In 1868, two thousand copies of a book called Little Women were printed.
It sold like hotcakes.
Demand for the book was so high the publisher could not keep up, leading him to plead with its author, Louisa May Alcott, to write a second volume.
Just months later, in 1869, Good Wives was published.
The two volumes together constitute what we know as Little Women, which celebrates its 150th birthday this year.
Anniversaries being great excuses, perhaps this is a good time to dust off your old volume and give it a re-read, or pick up one of the dozens of editions available and read it for the first time, for this is one of the most successful, iconic American novels.
I first read Little Women at around age 10 I suppose. And to be honest, it was never my cup of tea, unlike my sister, who has told me she read it, then turned right around and read it again, and then immediately read it a third time. I’ve never been a girly-girl, and even Jo’s wild aversion to the ladylike standards of her day did not quite go far enough to reel me in, I’m afraid.
Interestingly, the book is still published as two separate volumes in the UK and I understand that many girls there read only the first half of what is one hefty book. Perhaps if that were the case in the U.S., I might have fallen in love with the story before all of the Fallings in Love and Donnings of Mature Womanhood in the second half squelched my 10-year-old enthusiasm!
At any rate, I decided to pick up this novel again and give it another shot.
And of course, as with any childhood read, I realized I’d mostly forgotten all but the splashy plot points.
The tone, style, and what I’d call turmoil of the narrator’s voice as she wrestles with the proper way to be a woman in this world — all of that read quite differently to me at this stage of life and in the present state of society.
At least, it read differently thanks in large part to some background reading I’d done.
Learning how Alcott came to write the book, how dramatically new its content was in its day, and how Alcott was imposed upon by her publisher to alter the story she wanted to tell, helped me be more forbearing towards aspects of the narrative which did still grate on my nerves, helped me see beyond portions that seemed to regale the so-called womanly virtues of deference and softness,
helped me shrug off passages I found overly didactic, precious, or sentimental.
I was better able to appreciate the wrangling conflict surrounding and within
Jo as she maintains her fierce independence, her dreams of being a first-rate writer, her withering disdain for all the false pretense, ridiculous apparel and restrictive manners expected of women,
yet seeks to honor her mother and sisters and their versions of life.
Throughout the book this time around, I felt caught in a tug-of-war, variously frustrated by and appreciative of this extraordinary portrait of traditional versus progressive women’s roles.
I read much of that background in a companion book published last year — Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why it Still Matters.
Author Anne Rioux provides us with the social context for women authors in Alcott’s day, a biographical sketch of Alcott’s unique childhood, family life, and struggles which underlie the entire novel, a comparison to other popular lit of the era so we understand how groundbreaking and wildly successful this novel was, and a fascinating account of how the first and second volumes came to be published.
She also traces the proliferation of editions and films, its astonishing impact in particular on a surprising, vast host of great writers, and addresses a number of potent questions about the feminist message of Little Women.
You won’t agree with every one of the author’s opinions, but I guarantee you will engage with the novel differently after reading her analysis.
If I were in charge of a book club for women or girls ages 13 and up, I’d read Rioux’s book alongside Little Women for some lively discussions.
In the end, Rioux champions the book as eminently valid for today’s readers, and with her insights in mind, I would agree.
Handing Little Women to many of today’s younger readers without any context may well be setting them up for a negative reading experience,
although some, especially more traditional girls, will enjoy it without any ado.
Reading it with context, however, can stimulate some fine conversations and give today’s young girls an unexpected window onto some of their favorite current characters, from Hermione Grainger to Katniss Everdeen.
A further incentive to read the book this Fall lies in the newest Little Women film, set to come out at Christmastime from filmmaker Greta Gerwig.
I am looking forward to watching that film with a new set of ideas and questions,
curious to see how Gerwig handles Alcott’s central values and conflict in crafting the novel.
To whet your appetites, I’ve collected several editions of the novel for you to consider, as well as a couple of marvelous-looking Little Women cookbooks, and a radio-broadcast production, in addition to the Rioux title.
The Annotated Little Women, written by Louisa May Alcott, edited with an Introduction and Notes by John Matteson
published in 2016 by W.W. Norton & Company
I checked out this tome from my library and although physically it is rather like reading a hulking medical textbook or venerable family Bible, I found Matteson’s notations fascinating.
In addition to a lengthy introduction and biographical sketch which condense some of the same information as the Rioux book, there are copious notes in the side margins of the pages giving context to the hundreds of literary allusions in Alcott’s book and calling our attention to parallels or contrasts to the source materials itself — Alcott’s life. There are recipes for some of the antiquated foods mentioned, illustrations and photographs helpfully referencing people, places, and items from the text, illustrations from various editions and artists over the past 150 years, biographical sketches of historical figures named in the book, and lots more.
If you have the leisure and curiosity to ramble down these various lanes, it makes for a much fuller reading experience. Matteson includes an Alcott Chronology with corresponding contemporary events and publications, plus a nice selection for further reading.
Little Women 150th Anniversary Edition with illustrations by Frank Merrill
published in 2019 by SeaWolf Press
Here’s an easy choice if you’d like to read an edition that nearly looks its original age.
Little Women with cover illustration by Anna Bond
published in 2014 by Puffin Books
And here’s one if you favor a charming cover! I don’t believe this edition is illustrated throughout, but the cover is sure enticing!
Little Women: BBC Radio4 Full Cast Dramatization
released in 2017
2 hrs 18 minutes
Consider this BBC production if you’d like a lively version to introduce younger listeners to this classic.
Audible also has a couple of full-text recordings if you prefer.
The Little Women Cookbook: Tempting Recipes from the March Sisters and Their Friends and Family, by Wini Moranville
published by Harvard Common Press; on shelves October 1, 2019
Doesn’t this look charming?! Recipes are collected in four sections: Hannah’s Breakfasts; Gatherings with Family and Friends; March Family Dinners and Suppers; and Sweet Treats, Desserts and Drinks. Charming illustrations, a short quote and paragraph giving the book-context for the recipe, and lovely photographs. Looks a winner!
The Little Women Cookbook: Novel Takes on Classic Recipes from Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and Friends, by Jenne Bergstrom and Miko Osada
published by Ulysses Press; on shelves October 22, 2019
This one promises to have color photographs, illustrations, favorite passages, historical trivia, and additional commentary by the authors, founders of 36 Eggs, the literary food blog. Sounds a treat!
Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why it Still Matters, by Anne Boyd Rioux
published in 2018 by W. W. Norton and Company
This is the book I’ve mentioned in my review, a thought-provoking analysis of Alcott’s novel.
Finally, here’s a link to an intriguing conversation about the making of the 1994 Little Women film that most current viewers will be familiar with. It also contains a trailer for the new film coming out in December. Just for you film buffs.
What do you think?
Are you a Little Women superfan already?
Thinking of giving it a whirl before the December film comes out?
I’m curious to hear about any of your or your children’s encounters with the book.