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There are two ways to read Daniel Shealy’s new annotated version of Little Women (Belknap Press, $35.00): the sensible way and the irresistible way. The sensible way is to open at the beginning, and read through to the end, checking the footnotes as you go. That is the sensible way.
Every detail you could ever want
The irresistible way, is to open at the beginning … read the first couple of footnotes … realize that this book will tell you every single thing that you have ever wondered about in the background to Little Women … and proceed on a wild treasure hunt of March family trivia that will take you zig-zagging across the text until your head spins.
- Was the town where the Marches lived really based on Concord? (No – although there are similarities between the Marches’ house and Hillside, the Alcotts’ house when the daughters were teenagers, the house in the book is quite specifically located in a ‘suburb’ of Boston while the more rural Concord is 18 miles away.)
- What really were pickled limes? (Precisely what they sounded like, and, inexplicably, hugely popular with nineteenth century schoolchildren).
- What was the game called ‘Rarey’ that Laurie played with his horse while Amy sketched him? (Not a game at all, interestingly: there was famous horse whisperer of the time called John Rarey, whom apparently Laurie was emulating).
- Did May Alcott, the real life inspiration for Amy March, ever really sleep with a clothes pin on her nose? (Yes, and was less than delighted to have had this fact immortalized in print).
Many ways to read
The bad thing about reading the book the irresistible way is that it will leave you dazed and giddy, with your mind stuffed with far too much information properly to process. The good thing is that, after you have suitably sown your Alcottian wild oats, you will then have the time to go back and read the book the sensible way to see what you’ve missed.
For the fan and the scholar
Quite simply, the book is the Little Women lover’s dream come true. It’s physically imposing, with pages that are nine inches wide and divided into two columns: the text of the book runs through the two inner columns, while the outer are devoted to the footnotes. And what footnotes they are. There is something in them for everyone, from the neophyte who needs to have it explained that that beloved Alcottian adjective ‘decided’ means ‘determined’ in modern English, to scholars of all levels, of literature, of history, of women’s studies, of social studies, and of just plain fun.
Serious facts, fun trivia
Information comes trivial and weighty, and the skill with which all of it is woven around the text is exemplary.
A chance comment of Marmee’s that she doesn’t want the girls to ‘delve like slaves,’ leads to a concise, but full, outline of the antislavery movement.
Similarly, the information that Meg’s husband John Brooke went to fight in the Civil War and was wounded – although we are told that the real life John Bridge Pratt did not go to fight at all – provides an opportunity for some sobering paragraphs on the ‘horrific’ human cost of the War on the population in general.
Louisa and her alter ego, Jo
Louisa’s real-life literary career is recounted alongside Jo March’s fictional one; and no less meticulousness is given to detailing the various fashionable fineries with which all sisters adorn themselves throughout the book. Louisa’s views on marriage are expounded, as are her views on women’s emancipation; Bronson Alcott’s philosophy is given its due airing, as is a history of salt cellars, a recipe for beef tea, and a completely delightful anecdote which I had never heard before, about a visit to Boston by the then Prince of Wales in 1860, during the course of which he captured the heart of Louisa and a friend by winking to them flirtatiously as he passed by in a carriage.
Classic illustrations through the ages
Nor are the treasures of this book confined to its words. Running through the pages is a veritable wealth of illustrations, ranging from historical photographs of Louisa, her family, and the time she lived in, to book illustrations from different editions of Little Women, to stills from the various movies.
You will flick from Norman Rockwell’s no-nonsense depictions from 1937, to Frank Merrill’s elegant pen and ink figures from 1880 (my personal favorite is of Jo wearing glasses and addressing the Pickwick Society), to the sweetly wistful sisters of Barbara Cooney from 1955.
You will find stills of Katharine Hepburn as Jo in 1933, Christian Bale as Laurie in 1994, and a lavishly made-up Elizabeth Taylor as Amy in 1949.
Picture, pictures and more pictures
Along the way you will chance on other joys – the warmly welcoming interiors of the magnificent Orchard House museum in Concord, a Victorian mourning locket, an old playbill, a group of early suffragettes, or sometimes, just because it’s pretty, an illustration of a sweet pea or a dahlia. Amy would approve wholeheartedly.
Totally worth it
This book is not a casual purchase: priced at $35.00 and weighing in at a whopping 4.2 pounds, it is not something you’ll be slipping into your basket on the spur of the moment. But for the person in your life who loves or could learn to love Louisa May Alcott, and who you think deserves a special treat – be it your daughter, your best friend or even (why not?) yourself – it is worth each penny of cost and each ounce of weight several times over.
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