Adding back story to Little Women

I couldn’t leaveMarch by Geraldine Brooks behind without mentioning one other element of the book that I really enjoyed – the back stories Brooks imagined which enhance Little Women.

Haven’t you often wondered just how the March family lost their fortune? Haven’t you wanted to know more about Marmee’s temper and how her husband helped her control it? Brooks offers interesting scenarios.

Marmee’s temper

Addressing the latter first, we are all familiar with the heart-to-heart talk Marmee had with Jo about their respective tempers. In chapter 8, “Jo Meets Apollyon,” Amy is nearly killed because Jo could not subdue her temper. She feels deep remorse at her hesitation to save Amy from drowning after falling through the ice.

Seeking out her mother, Jo tearfully confesses and is astonished to hear Marmee say, “I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.”

She goes on to say that through the the love and patience of her husband, she learned to control her anger. In March, her husband says, “I tried to teach her something about her new place, giving her to understand, with gentle hints and loving guidance, that what might be considered lapses born of high spirits in a young maiden were in no way proper in one who was now a mother and a wife.”

Brooks fills in the blanks

Brooks describes Marmee’s passionate anger, expressed by fiery eyes and cutting tongue, as often being brought on by the discussion of slavery and abolition. Here Brooks draws upon Abba Alcott’s story, painting Marmee as a committed reformer.

Stepping on toes in public

In one scene, Marmee lashes out at Mr. Emerson, chastising him for his lukewarm talk about abolition and urging him to take a stronger stand. Being an active part of the Underground Railroad, she is convinced of the righteousness of her cause and has no qualms attacking someone publicly if they do not live up to her expectations.


In another instance, she stands up to Aunt March after the old woman comments that “slavery is more a matter of prayer than protest. Preferably, silent prayer.”

Marmee’s anger cuts like a knife and March gives her the agreed-upon signal – an index finger placed upon his lips – to remind her to restrain herself. When the atmosphere fails to improve, he sweeps her away from the scene, determined that she will “walk off” her anger.

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

An example of serenity

March is concerned about the example Marmee is setting, especially with second daughter Jo who shows the same propensity for passion. Marmee does not wish to reign in Jo’s spirit, claiming it will be crushed soon enough, but March insists that she teach Jo to restrain herself. Just like Bronson, March favors serenity and insists his wife and daughters practice it.

In the next post, I will describe the back story that Brooks lays out which describes how the March family lost their fortune.

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14 Replies to “Adding back story to Little Women”

  1. Mr. March, like Bronson, valued serenity because serene was what he was. He didn’t hesitate to prescribe it as a value for others whose inner nature may have been somewhat different. As you say:

    In March, her husband says, “I tried to teach her something about her new place, giving her to understand, with gentle hints and loving guidance, that what might be considered lapses born of high spirits in a young maiden were in no way proper in one who was now a mother and a wife.”

    The idea here is that when a woman marries her nature and actions are now subject to judgement (control?) by the husband. He may be benevolent, but not always. No wonder LMA said marriage was not for her.

    1. Amen to that! As kindly as March was, you could sense that “I’m in control of you” thing going on. I sensed that deeply with Ralph Waldo Emerson in Mr. Emerson’s Wife – as enlightened as he was, he had to name his daughter after his first love and Lidian had to go along with it. Just one of many trespasses …

      Hey, looking forward to Saturday when we get to see Little Women in Concord! The production is getting rave reviews. 🙂

  2. Thats why I always thought Marmee and Louisa were so much a like. And I can’t wait for that new bio on them. Everyone says Louisa was like her father. Seriously? She was nothing like him. Hot tempered, unmanageable at times, quick tongued. I daresay she was more like her mother. 🙂 But thats my theory and I’m sticking to it.

    1. I’m with you, I never thought Louisa was like her father. You’ve said it before who is writing the book on Louisa and Abba, who is it again? Any indication as to when it will be out? Looking forward to that read!

  3. Grr! Bronson/March just doesn’t make any sense to me as a Transcendentalist. Isn’t Transcendentalism supposed to be an off shoot of Romanticism, with a high value placed on nature and impulse, not taming and conventionalizing?

    I’ll have to get busier reading “Eden’s Outcasts” so I have more empathy for him.

  4. The book is Eve LaPlante’s MARMEE & LOUISA. I have no idea when it comes out though. I’m dying to read it though.

    1. The thing that gets me though is that in reading the summary of this book, I knew already Abba was the strength behind Louisa. Bronson seem to constantly get in her way. I thought Sayler’s book, Marmee The Mother of Little Women (which you recommended, thank you, great book) made it pretty clear that Abba was behind Louisa all the way. The summary also says the following: “Abigail, long dismissed as a quiet, self-effacing companion to her famous husband and daughter, is revealed here as a politically active feminist firebrand, a fascinating thinker in her own right.” Do I know that because I read a lot to support this blog? I thought most people knew that about Abba. Geraldine Brooks certainly makes that clear in March in her portrayal of Marmee, drawing heavily on Abba’s bio. Hmmmm.

      Gina, you always know when good stuff is coming out. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Well, the librarian in me needs to be up to date on this stuff 😉

    I often wonder how people began to associate Louisa with her father? Was it because he had radical ideas? Okay, fine, but so did his wife. I’m finally happy to see people looking at Abba and questioning what role she had with her daughter/daughters.

    I also hope this book will have copies of the journals etc and maybe some new photos instead of the tired old collection that is in every book. I heard Orchard house has many. I would like to see some new ones.

    1. So would I! I’m anxious to see what new sources have been uncovered and especially, how they were uncovered.

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