sugar and spice and everything nice

little womenWith my Nook Color I got three free books:  Dracula, Pride and Prejudice (score!), and Little Women.  I’ve read Dracula a few times and P&P more times than I’m willing to admit to, but I’ve never read Little Women.  Yeah, yeah, I know…it’s a classic and has strong female characters and yadda, yadda, yadda.  My only excuse is that I just never got around to it.  So, I was recently on the road and had it on the Nook and it didn’t cost me anything so why the hell not?

I wish I could say that I’m kicking myself for not reading it sooner, but sadly I’m kind of regretting not reading the cheesy fantasy novel I downloaded before I left (one of those “if you love GRR Martin, you’ll love this!” sorts of things the never really works out that well).  Little Women wasn’t great.  It wasn’t horrible but I’m having a hard time seeing why it is considered a classic.   I can see why it used to be a classic but it holds almost nothing of relevance for today’s readers, unless you long for the days when the absolute best outcome for a woman, any woman, was to marry well.  If  I were a mother of young women this would be one of the last books I’d want them to read, not only because of the outdated gender roles but because of the sugary sweet preachiness.   (The book won’t interest boys at all; men exist only to marry women and father their babies and look on good naturedly as their wives and daughters flutter about.)  The book was originally published in two volumes three years apart and much of the promise in the first book is lost in the second, wherein Ms. Alcott appears to have had second thoughts about a few of her characters.

At the start of the book, the March family consists of Marmee (the mom), “Father” (who is off to the war), Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.  The family was once quite well off but due to some apparently poor decision making by their kindly father the family is now on hard times and the two oldest girls have to work outside the home.  Meg is a governess and companion to a neighbor’s two children and Jo is the companion of an elderly and still rich aunt.   The family is genteel in its poverty and there are many (obvious) life lessons about being poor but honest, poor but virtuous, poor but industrious, etc.  The plot centers around the trials and tribulations of the family as they endeavor to get the girls married off.  They all do quite well for themselves,  except for poor angelic Beth who is too good to live and who is sacrificed midway through the book for the purpose of jerking a few tears.

The Marches conveniently have a rich neighbor, who conveniently has a grandson a little older than Jo, and he conveniently becomes an honorary March.  Laurie (also called Teddy throughout the book) is Jo’s special friend.  She is a tomboy and is going through those awkward teenage years (she’s 15 at the start of the book) and she’s more comfortable around boys than around girls.  She and Laurie become fast friends and he soon joins the four March sisters on all their escapades.  His irascible grandfather turns out to be a teddy bear with a soft spot for Beth’s musical skills, and soon the entire March family is trooping in and out of the Laurence mansion at will.   Indeed, if it weren’t for the kindness and generosity of the rich neighbors, the Marches’ fortunes wouldn’t have gone nearly so well.  He supplies a handsome young tutor for Meg to marry, Laurie ends up marrying Amy (more on that later), and when Jo finally marries and opens her long dreamed-of boys school, he supplies the occasional pupil complete with tuition to keep the school afloat.  He even gives Beth a little piano, which gladdens her ever shortening days.

Most descriptions of Little Women focus on Jo, who is by far the most interesting character in the book (the character, like the entire novel, is somewhat autobiographical).  Unfortunately, that isn’t a very high bar because the rest of the characters are painful stereotypes.  Marmee is absolutely perfect; she claims to have a temper, among other flaws, but you don’t believe it for a minute.   When he rejoins the family Father turns out to be patriarchal and wise and entirely worthy of his perfect wife (and otherwise he’s a nonentity).  The oldest daughter, Meg, is a younger version of her mother who overcomes some minor personal flaws (a little bit of vanity, a little bit of envy) to be worthy enough to marry a man who is a younger version of her father.  She marries well, has a couple of children right away, there are few almost comical scenes of her learning how to be a good wife and mother, and then she promptly settles down to her life of being loved and admired by all who know her.  Beth is painfully shy and is never more happy than when helping around the house, tending to her small menagerie of cats and birds, mothering her dolls, and sewing.  She comes out of her shell a bit when the elderly man takes a liking to her and lets her come play his piano.  Her goodness eventually kills her; she contracts scarlet fever while making a visit to a local family even poorer than the Marches and although she recovers from it she is never really well again and the reader knows it is just a matter of time.  What actually kills Beth is never specified.  She is apparently in a lot of pain but mostly she just fades away and dies peacefully and most romantically.   The youngest daughter, Amy, is the artist and for some reason, the shallow one.  Her longing for the finer things in life and her envy of those who have them, and her constant worrying about her physical appearance (she doesn’t like her nose), just give her a little farther distance to go to reach perfection.   She attains it without too much effort and is rewarded with the best marriage of all, to the rich and handsome Laurie.

Jo March, the second oldest of the daughters, is 15 when the book opens and 25 when it ends.  She is a tomboy, possibly the model for all tomboys after her, and she is based on Louisa May Alcott’s own life.  Although she’s pretty, she has no fashion sense, is gangly and clumsy, and lacks most of the social skills necessary to be a young lady of breeding.  Her temper constantly gets her into trouble, as does her inability to hold her tongue when something bothers her.  She is almost constantly on the outs with her well-to-do aunt, whom she serves as a companion.  Jo wants passionately to be a writer and her various writerly quirks are fondly tolerated by her whole family.  Her enthusiastic eccentricities are occasionally played for laughs, particularly when she gets out her ‘writing suit” and disappears upstairs to do her “scribbling”.  Jo eventually does become a professional writer and earns serious money When Jo meets Laurie and they become friends it is immediately and happily apparent that they are entirely meant for each other and most of the first half of the book is filled with descriptions of the their escapades.  It is almost painful when she rejects Laurie’s marriage proposal and eventually marries a much older (he’s at least 40) German professor she met while working in New York.

By the end of the first volume of the book we have seen about three years of the lives of the March sisters.  Meg is engaged to her tutor.  Beth has been very ill but has recovered.  Jo and Laurie are still the best of friends and Jo is embarking on writing her great novel.  Father has returned from the war and the family is reunited.  In the second volume, Meg is married and has her children, Amy starts dithering about with her better off friends, Beth dies, and  Laurie goes off to college and comes back desperately in love with his childhood friend.  The scene where he tells her he’s loved her since the first minute he saw her is quite moving.  Jo rejects his offer of marriage, saying basically they are just friends, and runs off to New York where she writes sensational stories for the local papers.  Here she meets Professor Bhaer, who obviously loves her.  She however returns home and it is not until after Amy marries Laurie that she suddenly realizes that Fritz is the man for her and marries him.   They have two sons of their own and open a boarding school for boys.

Overall, the book is incredibly preachy about the illustrating the correct way to live.  Hardly a chapter passes in which some little life lesson does not occur and most plot points seem contrived for just that purpose.  Here is where the girls learn that idle hands are the Devil’s playground.   Here is where Meg learns that sparing the rod spoils the child.  Here is where Jo learns that scandalous fiction sells very well but is not good for the souls of readers or writers.  Here is where the selfless Beth absolves every one in her family of any need to grieve for her and passes peacefully “across the river”.   Here is where Amy learns that money may make for an easier life but it does not necessarily make for better people.   Here is where Jo learns that holding a grudge can endanger the lives of those she loves.   Despite some major life crises (Father’s illness while off at the war, the scarlet fever outbreak, Beth’s death, the chronic lack of money, etc.) there is not much in the way of narrative tension.  The placid nature of Marmee herself and her gentle nudging of the girls toward docility and complaisance pretty much keep the book calm and ladylike.  All emotion is subdued, unless it is used to express Jo’s impulsiveness and lack of social skills.   There are no bad people in the book.  Even the curmudgeonly aunt is kind enough in the end to leave Jo her giant house so that she can open her school.

All of this is fine; if nothing else the book is an interesting enough period piece of life in Civil War era New England.  I have no doubt that Alcott intended to write uplifting fiction for young women and by the standards of her day Jo at least was a challenging character, one who rejects most of the social norms for girls and sets about doing her own thing quite willfully.  This is exactly why this book failed so badly for me.   It seems that at some point between publishing the first volume and writing the second one Alcott changed her mind dramatically about the direction Jo’s life would be taking.   It is obvious from the first part of the second half that Laurie deeply loves her but it is immediately apparent that the sainted Marmee and Father do not look on their marriage as a good idea.  This is a sign to the reader that the major event that the first book primed us for will not be happening and everything after that seems somehow wrong.   Jo leaves for New York, Laurie escapes to Europe where he behaves like a spoiled rich boy until he runs into Amy and just suddenly falls in love with her, mends his ways and marries her.  For her part Jo seems quite content rooming in New York supporting herself writing stories and keeping her family up to date with her adventures.  Not only does Jo’s rejection of Laurie’s proposal seem out of place, her later marriage to Fritz seems entirely tacked on.  The entire time she was in New York she apparently considered him also “just a friend” and no romantic inclinations on her part are indicated.  Alcott apparently intended to leave Jo a spinster and only decided near the end to satisfy her readers by  having her marry someone.  So, in an entirely unsatisfactory conclusion Jo suddenly realizes she loves the old professor and they marry and open their school.  At least in small concession to Jo’s independent streak the school exists to provide a decent education to those who might not have access to one.  The school even takes on a mixed race pupil, which must  have been dangerously close to scandalous in Alcott’s day.

I thought for most of the second half of the novel that Jo was very possibly an early example of a lesbian heroine and a positive one at that.  Although there is nothing in the book that would specifically suggest this (no manly habits, no special woman friends) and it is unlikely that Alcott would have dared hint at anything so out of bounds, for most of the book Jo is definitely shaping up as a remarkably independent woman for her time.  She cuts  her hair and sells it.  She writes her novel.  She rejects an ideal suitor because she feels he is like a brother to her.  She manages her own literary work, meeting personally with editors in dicey parts of town, and dickering with them over her pay.  She moves to a huge city by  herself and rooms with strangers.   She is open with her opinions and holds her own with dinner conversations.  Even as she matures she is described as more or less still a tomboy, tall and energetic and consumed with passion for her work.  Everything about the way her life turns out seems like a  concession to current moral and social standards rather than a celebration of a unique individual with nonstandard life choices.  This is true especially of Alcott’s channeling of Jo’s unruly personality into the matron of a school for boys.  She still gets to be rough and tumble and hang out with the guys, but it is safely from the confines of her socially acceptable roles of wife and mother.

The whole thing was very disappointing.

Score:  Meh.


~ by gun street girl on March 14, 2011.

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