Books for Women #4 Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

This was one I got from my mother. She loved reading, and new and secondhand books of her were always stuffed down the side of chairs and  sofas, or crammed into our one tiny bookcase. Books  I read between the ages of 9-14 were mostly Mum’s, and included various titles by Denis Wheatley, Jean Plaidy, Georgette Heyer, Kingsley Amis, Alistair MacLean Dick Francis, John Braine. And Mario Puzo, The Godfather. And Jackie Collins – loads of them! But few, if any, of these fed into my sense of self as a woman.

Little Women was a very different case. I almost think my mother  might have read Little Women , or some of it, to me. But I may be getting blurry – Katie Hepburn was in the glorious film, and she was one of my mother’s heroines, so we may have simply watched the film together. But  Mum in some way pressed this book onto me so it came  with an unusual  gloss – mum loves it. And she wanted me to love it too. I don’t think I’ve read  it since whenever that was – perhaps when I was 10, 11. If so, of course, it was too hard for me. As with many of my girlhood books, it didn’t seem to matter at the time that I couldn’t really understand them. I just skipped huge portions. I have been  re-reading it today, and  can see I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if I’d gone back  when I was 15 or 35.

It  features in my list of 100 books to maketh a woman because not many books are about such a range of  women, whether they are little or not.  It was the first book that really said to me ‘women have individual characters, do things, are passionate, and die’. Later I’d re-find this  fact in Jane Eyre, where it was equally appalling. But I remember crying at the death of Beth – perhaps the first death I experienced in  fiction and in life – and totally identifying with boyish Jo, who  never wanted to  grow into a young lady and wear dresses and put her hair up.  The scene in which she manages to  accept a proposal of marriage from  Professor Bhaer is top of the class for realism, feeling and humour too. He’s about to leave town – and though deeply independent, she doesn’t want him to go;

“Now shall we go home?” he asked, as if the words were very pleasant to him.“Yes, it’s late, and I’m so tired.” Jo’s voice was more pathetic than she knew. For now the sun seemed to have gone in as suddenly as it came out, and the world grew muddy and miserable again, and for the first time she discovered that her feet were cold, her head ached, and that her heart was colder than the former, fuller of pain than the latter. Mr. Bhaer was going away, he only cared for her as a friend, it was all a mistake, and the sooner it was over the better. With this idea in her head, she hailed an approaching omnibus with such a hasty gesture that the daisies flew out of the pot and were badly damaged.“This is not our omniboos,” said the Professor, waving the loaded vehicle away, and stopping to pick up the poor little flowers.“I beg your pardon. I didn’t see the name distinctly. Never mind, I can walk. I’m used to plodding in the mud,” returned Jo, winking hard, because she would have died rather than openly wipe her eyes.
Mr. Bhaer saw the drops on her cheeks, though she turned her head away. The sight seemed to touch him very much, for suddenly stooping down, he asked in a tone that meant a great deal, “Heart’s dearest, why do you cry?”
Now, if Jo had not been new to this sort of thing she would have said she wasn’t crying, had a cold in her head, or told any other feminine fib proper to the occasion. Instead of which, that undignified creature answered, with an irrepressible sob, “Because you are going away.”

“Ach, mein Gott, that is so good!” cried Mr. Bhaer, managing to clasp his hands in spite of the umbrella and the bundles, “Jo, I haf nothing but much love to gif you. I came to see if you could care for it, and I waited to be sure that I was something more than a friend. Am I? Can you make a little place in your heart for old Fritz?” he added, all in one breath.

“Oh, yes!” said Jo, and he was quite satisfied, for she folded both hands over his are, and looked up at him with an expression that plainly showed how happy she would be to walk through life beside him, even though she had no better shelter than the old umbrella, if he carried it.It was certainly proposing under difficulties, for even if he had desired to do so, Mr. Bhaer could not go down upon his knees, on account of the mud. Neither could he offer Jo his hand, except figuratively, for both were full. Much less could he indulge in tender remonstrations in the open street, though he was near it. So the only way in which he could express his rapture was to look at her, with an expression which glorified his face to such a degree that there actually seemed to be little rainbows in the drops that sparkled on his beard. If he had not loved Jo very much, I don’t think he could have done it then, for she looked far from lovely, with her skirts in a deplorable state, her rubber boots splashed to the ankle, and her bonnet a ruin. Fortunately, Mr. Bhaer considered her the most beautiful woman living, and she found him more `Jove-like” than ever, though his hatbrim was quite limp with the little rills trickling thence upon his shoulders (for he held the umbrella all over Jo), and every finger of his gloves needed mending.

Passers-by probably thought them a pair of harmless lunatics, for they entirely forgot to hail a bus, and strolled leisurely along, oblivious of deepening dusk and fog. Little they cared what anybody thought, for they were enjoying the happy hour that seldom comes but once in any life, the magical moment which bestows youth on the old, beauty on the plain, wealth on the poor, and gives human hearts a foretaste of heaven. The Professor looked as if he had conquered a kingdom, and the world had nothing more to offer him in the way of bliss. While Jo trudged beside him, feeling as if her place had always been there, and wondering how she ever could have chosen any other lot.

Love, love, love… of course when I was a young feminist I’d have objected to  this – women don’t have to shape their lives round men, etc – but now I think most of us shape our lives around love or connectedness one way or another, and what we all need  more than anything are complex models. Mrs March and her four daughters add up to a pretty multi-faceted woman, for whom the acquisition of pretty things is less important than trying to live a good life. And they have a lot of fun.

For which, many thanks, Mum.

3 thoughts on “Books for Women #4 Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

  1. Jackie O'Carroll April 29, 2012 / 8:40 pm

    Jane – I thought of this only today! I too inherited it from my mother and it was most definately a book of discovery, of tears and laughter. So lovely to hear such a similar experience.
    At the same time as ‘Little Women’ I also discovered Susan Coolidge ‘What Katy did’ and ‘What Katy did next’. These were Sunday School prizes and always the same publisher. Katy was of course an invalid for some of the book and this was quite romantic to me! The other books that come to mind from that same time are the ‘Anne of Greengables’ and ;pippy Longstocking’ – both strong, independent characters!

  2. Charlotte April 30, 2012 / 4:36 pm

    So glad that this has made your list, Jane – absolutely one of my favourite books. And you’re right – it covers such a range of women, and shows women actually choosing their individuality- deciding and establishing who they are going to be, beyond just ‘female’.
    It made me think as well, of ‘The Little House on the Prairie’ – a book, actually a series of books, that would have to be on my list because – as you say – ‘Mum loved it’. She read them to me in bed, and I remember laughing and crying in equal amounts. Other than that, must-have books on my list would include some rather obvious choices – ‘Matilda’ by Roald Dahl, ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘Madame Bovary’, ‘Pride and Prejudice – as well as ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker, ‘Nights at the Circus’ by Anglea Carter’, ‘Good Morning, Midnight’ by Jean Rhys (in a sort of terrible, but necessary way) and ‘Trumpet’ by Jackie Kay really made me question my perspective on ‘gender’ as a concept when I read it at university. And a Shakespeare – ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or ‘Macbeth’? A hard choice, given the models of femininity they both provide!

  3. susanwbailey May 4, 2012 / 9:49 pm

    Reading Louisa May Alcott is a way of staying close to my mom even though she’s gone now. I inherited copies of Little Women, An Old-Fashioned Girl and Aunt Jo’s Scrapbag from her.

    I write about Louisa – come on over for a visit – http://louisamayalcottismypassion.wordpress.com – among other things I have the color plates from my 1920-something Old-Fashioned Girl in some of my posts.

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