Thoughts on Little Women the second time around–seeing Jo in a new light

I have just finished my second reading of Little Women. Both times I have listened to the free audio book on Librivox.com. The first time around wasn’t too bad until I got into the crux of Jo’s relationship with Professor Bhaer in chapter 46. The reader unfortunately had such a loud and grating voice that it totally ruined that chapter for me.

A dramatic reading

This time around I found a dramatic reading of the book which was done almost to perfection. The narrator (who also took on the role of Jo) was superior in every way. All the main parts were done well although it took awhile to accept Laurie’s voice.

Never fails to please

It is amazing how much this book yields in multiple readings! It’s a different book each time. But then you long-time fans know that already, don’t you? For some of you, it’s a yearly habit. I can certainly see why.

Changing view of Jo—her rite of passage

WinonaJoMarchThe first time I read Little Women I was put off by Jo and favored Amy. Jo was frankly rude, obnoxious and self-absorbed at times (part of being a teenager) and because I had spent so much time with her real life counterpart, Jo seemed a shadow of Louisa.

From this second reading I have a much better sense of Jo. Her rite of passage from the awkward teenager who never wanted to grow up to the mature and more sober woman of twenty-five moved me. Louisa did an outstanding job of tracing Jo’s journey to maturity and revealing some of herself in the process. Her grief over the loss of Beth and how she carried on in the aftermath transformed her heart, making it ready to love someone beyond her immediate family.

A perfect match

jo marchMany readers see her capitulating to marriage but I don’t see it that way. I still maintain that Professor Bhaer was the perfect match for her (and I’ve often entertained the idea that he was Louisa’s ideal for a husband who for her, did not exist in real life). Jo grew to be a better writer for having grown within herself, writing from that true place in her heart. (Oh, and by the way, Jo mentioned a few times that Laurie disapproved of her writing).

A quiet revolution

jo and professor bhaerShe and Fritz lived the companionate marriage that Louisa dreamed of and wrote about in Work A Story of Experience. Jo and Fritz shared everything, from meaningful work to family life. This in and of itself was a quiet revolution, illustrating a marriage between equals. I had missed the fact in my first reading that Jo actually was the one to plant the first kiss! Loved that. How like our Jo!

Ever present spiritual guide

jo and bethLittle Women began to shed light on a burning question I have entertained since I got interested in Elizabeth Alcott. Louisa often mentioned that her late sister Lizzie was her “spiritual guide” but she never detailed any of that in her journals or letters. I wondered then how that idea manifested itself in her life. Of course her books provide the answer. From chapter 40 on when Beth dies, I began see how real life Lizzie influenced her older sister. And I intend to go over those chapters carefully (especially 40 and 42) to find out more.

A treasure trove

little women in the garretThere is so much treasure to unearth between the lines of this book. And many universal themes, themes that do apply to today if you work at it a little bit. Thank goodness for places like Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House where the spirit of Little Women is kept alive for generations to come.

Speaking to you and me

little women 190I am late to Little Women, very late. Most of you are probably saying, “Of course! Duh!” This book has spoken to you throughout your lives. In my late fifties, it is now speaking to me.

That’s the mark of a true classic. Little Women is no mere “children’s” book. It’s a book for every age.

Your thoughts?

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Remember this painting of The Wayside where the Little Women actually grew up? Artist Joyce Pyka sends us an update

You may recall an artist’s rendition of The Wayside, originally named Hillside by Bronson Alcott after the home was purchased with Abba Alcott’s inheritance.

Although Orchard House is the physical setting for Little Women, artist Joyce Pyka, like many of us Alcott fans, knows that many of the childhood stories of the girls took place at Hillside.

Pyka has been revealing her envisioning of The Wayside with Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy and Laurie in various stages:

Little Women 10 26 2014 fixed by Joyce Pyka

dog

detail laurie

Here’s the latest version:

640-wayside clearer 3 31 2015

Pyka reports that the painting should be done by summer and yes, prints will be available for sale. Sign me up!

Here are previous blog posts on the painting.

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A modern take on Little Women: Behind the scenes of the YouTube series, “The March Family Letters”

I’ve been so enjoying The March Family Letters and I hope you have been too. Naturally, I was curious to learn more about how it came about.

the march family letters header

I recently had the pleasure of chatting via email with the series producer and showrunner Sarah Shelson; in part one of the interview she shares how the series came to be and how the March sisters were re-imagined for the present day.

What made you decide to produce this series? What is your connection to Little Women?

Illustration by Jessie T. Mitchell for Little Women and Good Wives (London: Sunday School Union, [1897]).I have loved the Little Women novel ever since I was little. It was one of my mom’s favourite novels as well. I love how unique all the sisters are and their bond for each other, I love Marmee’s loving advice and I love the way that when I would reread the book, it was like returning home. I wanted to produce this series because I selfishly wanted modern little women to exist. There are also a lot of themes in the original novel that were appealing to me to explore from a modern perspective.

Were you concerned at all with re-imagining the March sisters for the twenty-first century? How did you decide on the various physical and character traits for each sister? For example:

  • Why did you imagine Meg as a workaholic and perfectionist?
  • Why is Beth portrayed as sullen as well as thoughtful when in the original story she was cheerful?
  • Why does Amy wear glasses?
  • Why is Jo a blond?

Very concerned! The March sisters are such beloved characters that we wanted to make sure that we were true to the spirit of the characters in the novel. So that’s how we decided on the character traits. By looking at the original novel and imagining how the character’s desires and journeys translate into the modern age. As for physical traits, these were less important to us than an actor’s ability to portray the character well. To address your specific questions:

the march family letters

In the novel, Meg is a hard worker and aspires to behave like the higher class. Our Meg has had a lot of pressure put on her by being the oldest child and having to take care of her sisters a lot. Just like in the book, she is very driven to realize her dreams and follow through on her plans. She hasn’t learned yet that she doesn’t need to try so hard all the time.

Beth hasn’t been on camera much yet, so I think the audience has only seen a small glimpse of her. And cameras make Beth nervous, so in the first couple videos we see her, her behaviour is shaded by that. As the series goes on and Beth becomes more comfortable on camera, we’ll get to see her open up more.

march family letters episodes 4 and 5

Amy aspires to be taken seriously and be treated like an adult. She has adopted the hipster aesthetic and behaviour to try to come across as more mature. In her eyes, the glasses complete the ensemble. We call her our little faux-hipster.

Jo is a blonde for the simple reason that the actress we cast for her is a blonde. We are both a low budget web series and a project filmed over a long period of time. It wouldn’t be fair to our actors to ask them to dye their hair for the role and we don’t have the resources to pull-off a convincing wig.

What kind of research did you need to do in order to get into the heads and hearts of the sisters?

little women in the garretReading the original novel more times than I can count was definitely high on the list. I also spent a lot of time reading commentary on the book and its characters. The sorts of critiques people have had about it, interpretations of the characters, thematic analyses, that sort of thing. And the last bit of big research I did was for character aspects that I don’t have any lived experience for. For example, I don’t have social anxiety, but it was very important to me that we portrayed Beth’s social anxiety in an authentic way. So I read a lot of information sites as well as first person accounts from people sharing their own experiences.

How long did it take to get The March Family Letters into production? What characteristics were you looking for in your actors? How did you decide on YouTube as the place for viewing the series?

the march family letters logoIt’s been a long journey to production! We decided to produce the series pilot in December 2013. We released that video in March 2014. And then we didn’t start filming the main series until October 2014. And we’re still in production right now, filming the second half of the series! For our actors, we looked for people who were passionate about the project, were comfortable addressing the camera directly, had energies that complimented and contrasted each other, resembled sisters and of course, brought the characters to life the way we envisioned. And finally, YouTube seemed like the best place to distribute the series because of both the engagement opportunities, our target audience’s familiarity with the platform, and the fact that our series has such strong ties to YouTube video styles.

Should the series prove successful, are there plans for a sequel?

For sure! This current run of episodes won’t take us through the whole ‘Little Women’ novel and we would love to get the chance to adapt the whole story.

Stayed tuned!

In part two of this interview, I get to ask questions of the sisters themselves! Coming soon …

Put this at the end of every blog post:

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Check out this new and modern take on Little Women – The March Family Letters on Pemberly Digital on YouTube

Amy, Jo, Meg and Beth; from Hypable

Amy, Jo, Meg and Beth; from Hypable

Little Women updated–again! On December 25 a new series debuted on the Pemberly Digital Channel on YouTube called The March Family Letters featuring short video letters by a modern version of the March Sisters. Like the Lifetime movie “The March Sisters At Christmas” (see previous post), this series takes Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy into the twenty-first century. I enjoyed this first installment and the interpretation of each sister:

“The first episode introduces viewers to the updated (and aged-up) versions of the March sisters, who wish their absent mother a Merry Christmas. Meg is a stiff perfectionist, Jo a driven and enthusiastic idealist, Beth is thoughtful-bordering-on-sullen, and Amy is hyper and competitive. Tensions clearly exist between the four sisters, though their bond is evidently strong enough to keep them united for now.” (from Hypable)

Here is the first episode:

Great chemistry, good humor, interesting premise. That’s my take.

What do you think?

I have signed up for the website newsletter and hope to post new episodes as they come out.

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Elizabeth’s form of genius; Beth’s power in Little Women (guest post by Kristi Martin)

Warning: this is a long post but I believe, well worth the time. I was so fascinated when I first heard the presentation at the Summer Conversational Series that I opted not to take notes and just enjoy it!)

560 kristi martin

Kristi Martin

At the recent Summer Conversational Series, Kristi Marti (tour guide de force; she has been a guide at nearly every major historical home in Concord) presented her paper on the genius exhibited in each of the Alcott sisters. Normally we don’t think of genius extending to the quieter sisters Anna and Elizabeth; Kristi presented a compelling argument in favor of Lizzie’s form of genius which extends in the character of Beth March in Little Women. Kristi was kind enough to send me a copy of her paper, a portion of which I am presenting here as a guest post.

From “Beth’s Stage-Struck!”: The Alcott Sisters and “the Difference Between Talent and Genius,” presented on Monday, July 14, 2014 at the Summer Conversational Series at Orchard House:

Surrounded by genius

560 kristi teaching2The daughters of Abigail and Amos Bronson Alcott were no strangers to “Genius.” Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May were immersed within a community of New England’s most renowned literary and artistic intellects, with Lydia Maria Child, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and artist Washington Allston among their parents’ dignified and intimate friends. Indeed, Hawthorne and Emerson were the Alcott family’s sometime neighbors in Concord, with Thoreau living in the same town. Like the four muses, each of the four sisters possessed striking talents in different branches of the arts: Anna possessed a passion for theater, Louisa had a gift of words and expression, which took a literary bent; Elizabeth was a musician; and, the youngest, May, was an accomplished artist …

Henry David Thoreau, Lydia Marie Child, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Henry David Thoreau, Lydia Marie Child, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Kristi weaves her discussion of the Alcott sisters in with the fictional March sisters. Here she begins her discussion of Beth’s importance to the story, and the real life young woman Beth was based upon:

Beth’s unsung role in Little Women

jo and beth… But Jo does have a conscience. As Beth lay ill with scarlet fever, Jo tells Laurie, “Beth is my conscience, and I can’t give her up.” (Little Women, pg. 188) With Beth confined to her sick bed it becomes clear that quiet, shy, and domestic Beth has perhaps the largest sphere of influence in the novel. “Everyone missed Beth. The milkman, baker, grocer, and butcher… even those who knew her best were surprised to find how many friends shy little Beth had made.” (Little Women, pg. 186) As Jo witnessed Beth’s physical distress, she “learned to see the beauty and the sweetness of Beth’s nature, to feel how deep and tender a place she filled in all hearts, and to acknowledge the worth of Beth’s unselfish ambition to live for others, and make home happy by the simple virtues which all may possess, and which all should love and value more than talent, wealth, or beauty.” (Little Women, 185) Meek and too often taken for granted, I contend that Beth is in fact the most powerful character in the novel. Her influence is quiet, but potent. It is Beth who suggests the girls buy Christmas presents for Marmee, rather than themselves (Little Women, pg. 7) It is Beth who sanctions Laurie’s admittance into the Pickwick Club. “Yes, we ought to do it, even if we are afraid,” Beth advises her sisters, “’I say he may come…’ This spirited burst from Beth electrified the club…” and Laurie was voted in unanimously (Little Women, pg. 108). It is Beth who makes the invalid Frank laugh more than he has in “ever so long.” Amy boasts of her sister’s captivating qualities, “Beth is a very fastidious girl, when she likes to be…,” Amy, of course “meant ‘fascinating.” (Little Women, 104) Beth’s strength is both a moral power and a useful power.

Lizzie’s sense of humor

lizzie alcott2Alcott scholars have been disappointed in the archival material left by Elizabeth Alcott. Unassuming and private, Elizabeth’s writings are not overtly revelatory when compared to the voluminous journals and letters left by other members of her family. Her family too was troubled by her quiet evasiveness, her father complaining that she hid her “feelings in silence.” (Madelon Bedell, The Alcotts Biography of a Family, pg. 247). Family biographer Bedell wrote, “One might seek forever in those childish pages for a word or even an intimation of a wish, a dream, a longing, a reaction, or a feeling, and never find it.” (Bedell, pg. 248) This, however, is somewhat of an exaggeration. Alcott biographer John Matteson refers to “spirited arguments” Elizabeth had with a friend over vegetarianism, but he too concludes that Lizzie seemed “never to have wanted more from life than a quiet, comfortable smallness.” (John Matteson, Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, pg 186) Yet, Susan Bailey has uncovered some of Lizzie’s letters in the archives of Houghton Library, which are more telling. There is a passive aggressiveness in some of her letters to her father, the yearning for attention and affection. Other family members’ letters intimate her depression during her final illness, the “natural rebellion” that Louisa hints at in Little Women as well. Lizzie possessed a resiliency and the Alcottian humor of her mother and sisters, too. As she was dying in 1858, Louisa wrote in her journal that Lizzie was trying to keep her sister’s spirits up (The Journals, pg. 88). Louisa also delighted in Lizzie’s letters, telling Anna that Lizzie “writes me the funniest notes.” (The Selected Letters, pg. 9). This sense of humor comes through strongly in one of Lizzie’s extant letters written to her family, while she and her mother Abba were traveling for Lizzie’s health. Lizzie teasingly admonishes her father that if “he grows thinner on her account … I shant write any more letters … and he will not know how I am. It must seem so good not to have to run every minute to my bell or hush all the time. I know you miss your little skeleton very much don’t you.[sic]”. Telling of her journey, she recalled a woman who “put her head” into the carriage “very saucily to inquire if I was an invalid and where going if I had been sick long.” She seems to have disliked the impertinent concern of some: “Miss Hinkley came in, and was horridly shocked at my devouring meat … and stared her big eyes at me, she will probably come to deliver another lecture soon. I don’t care for the old cactus a bit,” (Letter, August 6, 1857; see previous post with entire letter) sounding like Louisa.

Was Lizzie actually like Beth?

beth and jo march from little womenDistinctly unlike Beth in Little Women, who “was too shy to enjoy society,” (Little Women, pg. 380) at the seashore, Lizzie was ecstatic at the idea of visiting the ocean. She wrote, “Joy, Joy, we are going to Lynn.” Far from not wanting a world beyond her home, she declared that she was “not homesick one grain,” but enjoying herself at the Sewall home in Boston. She reported that she played checkers in the evening, and went often to Boston Common in company with Tom, which was “delightful.” In this letter, Lizzie did not seem to shrink from society, but rather to observe those around her. As with the woman in the carriage, Lizzie wrote of her cousin Mary: “She is a queer girl and spends such funny days, mending old sheets and looking at me while I eat my food…” Those around Elizabeth seem to have been concerned and solicitous for her comfort and welfare. (Letter, August 6, 1857) Like Beth, Lizzie seemed to make friends wherever she went. Louisa wrote after the funeral that the family had longed for their uncle Samuel May or Theodore Parker to preside over the service, remarking that Parker “loved Lizzie and always missed her face when she was not at church.” (The Letters, 33)

Making sense out of death

Coming to terms with the inevitable

Coming to terms with the inevitable

In Little Women, Beth is able to die peacefully, content in the knowledge that “her life had not been useless.” (Little Women, pg. 427) She entreated Jo to take her place in the household, assuring her, “you’ll be happier in doing that than writing splendid books or seeing the world.” (Little Women, pg. 428) Both Beth and Lizzie’s death is presented as “the good death.” Like “Sylvia” in Alcott’s Transcendental novel Moods, Beth/Lizzie “proved that she did know how to die,” a Thoreauvian principle, that Alcott envisioned as “strength purified and perfected…,” an “unconscious power, which we call influence of character .. which is the nobelest.” Alcott, Louisa May. Moods. (Ed. Sarah Elbert. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999), pg. 203) Both Beth and Sylvia’s deaths, perform an Emersonian compensation, in which the true purpose is gained within a seeming loss. It is Beth, the domestic character, who is Jo’s conscious. Beth thus comes to represent true genius in the novel, which in Alcottian terms is the higher conscious that she embodies. In giving writing advice to an admirer, Louisa quoted Michael Angelo: “Genius is infinite patience.” (The Selected Letters, pg. 231) It is Beth/Lizzie who exemplified infinite patience, both in the novel and real life. When Jo finally has success with her writing, it is only when she writes a story with “truth in it,” and she credits her parents and Beth for the goodness that is in her book. (Little Women, pg. 446)

How do you feel about Beth’s role in Little Women? Did she possess genius? Were you surprised at the sauciness of the real life Elizabeth?

Kristi also had many interesting things to say about May Alcott which I will present in the next post.

“I Will Remember You:” a video and musical tribute to Louisa May Alcott and her sister Lizzie

louisa and lizzieI created this video in tribute to these two special ladies in our lives. In a previous post I had mentioned how Louisa and Lizzie had changed my life; thus I put together this song and video in tribute.

Enjoy and spread it around!

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Alcott Immersion Warning: the wondrous things that can happen when you study too much!

After four years of constant reading, study, writing and pondering on one family, I think I understand now how actors prepare for their roles, and the subsequent consequences of their immersion into their characters.

Taking on the Louisa persona

I’m acquainted with a couple of people (Jan Turnquist and Marianne Donnelly) who, as actresses, take on the role of Louisa May Alcott to share with school children and adults alike in various educational venues. They dress like Louisa, walk as she might have walked, speak like they imagine she would have spoken. They share her stories, her feelings, her passions, her humor, her pathos and every audience is treated to a living, breathing Louisa.

jan turnquist-horz

Jan Turnquist (L) and Marianne Donnelly as Louisa May Alcott

It makes me wonder just how much of Louisa they have integrated into themselves. I’ve emailed them to ask and will share their answers with you as they come.

Who is your literary heroine?

Are you immersed in Louisa? Or perhaps Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson or Charlotte or Emily Bronte? How about Margaret Mitchell? Do you find yourself becoming like your literary heroine?

jane-austen-horz-horz

Jane, Charlotte, Emily B., Emily D. and Margaret

While I am no actor, I certainly know now what it is like to immerse yourself into a character and to have that character become a part of you. For me it is not only Louisa but Lizzie as well.

Channeling Lizzie Alcott

I’ve read Lizzie’s letters (some of which I have shared with you, see previous posts) and I’ve read family letters about Lizzie. I know of her suffering and struggles. I know how much her family and friends loved her and why. And I find myself wishing to emulate her.

lizzie alcott2Lizzie as comforter

Recently I had to go into the hospital for a minor surgical procedure (which ended well). With each person that I encountered, from the nurses to the anesthesiologist to the surgeon himself, I found myself channeling Lizzie, working to be as kind as I imagined she had been. I tried to be of good cheer, using humor to diffuse fear as I imagined she might have done. It came as naturally as breathing. I found her presence inside of me to be a great comfort.

This was not the first time I had channeled Lizzie while in the hospital. Last year after a car crash I found myself in the ER, doing the same thing.

Now I find I am inadvertently channeling Louisa as well, in my writing.

Loss, grief, transformation … and Louisa

The book I am working on to be published sometime in late 2015 or early 2016 is on loss, grief and transformation. As this has been the story of my life since my mother passed away four years ago, I find easy to write about the subject. I do not fear loss or grief and know that transformation is life-giving and empowering, filling my heart with joy and gratitude.

Louisa’s mostmemorable writing

From an 1897 edition of Alcott's "Hospital Sketches" historicaldigression.com

From an 1897 edition of Alcott’s “Hospital Sketches”
historicaldigression.com

I always found Louisa’s writing on this same subject to be her most brilliant. Poignant, hopeful, gritty, honest and moving, her work has resonated with me and consoled me. Some of her most memorable writing is about noble John Suhre’s death in Hospital Sketches. Generations of girls and women have wept openly over the death of good Beth March in Little Women. I found great comfort in Christie Devon’s experience of her dead husband David in Work A Story of Experience when a breeze blew past his flute, creating music and a sense of his presence in the room.

Grieving through reading and writing

I only recently realized that I write about loss, grief and transformation as a way of grieving over my mother. I never cried at length over losing her, never felt despair, never felt lost. I always wondered what was wrong with me that I didn’t grieve in the usual way much as I loved her. I now know that I am working through my grief in my writing.

Louisa_May_AlcottThe art inherent in grief

Louisa did the same when she lost Lizzie. She was intimately involved in Lizzie’s care, staying up all night to give her sister the strength she needed to endure her suffering. When Lizzie died Louisa was relieved that her sister was “well at last,” past her pain into a new and glorious eternal existence. After an initial spell of despair, Louisa admitted that she didn’t miss Lizzie as much as she thought she would indicating that her sister helped her spiritually. Louisa worked through her grief in her writing. She as much as admits it in Hospital Sketches (get quote). There is no doubt that Beth March is in fact, the perfected Lizzie.

My expert guide

Louisa worked through her grief in her writing and she is teaching me how to do the same. I am channeling the writing I admire most from my literary heroine and it gives me shivers to recognize that connection. My own humble work is a mere shadow of Louisa’s but it is comforting to know that I am following an expert guide.

  • What literary figure do you admire?
  • How have you immersed yourself in her life (or his)?
  • What traits have you inadvertently taken on?

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