I finally get it!

Now that I’ve finished part one of Little Women, I finally get it. I know, I’m late, I always seem to be behind the curve. For so many years I have heard people rave about Little Women but I never understood what the attraction was. On the surface, Little Women appears simplistic, way too sentimental, and preachy. The writing is old-fashioned and hard to relate to. But now, I finally understand. It’s the same reason why I swooned over the Harry Potter series, and it’s what I love best about good books and good movies: thorough, realistic, delicious character development.

Louisa was a master at character development, I’ve decided. As the book covers the course of one year, there is much growth in Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, and in Laurie too. I never once, however, thought that any of that change and growth was out of character. Louisa  patiently and gradually built on each character, brick by brick,  so that every change made perfect sense. Even Amy’s spiritual awakening made perfect sense to me. I found myself reading each chapter and suddenly realizing, “wow, ‘such-and-such’ has really changed,” and it was immensely satisfying. It happened again and again. And I fell in love with each character, became vested in them, and really wanted to know what would happen to them. That’s what rich character development does.

I had read that readers in Louisa’s time loved Little Women because of its realistic portrayal of family life, and in the development of girls into women. Because Louisa based it so much on family members that she knew so well and had documented so carefully in her journals, it’s no wonder that realism shown through. It must have been refreshing, perhaps even radically so. It certainly was different.

I particularly enjoyed the evolution of Meg and John’s love for each other. It was introduced simply and subtly and grew at a natural pace. The fun of it was watching it grow, even if the characters themselves were unaware of it. It was like I, the reader, knew a secret that they didn’t know and that’s cool.

I could go on and on about why this book is now right up there with Harry Potter (my all time favorite series) but suffice it to say, I’m SO glad there is a part two, and I cannot wait to begin reading it!

Beth’s influence is revealed; Jo and Laurie’s friendship grows; Amy shows some mettle

Just finished chapters 18 and 19, describing Beth’s bout with scarlet fever, and Amy’s ‘exile’ with Aunt March.

Scarlet fever sounds like a pretty frightening illness, and we all know it inevitably led to Beth’s death later on in the book. It’s interesting how she really came to the forefront as a result of the illness. She was no longer invisible. Everyone in the family and beyond started remembering all she had done for them. Much as she tried to do good behind the scenes, it came out in the open. Goodness cannot be hidden for long.

Beth was pretty influential for someone who had a hard time asserting herself. Jo called Beth “her conscience” and couldn’t bear the thought of being parted from her. It makes me wonder if Beth was one of the reasons why Jo was strong.  To be able to influence someone that profoundly shows the power that Beth wielded even if she was unaware of it. But something tells me she wasn’t so unaware of that power.

Laurie was a true hero during the dark days of Beth’s illness. His care of Jo and Amy especially was very touching. The scene between Jo and Laurie when he became her strength was so beautiful. I am really enjoying how carefully Louisa is building this relationship.

Amy came to realize her sister’s value and vowed to be more like her. She showed the first signs of maturity during her time with Aunt March, particularly under the influence of Aunt March’s long time live-in maid, Esther. Her authentic spirituality had a profound affect on Amy, teaching her how to be introspective for the first time and helping her to look beyond herself. As a Catholic, I appreciated the fair and thoughtful treatment that Louisa gave through Esther even though I had read that she had issues with Catholicism as many did during that era.

Amy’s will was very interesting; it seemed to act as a primer to help Amy learn to give of herself. Although she very much wanted Aunt March’s turquoise ring after she learned she might earn it through her good behavior, in the end she realized her sister Beth’s recovery was far more important. This was Amy’s first step towards maturity and it was good to see.

As an aside, I sure wish my late mother had been here while reading about Aunt March’s parrot, Polly! My mother had a voice that any bird would have loved. She couldn’t keep a tune but she’d sing to birds and they loved it! I remember she once sang “Ode to Joy” to my cousin’s parrot and he went nuts! He was absolutely enamored with my mom and I swear, she could have taught that bird to talk in no time. Polly sounded so much like a parrot in my mother’s childhood, Walter. Louisa’s sharp sense of humor really shown in her descriptions of Polly – I was laughing out loud every time she described him, and I would have loved to have shared that with my mom. Those descriptions left me with very pleasant memories.

Giving Beth her due – chapter 17 “Little Faithful”

I never seem to gravitate towards the mainstream. True to form, my favorite character in Little Women is not Jo (though she’s my second favorite character). It is, instead, Beth. When I attempted to read Little Women as a young girl, Beth was always the one who caught my imagination. The attraction back then was that Beth was my favorite name. As an adult, Beth attracts me because of her goodness and selfless nature. I do admit that I find it hard to believe that anyone could be that passive but she is based on Louisa’s younger sister Lizzie (also known as the “shadow sister”) who died tragically in her early twenties.

I also had a difficult time, both as a child, and now as an adult, accepting Beth’s eventual death. She was too good to die. I still tear up when I read about her passing in “The Valley of the Shadow.”

Beth, I think, gets a bad rap. Since she never thinks of herself, gives of herself totally, and is so passive, critics think she is a poor example for modern women. In an essay in the Norton Critical Edition of Little Women entitled “The Horror of Little Women“*, Angela M. Estes and Kathleen Margaret Lant theorize that Beth was, in essence, the Perfect Woman for her time in the mid 19th century:  “Beth, who has not even sufficient self-reliant impulses to stay alive, becomes for Jo – and by extension for Alcott – the example of what all women are required by custom to be, the completely perfect woman – passive, acquiescent, dead.”

There may be some truth to that. But in chapter 17, I saw great courage in Beth. She was able to go beyond her own wants when her sisters could not, to help a family in great need. Meg was “too tired” and Jo was wrapped up in her writing. Beth was afraid to go because the baby was getting sicker by the day and she didn’t know how to care for it. Yet her perfect love gave her the courage to go. She went each day for a week as the situation grew more and more dire. Her one fault was that she was not assertive enough in taking care of herself. She obviously wasn’t feeling well when she asked Meg and Jo to help, but she never mentioned it to them nor pressed her case. Ultimately she was to pay a great price for not taking care of her own needs.

The part, though, that struck me was that she took the dying baby into her lap and tried to comfort it as it died. Then she held the dead baby in her lap until the mother came back with the doctor. She even stayed to grieve with the family. It took great courage and compassion to do these things; courage and compassion are signs of great strength. She did not fear death and was willing to cradle the dead baby. Her love was that perfect.

Beth was self-giving in the extreme such that, in the end, she sacrificed herself. Balance was needed. And this is why she probably gets the bad rap. But she was far more than a “shadow sister” who was too shy to talk to boys or strike out on her own. She had a unique strength and courage built on her perfect love. In the Bible, 1 John 14:18 says, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear . . .”

We know that Jo aligned herself with Beth because she saw in Beth qualities she needed to develop within herself. Some might say that these qualities were not desirable because they were signs of weakness. But Jo, a strong and assertive girl, perhaps sensed that she needed balance in her life too – balance that Beth could help provide by her example. It’s just unfortunate that Beth could not learn by Jo’s example as well. Polar opposites, they were attracted to each other and learned from each other. Unfortunately, Beth did not learn enough.

Beth may have exemplified the Perfect Woman of the 19th century but she had many admirable qualities and should not be so easily dismissed. Strength comes in many forms.

p.s. I hope to revisit the essay, “The Horror of Little Women” after I finish the book. This was one fascinating essay!

My favorite chapter so far in Little Women – “Secrets”

Just a quick post today because I’m on the run but I had to comment on Chapter 14, “Secrets.” What a fabulous read chapter 14 was! I had an inkling that Jo was taking her stories to be reviewed by an editor but I was still on the edge of my seat, waiting for the results. I laughed out loud when she said that the name of the story that was eventually printed in the paper was “The Rival Painters” – I knew about that story! I didn’t realize Louisa was quite so overt in her autobiographical references.

Louisa does such a wonderful job of building and deepening the relationship between Jo and Laurie. The way that they both shared in her triumph over being published in the newspaper was very sweet.

I found the last line of the chapter very poignant – “Jo’s breath gave out here, and wrapping her head in the paper, she bedewed her little story with a few natural tears, for to be independent and earn the praise of those she loved were the dearest wishes of her heart, and this seemed to be the first step toward that happy end.”

This book just gets better and better!

Meg March and John Brooke – The Dance of Romance Begins

I just finished chapter 12, Camp Laurence and am in the middle of chapter 13.  Louisa’s introduction of John Brooke as Meg’s love interest is subtle and sweet. She offers up a little tease and begins the dance of courtship. I can tell this will take a while to bloom into the lifelong love that it’s meant to be and that’s the pleasure of watching this dance.

The burning question of course is, was Louisa herself ever in love? There’s talk of her Polish boy, Laddie whom she had a ‘friendship’ with in Europe and whom she spent a fortnight with in Paris (Laurie was based on Laddie). Was it a full-blown love affair? Unfortunately, we will never know.

What we do know is that Louisa was a keen observer of life; she caught each and every detail and knew how to write about it so exquisitely.

It’s too bad that the art of courtship has essentially been lost in today’s world. People today want to skip the dance and just get on with it. But judging from what I’m reading, a lot of beauty is being missed by skipping this dance.

I’m looking forward to more details from Louisa about this courtship. :-)

Little Women and Harry Potter

I wish I could have read Little Women when it first came out in 1868-69 and known what little girls experienced when reading this apparently revolutionary book. I’ve heard it said that Louisa May Alcott is the first J.K. Rowling because of the wild success of Little Women and its sequels.

I have two grown children: a son, 24 and a daughter, 22, and they both grew up with Harry Potter. They’d wait breathlessly for the next book to come out and it was always a long wait to them. Sometimes we’d pre-order it from Amazon and one time we actually went to the bookstore and waited for it to come out at midnight. My son would read it first since he read like the wind and could finish it overnight. He also was discreet and wouldn’t give anything away.

I was late getting on board and spent one summer reading the first three books and the second summer reading the second three. Those two summers were glorious! It had  been many, many years since I had found fiction that I liked so well and I didn’t think I could ever again. The characters in Harry Potter were so rich and Rowling had a genuine understanding of adolescents that was astonishing considering the fact that her children were still quite young. The growth that Harry and his friends went through paralleled my own children’s growth. And my son was very much like Harry, and looked like him too!

I was caught up by the time the seventh book was to be published so I waited impatiently like everyone else and understood finally why this was such a phenomenon. When Book 7 arrived, my son read it first, and then my daughter and I shared it. I was slow to finish and she kept pestering me, saying, “Finish the book, I’m dying to talk about it!” The book was so intense that I had to take it in stages. It was an amazing read.

Now here I am, several summers later (and into fall), engrossed in a timeless piece of fiction. Never thinking I could get that engrossed again, I am just as involved in Little Women as I was in the Harry Potter series. But I’ll never know that experience that the first readers encountered. I can only guess it like what my children went through with Harry Potter.

I often tell them how lucky they were to be the first generation to read Harry Potter, because no child will ever appreciate it like that first generation did.

We have the advantage of a renewed interest in Little Women and the critical analysis that has come forth (I am eating up this Norton Critical edition!), plus the autobiographical nature of Little Women which can lead the reader into the life of the author.

I’m so glad I can have the Harry Potter experience again, although it is different this time. But it’s just as glorious!

The plot thickens

It’s become obvious to me that I need to better explore the back story of Little Women in order to fully appreciate it (and to be able to comment on it intelligently!). Plus, your comments keep me on my toes as you know so much more than I do! I found this article yesterday on Little Women that caused me to purchase Little Women, the Norton Critical Version, edited by Gregory Eiselein and Anne K Phillips. It arrived today in the mail and already I am absolutely fascinated by all the extra material it contains, including excerpts from Louisa’s journals, parts of Madeleine Stern’s fine Louisa May Alcott: A Biography, letters between Louisa and Thomas Niles, relevant portions from Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, and so much more. The most fascinating thing so far has been the discovery of the fact that the book has evolved over the years. Punctuation and spelling have been corrected, words replaced by other, seemingly more appropriate words, and sentences have been restructured. Those of you who comment regulary are probably aware of this, but to me this is an amazing discovery!

I started reading through the revisions (and I was happy to find that the original edition that I bought and have been enjoying is, in fact, the original 1868-1869 version). Right off, I found a change that I found quite disconcerting:

In chapter 1, Marmee (in the original version) is described thus: “She wasn’t a particularly handsome person, but mothers are always lovely to their children,” ;  the popular 1881 Regular Edition(which includes Little Women and Good Wives, also known as Part One and Part Two) rephrases it as: “She was not elegantly dressed, but a noble-looking woman,”.

That rephrasing, to me, really changed the meaning of the sentence and left out a charming, sentimental thought – that mothers are so loved that they are always lovely to their children.

I feel like I’ve struck gold today and can hardly wait to read more! I just wish the size of the type in the book wasn’t soooo small. :-(