Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)

The 1990s movie of Little Women is one of my favorite movies.  It's beautifully filmed, rich visuals and costumes, with a lovely score that I can listen to over and over again.   I laugh aloud when Jo cuts off her a hair and Amy says "your one beauty"; I weep when Beth dies.

You would think for a movie I love so much, I would have read the book before now.  But something about the book always daunted me.  I've started it at least one other time but didn't finish it; that may have something to do with the size of the book (it's quite large - I have a similar challenge with Tolstoy).  

Like E.M. Forster's Howards End and A Room A View (two favorite books of mine), the film version of Little Women  gave me a launch into the book (The Age of Innocence and  The Color Purple are two other books/films I can immediately think of that I first watched and enjoyed, then read and enjoyed).   I was familiar (see below) with the the characters and plot already (most educated people, even if they have neither read the book or seen one of the films, know something about Little Women).

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I'm listening to two different audio versions of Little Women; the first one, which I checked out from the Los Angeles Public Library online, ended after the first half; the second half I bought through Whispersync on Amazon.com - a new discovery that may be dangerous for my pocketbook.

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I also simultaneously read a book about Louisa May Alcott by Susan Cheever, and it's interesting to see the parallels to and diversions from Alcott's own life and family and that of the March family.  The Alcotts aren't the Marches, or perhaps the Marches are both idealized and slightly smudged versions of the Alcotts.

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Something that strikes me about the book, that maybe describes its genius and staying power, is the behavior of the girls.  Marmee, their mother, is full of soft bromides.  Sometimes they are comforting, but often they read as gentle chastisements on her daughters' behavior.  At the end of each episode, at least in my mind, each girls has lain their head on Marmee's knee and she tells them how they should behave.  And then the next episode comes along, and they can't.  Jo can't help being Jo, Meg can't help being Meg, and Amy can't help being Amy ( a mean girl).  (Beth is in a league of her own).  I particularly noticed this with Meg; she's specifically told to not entertain the thought of marrying John Brook; she does so anyway.  

This is why this book was popular and has remained so popular. These girls feel REAL.  Marmee seems like the perfect, idealized Mother; she represents Motherhood (as well as a certain kind of thought, not exactly conservative for the time, but not liberal in our modern minds either). These girls screw up, and then go out and screw up again. They fight with one another.  They all love one another like sisters, and then turn around and do mean things to one another (like sisters).  They band together when they need to.  But they are also independent minded.  They love their mother, buy they aren't always going to listen to and do exactly what she says.

You know when you read a book from the 19th century, and often the characters and descriptions feel heavy handed and dated, and sometimes the characters don't say and do things that feel real. The worst Dickens has this problem (A Tale of Two Cities is one, I think, although many people disagree). Even the best 19th century fiction can be flowery at best (and prosy and drony at worse).  I think part of the staying power of Little Women is that Louisa May Alcott's characters almost always feel real.  Occasionally characters are ham-handedly written (Marmee sometimes feels this way).  But Jo and Amy particularly are characters whose realness shines through each page.

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Finished Little Women; shed tears when Beth died; it's a very, very moving scene, quite beautifully written.

I didn't realize that Little Women is actually two books, one, more about their childhood, written and published first; then Alcott soon added a second book, about their young adult hood and marriage.  Beth dies in the second book.  Prior to reading (listening to) the second book, I thought the plot and characters were familiar, and they mostly still are.  There are some extra characters not found in the film version I love (Amy goes to Europe with Aunt March, not these cousins or whoever they are), but it's mostly still the same. Although the end never seems to come; the film version I love has a better ending.  I wasn't sure if I even liked the second book at all; but once I got into it, I found it as lovely and moving and beautiful as the first.

I think you can tell Louisa May Alcott literally sat at the feet of Charles Dickens; Little Women has the feeling of a good Dickens novel.
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Little Women (Little Women, #1)Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Clearly, a book that's still read and re-read over a span of nearly 150 years is here to stay; I would argue that at some point a book this revered becomes less literature and more legend. What will this book look like in another 150 years? Will it still be relevant? Times change, but people's motivations remain the same, at least in our modern, industrial society. There's very few (Americans, at least) who can see a family of four girls and not compare them in some way to Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, even if they've never actually read the book (that would be me; I read it - actually, listened to it - for the first time, although I'm a lover of the Winona Ryder movie version). Relevant? Anyone with siblings of whatever gender can empathize with the four sisters; many of us have been in love with the boy next door, or had him pining for us; every mother was a first mother at one time; writers and artists have to begin somewhere; many of us have had demanding or crotchety aunts or relatives that hold their inheritances over our heads. It’s good, strong writing that makes these characters and plot sing: Alcott has chunks of 19th century flowery prose, but also has a realism to her writing that (I've read) is what gave Henry James his inspiration. I’m really glad I finally read this book; I shed tears when Beth died, and I really was sad to see it end.


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