Thursday, March 13, 2008

LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott

The Book: Louisa May Alcott, LITTLE WOMEN. Dell Yearling Classic paperback, 1990 (eighth printing). Good condition; pages are slightly age-browned, spine is badly creased.
First read: 1975
Owned since: 1990 (this copy)

Few books have made as big an impact on my life as Little Women. I read it for the first time when I was nine. That book was a pink paperback that might have been slightly abridged, and I got it from the library at Baylake Pines Elementary. I have read Little Women again at least once a year, every year since.

Every time I read it, I get something different from it. Of course I always identified with Jo. Every girl who loves this book identifies with Jo, you're supposed to identify with Jo. My identification might have felt a little more self-righteous, since I was the second of four girls, like Jo; I was born in November, like Jo; I was tall and plain and had a great mop of brown hair, like Jo. And of course, like Jo, I read constantly, and believed that within me genius burned.

I always knew that the March sisters were based on Louisa May Alcott's own family, and I envied their closeness and resilience. As an adult I've read more about the Alcotts' lives, and in that context, parts of Little Women feel terribly sad. Bronson Alcott was no Mr. March, but self-absorbed and feckless; Louisa supported that family. Louisa never got her Professor Bhaer, and in her later years she detested Little Women with a passionate contempt that might just have been bitter disappointment.

At some point in my adult life, I reread this book on an airplane and noticed this paragraph for the first time - and could not help bursting into tears.

...thirty seems the end of all things to five and twenty, but it's not so bad as it looks, and one can get on quite happily if one has something in one's self to fall back on. At twenty-five girls begin to talk about being old maids, but secretly resolve that they never will be. At thirty they say nothing about it, but quietly accept the fact and, if sensible, console themselves by remembering that they have twenty more useful, happy years in which they may be learning to grow old gracefully. Don't laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragical romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself make the faded faces beautiful in God's sight.

Louisa May Alcott wrote that when she was 36. She died at 55 from the long-term effects of mercury poisoning, which she'd been dosed with for typhoid while nursing during the Civil War.


DS said...

I love reading about the books you love.

Glad you included "Little Women."

An "An Old Fashioned Girl" is really wonderful too. It doesn't seem to be as well known as Alcott's other works. I wonder if anyone reads it today.

AnswerGirl said...

Gosh, AN OLD FASHIONED GIRL -- I haven't thought of that book in years. Not long after I read LITTLE WOMEN for the first time, I went on a kick and read all of Louisa May Alcott's books for children. I particularly liked EIGHT COUSINS and ROSE IN BLOOM, which no one seems to read any more, either.