother had us convinced it was Scarlet Fever. And I thought I would lose my sister, just as Jo (well established spoiler but obligatory warning) lost her Beth. And all of a sudden, the book, and the relationships between the sisters, took on a whole new meaning.
My mother clarified to my sister and I recently that Laura most certainly did not have Scarlet Fever and that Moppy had made an offhand comment about fevers that we latched on to as children, as one does. And in that same conversation, as happens every time Little Women came up, my mother lamented having to share a name with the youngest and most obnoxious March sister, Amy (my mom is definitely a Marmee, not an Amy as I was convinced my sister was). But the lamentation led to an in depth conversation about whether she was redeemed in Greta Gerwig’s film.
As a writer, someone who has written thousands of unpublished pages of manuscripts across most mediums, I would have an extremely difficult time forgiving a sister who destroyed a single copy of my work. And as I hand write everything, it was, and is, something that could be done. I know I should type it up, but I don’t always. I have milk crates of all the notebooks I filled, binders with printed out copies once I typed them, and right now, a lonely teal softcover Moleskine that hasn’t been touched in way too long.
To say I identified with Jo for most of my life is an understatement. I’ve always been outspoken and a touch dramatic, the one person who begged her parents for an older sibling (which they always said didn’t work that way until they got divorced and remarried and I got my older brother, and 6 other older siblings over the years to boot), so I could be a middle child like Jo. I refuse to be ignored and I want nothing more than to be remembered, even if just by my family and future generations as I hope to ensure my Moppy will be.
But one of the defining characteristics of Jo, and Amy, was their competition and distrust of each other. Oh Amy, you troubled, difficult sister. The baby of the family, spoiled by all, including lovely Beth, it was hard to think of her as a character that would ever grow up. She has always gotten dragged for her behavior and actions by readers and I’m often one to jump in on the Amy-bashing, especially given my contentious relationship with my sister when we were younger. While I don’t find many redeeming qualities in Amy in the book, I do think that Greta did a spectacular job of making her a less-hateable character in her film adaptation.
And as Greta’s Amy changed, so did my own family. Laura grew up, and she reminded me less and less of precocious Amy. I realized we were always more like Ramona and Beezus then we were Amy and Jo. She’s never mellowed into Beth, but has lately begun to encroach on Jo territory, especially that we now have a younger stepbrother and she’s no longer the baby of the family. For myself, the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve found myself drawn to motherly oldest sister Meg, slowly but surely reclaiming my biological birth order persona that I abandoned for many years, content to be the outspoken middle child throughout my adolescence and twenties.
As a teen, I never really “got” Meg. I didn’t understand why she was a bit vain, and I never thought I was pretty. I just didn’t understand, either, why she’d want to get married – she’d have to give up so many freedoms when she did. And while Meg ultimately made the most socially acceptable decisions in post-Civil War Massachusetts, I’ve realized that she’s now my favorite because those are her decisions, her choices. She makes them not because society demands it of her, but because she wants them. She’s in love, she’s not forced into a match by anyone. Her dreams are different than Jo’s, but they’re still important.
I had a conversation with a customer recently about if her daughter views her as a feminist because she chose to be a stay-at-home mom. When she was in school, the stay-at-home moms looked down on the working moms, and now it’s the other way around. She was worried that her daughter would think that she caved to some outdated societal expectation, not understanding that she made the decision because it was her choice, not because she had to. I told her that I didn’t think her daughter would think any less of her for staying home and always being there and shared with her a topic that I’d been struggling with for awhile as well.
I’ve had the conversation with people many times, including with good friends, about the fact that I changed my name when I got married. I have friends who refuse to acknowledge that I’ve changed it, insisting on addressing me by my maiden name because they think that’s what a feminist should have done, kept her name. Few of them understand my choice in changing it was in an effort to carve out my own identity, separate to that of my mother’s as we were in the same field and my work and merit was being questioned as nepotism.
Meg, the customer, and my choices may fit what modern feminists consider to be outdated social norms, but the point of feminism that I believe Louisa May Alcott is making, is that of freedom. That women should have the right and the opportunity to make whatever decisions they like for their own reasoning, if any reasoning. We should not have to defend ourselves for pursuing our own interests and relationships.
Little Women has reminded me what it means to be a feminist in a way that I couldn’t conceptualize the first 9 times I read it from the ages of 10 to 14 (I read it twice a year over Christmas and summer break). In rereading and rewatching, I’m reminded of why I love the March sisters, why Marmee is such a good mother, and how I hope to continue to support my own beautiful and loving sister as well as all the women around me.
Rating: 10 out of 10 stars
Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through IndieBound or your local independent, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon.