Tracing the steps of Little Women: Madeleine B. Stern’s brilliant analysis, part four: The All-American Novel makes a cherished dream come true

COVERLittle did Louisa May Alcott know that when she wrote Little Women, her classic book based upon her own family life and their “queer” adventures, she was writing the story that was on the heart of all Americans.

Universal family

It was time when American yearned for its own literature, its own family. The March family was quintessential New England and yet their story transcended New England, having, as Madeleine Stern put it, “a more universal reality than that of a single village.”

The emerging adolescent

Jessie Wilcox Smith Little WOmenCharacters were composites, real people sprinkled with fiction. For the first time teenaged readers met themselves: adolescent characters navigating through the daily trials and triumphs, emerging into adulthood.

Four different journeys

Meg begins her own family with John. Jo strikes out on her own as a working woman and writer, living far away from home New York City. Amy evolves into a woman of grace, leaving behind selfish impulses and eventually leading Laurie to his better self. Beth was not destined to enter the world of adults but left behind an example and a spirit that guided her sister Jo to a place where she could reconcile her ambitions with her love of family.

Universal home

The Wayside, then known as Hillside, drawn by Bronson Alcott in 1845.

The Wayside, then known as Hillside, drawn by Bronson Alcott in 1845.

Stern writes, “Then the families of the nation might open the door of Hillside to find not the Marches, but themselves waiting within. Under the roof of one New England home, they would see all the homes of America.”

Surviving manuscript

Writing at astonishing speed (completing one chapter each day), Louisa filled the lined blue papers with a story “that knew no bounds of geography, no limits of time.” Some of this manuscript survives, ready for viewing in the Special Collections room at the Concord Library.

Determined spinster

Louisa_May_AlcottPart two of Little Women, dubbed Good Wives, was written not at Orchard House but in Boston on Brookline Street. The demands of readers were great, such was the price of success, a success she had dreamed of since being a teenager herself. Yes, the girls would marry even though she wished that Jo could have remained like herself, a “literary spinster.” It was not from lack of suitors. George Bartlett, a fellow actor in the local theatricals, offered his help in reading the proofs of the first part of the book and his help was gratefully accepted. His attentions upon the “chronic old maid,” however were politely rebuffed.

A fancy hotel and a simple story

FileHotelBellevue-Boston-BlueBook1905.pngMoving with May into the new Bellevue Hotel on Beacon Street, Louisa continue work on the second half of the book while receiving her first royalties totally three hundred dollars for three thousand copies sold. Here she relived the pain of Lizzie’s death, brought Amy and Laurie together in a boat they would pull together and had Professor Bhaer serenade Jo with the song Louisa herself had sung for Mr. Emerson.

Dream come true

Stern writes, “Devoutly Louisa hoped that the new year of 1869 would bring to the Orchard House a happy harvesting from the tears and laughter she had sowed in the book where she had found her style at last.” It would come to pass with a harvest pressed down, shaken together, and running over, as it says in the scriptures. “The long-standing hurts were healed, the reception of the March family into the hearts of New England proved a timely restorative to one who had created that family.”

Dreams do come true (just ask any Red Sox fan!).

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“The March Sisters at Christmas:” So, what did you think?

I went into this movie preparing to hate it. I don’t watch Lifetime and am not a huge fan of “chick flicks” (with the exception of “Pretty Woman” – Richard Gere <sigh> :-)

I am also wary of fan fiction surrounding Little Women although The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly and March by Geraldine Brooks were both terrific.

However, “The March Sisters at Christmas” proved to be a very pleasant surprise. Here’s what made it work for me:


These four women were very appealing. Many of my favorite scenes featured the four sisters together. Kudos to director John Stimpson for choosing the right people and creating a real sisterhood that was so key to the original story of Little Women. I also loved the chemistry between Jo and Teddy (and liked the fact that Laurie was known as Teddy). My only complaint was that he was a little too much in the beef cake department. :-)

Twists and turns

I liked the way the movie was not literally faithful to the book but was faithful in spirit.  All the different twists in the movie made perfect sense. Amy as a theatrical rather than an artist worked for me (and coincidentally, she was also portrayed that way in The Little Women Letters) – it brought in both the theatrics from the story and Amy’s artist temperament.

Jo was perfect. My husband at one point said that Jo was “annoying” and she was in the original story – abrasive and bossy, but also generous and kindhearted.

Meg was almost overly motherly, especially towards Beth; I liked the fact that it wasn’t certain at first between Meg and John and that there was another man in the mix.

Beth is a hard character to bring to the 21st century and at times the other sisters seemed to treat her as if she needed therapy because she lacked ambition and confidence. I was glad to see the kindness that is Beth’s most sterling quality brought forth with the Christmas presents.

Plot twists

I loved the brewing feud between Jo and Amy, playing itself out with an “evil” tweet! It wasn’t evident right away how Amy would get her revenge (I thought she was going to cut the power in the house and cause Jo to lose her story) and her injury from the water heater which brought Jo to her senses worked for me.

The writing

I appreciated the fact that the writer(s) had actually studied the book and remained faithful to it while at the same time showing some imagination in how the story would play out in current time. It again confirmed what all us Little Women fans know – that this story is universal.

What didn’t work

What didn’t quite work for me was how Jo and Teddy’s relationship worked out. It seemed like two weeks was not nearly enough time for Teddy to get over Jo and fall in love with Amy. But that’s TV for you! I also felt that Jo’s relationship with Marcus Bhaer was rushed and underdeveloped. Still, I liked the fact that he was the one holding back rather than Jo.

The verdict?

I really enjoyed “The March Sisters at Christmas” and was very pleasantly surprised. It was a lot of fun to watch (especially spotting the scenes from my hometown. And yes, I spotted all the Concord scenes too!).

You can catch “The March Sisters at Christmas” again today at 5pm on Lifetime. I have it on my DVR.

So, what did you think?
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Little Women on the stage – a Concord Players’ tradition

Julius and Nancy Gluck

This past Saturday I had the pleasure of seeing the Concord Players‘ historic production of Little Women with one of you! Nancy Gluck of the Silver Threads blog along with her lovely husband were spending the weekend in Concord (she is preparing a 5-part series on Louisa May Alcott for her adult education class). We thought it would be most appropriate to meet for the first time while seeing Little Women and we had a wonderful time kabitzing.

Louisa May Alcott and her sister Anna helped found the Concord Players (once known as the Concord Dramatic Union) in 1856; when introducing the play, Michael Govang (John Brooke) referred to Louisa as their “patron saint.”

Bronson Alcott Pratt portraying Mr. March in 1932 in Concord’s production of Little Women.

Since 1932, the Concord Players have staged Little Women every ten years (with the exception of 1942, because of the war). It began in 1932 as a way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Louisa’s birth. Two cast members were direct descendants of Anna – Louisa Alcott Kussin (Meg) and Bronson Alcott Pratt (Father).

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Orchard House as a museum, making this year’s production historic.

A direct descendant of the family was in the ensemble (Louisa Alcott Yamartino) who is co-owner of fritz & gigi, The Children’s Shop in Concord with her sister, Karen. According to the program, “the business is run by a third generation of the family and is celebrating 75 years in business this year.” Louisa is the great, great, granddaughter of Anna.

The play was written by a local, David Fielding Smith, and features Jo acting as both narrator and character. The quick pacing and energetic performances made this play a joy to watch.

Beth and Jo at the seashore.

Casting on the  most part was perfect. Nicole Dunn took the part of Jo and perfectly embodied Jo’s spirit. I truly could feel Jo’s love for her sisters, her buoyancy and joy for life and writing, and the desperation when Amy fell through the ice, and Beth caught scarlet fever. The scene between her and Beth at the seashore brought tears to my eyes.

It is interesting to note that Dunn had never read Little Women although she had seen the 1994 film (read an interview with her here). She was Jo and I will forever think of her whenever I read Little Women.

David N. Rogers took the part of Laurie. I wasn’t quite sure about him until the pivotal scene between Laurie and Jo when Jo tells her boy that she doesn’t love him. Here Rogers shown, exploding with deeply felt passion.

Marmee reads a letter from Father to the girls.

Jan Turnquist, the executive director of Orchard House, revived her role as Marmee. Jan is such an integral part of Louisa’s continuing legacy that it seemed very fitting to have her there as Marmee.

Kimberly Rochette‘s Meg and Amelie Lasker‘s Beth were both perfect. My only disappointment was the choice for Amy (Molly Weinberg) as the portrayal was somewhat two-dimensional. I had a hard time accepting the actress especially when Amy became an adult. There was no chemistry between her and Laurie.

I wish the part of Professor Bhaer had been larger because the actor, Julio Gomez, was terrific. Michael Govang was very good as John Brooke and Marcella Fischer provided comic relief as Aunt March.

Knowing how connected the Concord Players is with town, Louisa’s ancestors and her history made this production extra special.

Nancy secured us seats in the third row giving me a perfect position to capture the play on film. Enjoy the slide show!

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The Concord Players also produced a promotional video with background and scenes:

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Take 5 minutes to enjoy Little Women Wynona-style

I found this video via Suck My Alcott – Six snarky chicks who dig Louisa Maythe 1994 version of Little Women condensed into under 5 minutes (with music by Savage Garden – used to love those guys!).

It’s cool, raw and rainy today but for about 5 minutes, it got warm and cozy. Enjoy!

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Finally saw the 1994 film of Little Women

I suppose if I’m going to be so long in reading Little Women , I might as well be long in seeing the film too! My lovely husband, keenly aware of my interest, set the DVR to tape Little Women on the Oprah Winfrey Network so I could watch it (awfully nice, thanks Rich!). I watched it last night with my daughter and we both enjoyed it a lot although the commercial interruptions on OWN are absolutely horrible and so frequent!

I don’t consider my 22 year old daughter to be the sentimental type at all but she really seemed to enjoy the movie. I did too even though it took great liberty with the story (Jo writing Little Women??). It did capture the spirit of the book and the scenery was beautiful. Orchard House looked splendid!

I very much liked Winona Ryder as Jo, her performance was very spirited. I always thought of Jo as much taller so I was surprised that detail was overlooked. There was great chemistry between Jo and Laurie (and none between Amy and Laurie – more on that in a moment); Christian Bale is sweet to the eyes. :-) Professor Bhaer was a bit too handsome but his face was very kindly as I would expect.

I didn’t care for Susan Sarandon as Marmee and I’m not sure why. It seemed like she came off as preachy. Marmee can be preachy but once I got into the into the character, I forgot about that. Sarandon never made me forget it.

Claire Danes did Beth to perfection but it was almost spooky during the final death scene with the look in her eye.

I missed the first part of the movie so I never really got to see the younger Amy, but the mature Amy really seemed to be lacking in spirit, and that’s why there was no chemistry between her and Laurie. I know Amy becomes a proper lady but I never got the impression she was lacking in spirit. I was very disappointed in this film’s depiction of my favorite character.

Meg was Meg, nothing more to say on that. :-) Oh, and I loved Aunt March. :-)

I bawled like a baby through the movie and not just during Beth’s death scene. The anniversary of my mother’s passing is coming up in April and she’s been on my mind a lot lately. This story really makes me feel close to her so I missed her a lot last night while watching it. My daughter tactfully left me alone while I cried and I’m grateful to her. :-)

Now the funny thing is that during the ALA workshop, several of the librarians and scholars said that they preferred June Allyson as Jo. I never could imagine Allyson in the part but now I’ll have to search out that movie and see it too. And of course, I must catch Hepburn’s performance!

Solving the mystery of the Norman Rockwell illustrations re: Little Women

One of our readers submitted the following intriguing comment:

“Katharine Anthony wrote a biographical series on Louisa in the Woman’s Home Companion of February 1938. It was titled THE MOST BELOVED AMERICAN WRITER and illustrated by Norman Rockwell. The Jo in the attic painting is one of at least several that appeared. There is another of Meg and Laurie sitting on the stairs, presumably at the Moffats’ party? Laurie has the appropriate black hair but Meg looks a bit too 1930s. And finally there is “Heart’s Dearest,” Professor Bhaer and Jo under the umbrella in the rain. I believe these can all be purchased as prints from the Rockwell estate, and Jo writing in the attic is printed on birthday party stickers for sale at Orchard House.”

Several of you knew about this and wondered where the pictures could be found. I checked around and Harriet Reisen (check out her website for the paperback version of her bio on Louisa and the DVD) provided some information and a couple of the pictures. Some of these pictures can be purchased as stickers from Orchard House. Here are two of the pictures:

Harriet says that a third picture depicts Jo and Professor Bhaer under the umbrella and says that Orchard House used to sell a poster of that picture. She does not recall what the fourth picture was, although it sounds like it’s the one of Laurie and Meg that our reader referred to.

And here’s a link to more information:

Thanks, Harriet!

Katharine Anthony also wrote several biographies including one on Margaret Fuller in 1920 and one on Louisa in 1938. I was lucky enough to pick up an original copy several years ago at a now defunct antique bookstore in Concord. Here’s what the title page looks like:

DVD Giveaway Contest – Win by writing about your favorite Little Women character

As promised, and in honor of Louisa and Bronson’s impending birthdays (November 29),  I am giving away a free DVD of the acclaimed documentary, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women thanks to the generosity of Nancy  Porter and Harriet Reisen.

I’ve seen this documentary a few times and it is just wonderful seeing Louisa brought to life this way. All dialogue is taken from primary sources and much of it is filmed at Orchard House. You can see scenes from the film, interviews, and outtakes.

How to win? Write a short paragraph about your favorite character in Little Women – state who the character is and why that character is your favorite. If apropos, mention how this character may have impacted your life. Best entry wins!

Deadline for submission is Tuesday, November 23; hopefully the winner can receive her DVD in time for Louisa and Bronson’s birthdays.

And we’re off!

Wrapping Up Little Women Part Two – Mama and Papa Bhaer, and my favorite character

Chapter 46 of Little Women, “Under the Umbrella,” should have been a glorious chapter for me since Jo and Fritz finally decided to get married. Instead, it was incredibly frustrating, though it wasn’t all Louisa’s fault. :-) I’ve been listening to an audio book during my long commute and the reader for that particular chapter had a really annoying affected voice. That, plus all the games that Jo played before she finally let down her guard had me yelling in the car, “Will you get to it?!?”

If there was ever a time when the propriety of the era seemed to be getting in the way of happiness, this was it! My goodness, Jo might have let Professor Bhaer slip right out of her grasp simply because she couldn’t get past propriety to show how she really felt. Considering their friendship and how easy going they had been together, this sudden need to be proper (especially from Jo of all people) was exasperating.

Throughout the book I had often thought that a little propriety might be nice in this day and age where dating is an outmoded word (now it’s “friends with benefits,” or “we’re an item.”). There is so little structure today in relationships (and such a fear of commitment) that you wonder how anybody gets married anymore.

But after reading chapter 46, I just kept thinking, “Be honest! Tell him how you feel. At least let your face tell it!” Thankfully, she finally did!

That being said, as I intimated before in a comment to the last post, I was not terribly happy with the end of the book. I had so hoped to witness Jo’s wedding but Louisa passed right over it (I guess it was just too much to ask to have her write about her alter ego actually go through the ceremony). The book had been operating somewhat in a real time setting – now all of sudden it jumps ahead several years. It just didn’t feel right. Plus, the ending was so syrupy. Sure, I could see the reasoning for a happily-ever-after ending for a children’s book but goodness, it was just so sicky sweet! A tiny dose of reality was thrown in with the paragraph that hinted that Amy’s child was sickly like Beth (and was even named Beth!) and that she might eventually lose her, but it came and went so quickly and seemed really out of place with the rest of the chapter. I expected this book to go out with a bang but it went out with a whimper.

Still, I have enjoyed this read immensely. The character development was wonderful and I enjoyed the different morality dilemmas and the growth that each character experienced. Sure, it wasn’t a sophisticated, adult, gray treatment of morality, but especially in this day and age where everything seems to be gray and truth is relative, the world of concrete morality was a nice place to be.

I mentioned in a comment that I read chapter one of Martha Saxton’s biography, Louisa May Alcott A Modern Biography, in which she gave her own analysis of Little Women as it related to Louisa. I had said that I found her treatment annoying because she was so heavy handed in her psychoanalysis. I failed to mention that she found the world of concrete morality where someone learns from their adversity and grows spiritually to be unsophisticated and not adult-like (my interpretation of her words). I happen to be a big believer in growth from adversity, it’s what gives suffering meaning. I happen to believe in Someone bigger than myself and that Someone guides my life, allows adversity to happen, and helps me to grow from it. I don’t consider it to be unsophisticated. It’s a life that gives me great peace in the midst of trouble – why would I want to trade that in for Saxton’s vision which I’m guessing was a lot more gray and a lot more chaotic?

I wish I had her book in front of me so I could quote from it because I’m just spouting off here, but it annoyed me tremendously reading Saxton’s analysis.

BUT, on to better things . . . my favorite character . . .

And my favorite character is . . . . AMY!

Remember in earlier posts when I said I couldn’t stand her and that Beth had always been my favorite? I’ve changed my mind. I have to admit that I’m very influenced by my recent immersion into May Alcott Nieriker, but I believe that Amy was more than she seemed – more mature, more compassionate, in many ways as loving as Jo. The difference is that Amy was into the details. Chapter 30 was the beginning of my conversion, so to speak (see Amy wins the day, and Jo pays the price). She reminded me of one of my favorite saints, St. Therese of Lisieux. Known as “The Little Flower,” St. Therese taught that it was in the little, day-to-day things where one could grow in virtue and holiness. Hidden acts of kindness were her style, and she was much misunderstood by the other nuns in her convent. A simple smile to someone she didn’t necessarily like, helping a cranky sister with her dinner, things like that were the kinds of virtues St. Therese practiced throughout her short life. For that she became one of the most popular saints of our day, and was made a Doctor of the Catholic Church.

Now Amy was no saint but she practiced the same kind of spirituality. It was all in the details, the little mundane things of life. I admire that and was won over by her completely. Graciousness is a wonderful thing to master.

Beth still mystifies me because I’ve never known anyone like her. Her real life alter ego, Lizzie, is even more of a mystery. I just can’t help wondering about someone like that.

And why wasn’t Jo my favorite? Because I knew Louisa first and Jo seemed like a shadow to her alter ego. I think perhaps if I hadn’t known Louisa and met Jo first, that she might have been my favorite. But Louisa is real and so much more interesting and complex. She is the one who inspires me.

I’d love to hear who your favorite character was and what you thought of the ending. BUT, save the favorite character part for my next post. Harriet Reisen, in honor of Louisa and Bronson’s upcoming birthdays on the 29th,  is giving away a DVD of her excellent documentary on Louisa, and I want to make this giveaway a short essay contest. So hold thoughts on your characters for the contest  if you want to enter.  I will post information about the contest this weekend.

Little Women was such a great ride! I had a ball. :-)

Wrapping up Little Women Part One – Amy and Laurie

I finished reading Little Women last week and will comment on that in the last post that I do on this book. But first, I wanted to address how Louisa brought about the pairing of Amy and Laurie.

I wish that I had not known that Amy married Laurie because I could never feel the obvious disappointment that readers felt when Jo turned Laurie down. In her usual, logical fashion, Louisa laid out the case for why Amy was the best match for Laurie and I bought into it.

It always appeared to me that Jo and Laurie had a brother-sister relationship, and that it seemed unnatural to Jo to feel any differently for him. I’m not so sure that she was running away from a more passionate relationship – she may not have been capable of such a relationship. Her pairing with Professor Bhaer felt very right to me – they seemed to be soul mates intellectually and emotionally, and he brought out the best in her, at least to her way of thinking. She wanted to be more like Beth and he enabled that.

Laurie tapped into the more rebellious and volatile side of Jo and while fans may have applauded that, Jo would not have ( at least as I see her character).

Amy, on the other hand, seemed like a perfect match for Laurie. He wanted to be improved and she did that, bringing out the best in him. She was able to challenge him out of his doldrums without causing a huge fight (which I think would have happened had Jo challenged him like that). They shared similar sensibilities and desires. I found their courtship to be very charming and loved hearing descriptions of Amy’s deftness in getting Laurie to do what she wanted.

Laurie ended up then bringing out the best in Amy, tapping into her generous nature. She had begun to mature, realizing that wealth alone was not enough. She needed true love, and she needed something philanthropic to do in her life. Laurie made that possible, not just through his wealth, but through his nature.

Passion makes for a great read but doesn’t always make for a lasting relationship. While it was highly disappointing to many that Laurie and Jo did not end up together, I felt that Louisa’s treatment of both relationships showed maturity. Yes, it’s true that she avoided such commitment in her own life but I’m glad she was able to realize it at least in her characters.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one – what do you think? Even if you knew already that Amy and Laurie were married, were you still as disappointed?

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Setting the stage for a major disappointment

Louisa knew she was about to inflict a major blow on her fans. Countless girls had implored and demanded that Jo and Laurie be married, but the stubborn author refused to give in. She never wanted Jo to marry in the first place but figured she’d create a “funny match for her” instead (see my post on “Louisa creates the perfect man for Jo (and herself?“). I went along for the ride and felt pretty good about Professor Bhaer as her impending spouse, and felt he was a good match for her.

So it caught me by surprise as I read chapter 35, Heartache, and found myself weeping as Laurie desperately declared his love for Jo since I knew it would lead to nowhere happy nor good. I didn’t realize how vested I was in the character of Laurie and his love of Jo. Although I still feel Professor Bhaer is the best match for her, I couldn’t help but think that Jo worked a little too hard to push him away as if she had to convince herself that loving him in that way wasn’t right for her.

This is the one place in Little Women where the logic of the story fails. In the author’s real life, there were many good reasons why she feared marriage and fiercely remained a spinster. Louisa had witnessed her mother’s suffering over the years being married to her immensely impractical and self-absorbed father (and no, I don’t hate Bronson Alcott, he had many stellar qualities along with as many fatal flaws). She nursed feelings of betrayal when her father nearly abandoned her mother and family after the Fruitlands debacle. This was after the family suffered incredible poverty, nearly starving and freezing to death because her father and other members of the community wouldn’t or couldn’t do the labor required to make Fruitlands work. Louisa suffered real trauma as a result of Fruitlands, and that was only one of many incidents that shaped her view of marriage. To Louisa, marriage was slavery – the end of her independence, which meant more to her than love.

She infuses this aversion of marriage into Jo but without the experiences of life that shaped that aversion. Jo, for all intents and purposes, grew up in a very happy home where the marriage of her mother and father was sound and good. There’s no reason offered for Jo’s aversion to marriage except that she was “odd” – a rebellious, passionate and fiercely independent girl. There’s no premise for the thought that marriage to Laurie (or any man) would entail loss of freedom. For example, I always found her reaction to Meg’s engagement and marriage as unnatural.  At one point she even wished she could “marry” Meg to keep her in the family! Quite a strong, and odd, reaction in my view.

So it’s no wonder that her contemporary readers cried “foul” at the pairing of Jo and Professor Bhaer even though Louisa laid out a good case for it in chapters 33 and 34. But the logic of her lawyer-like argument could not blunt the blow. After all, everyone loved Laurie. He also seemed perfect for Jo – dear trusted friend, handsome, charming, intelligent and good, yet high spirited like her. It was the dearest wish to see the two of them married and living happily ever after.

I guess through my tears I was crying “foul” too, despite myself. But I must admit, it makes the story a lot more compelling in the long run.

Louisa creates the perfect man for Jo (and herself?)

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