A much-loved classic first published in 1868-9, Little Women is always a joy to revisit. I remember not really liking it as a child – possibly I found it too moralistic – but I appreciate it as an adult, because it’s beautifully written and is full of wisdom and humour. I previously had the book in separate volumes (the second had the awful title Good Wives) but recently bought a new edition which contains both, simply titled ‘Part I’ and ‘Part II’.
Warning – there are spoilers in this review. If you are yet to read the book, and don’t wish to know what happens in the story, it’s a good idea to look away now.
The story is focused on the March family, who live in a small community in Massachusetts during the American Civil War. The father, a chaplain, is away for most of the story. Even when he has recovered from his ill health and is back home, the author generally ignores him. This allows the characters of the women to be explored. Mrs March – known as Marmee – is extremely wise and good. She gently guides her daughters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, on Christian paths. It’s well-known that the book is autobiographical. There are also references to The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, something that is probably lost on many younger readers.
I love the writing style, which is witty and open-hearted. The second volume is not as enjoyable as the first, although it’s wiser and more sophisticated. This is partly because the lives of the ‘little women’ are not as interesting once they are grown up and burdened with responsibilities, and partly because of two tragedies: the death of ‘angel in the house’ Beth March and the marriage of Laurie (neighbour Theodore Laurence) to Amy instead of his best friend Jo, who in turn marries the older and annoyingly good Professor Bhaer. It’s tempting to say that these shouldn’t have happened, but I admire the author’s boldness in creating a book which is not a fairytale, nor a moralising tract – which were the usual genres in children’s fiction at the time. She tried to show the darker and lighter experiences in life.
There have been many adaptations of the book, but I’ve only seen two – the 1994 film (which I’ll feature in a ‘film of the book’ post) and the 2017 BBC series.
This edition of the book is by Oxford World’s Classics, 2008, edited with an introduction and notes by Valerie Alderson. There are a few weird typos in it. The notes are very good for the autobiographical perspective.