Nuggets from The Afterlife of Little Women – Fiction, Fame and Romanticism 1868-1900

Continuing our discussion …

Looking at fiction

Jessie Wilcox Smith Little WOmenLittle Women was a subversive work in many ways, putting new ideas into the heads of children while managing not to upset their parents. One such idea was its endorsement of reading fiction. According to Beverly Lyon Clark, a leading authority on children’s literature, children were not encouraged to read fiction because of the way it absorbed the mind. Of Little Women‘s influence she writes, “its other oral would seem to endorse the pleasures of subverting adults’ strictures and of reveling in the glory of fiction.” She continues, “the text sets up two models for reading: readers have generally followed Jo’s enthusiastic example for their own reading even if they may endorse the moralizing model when they image how reading Little Women should affect others, especially those others are young.” (pg. 10)

If you read Little Women as a child, what was your reaction to Jo’s love of reading? Perhaps like me, you read it as an adult–did you find Jo’s enthusiasm infectious and if so, how?

Bronson’s influence

from http://uudb.org/articles/bronsonalcott.html
from http://uudb.org/articles/bronsonalcott.html

Louisa was compelled to write Little Women not only by her publisher but by her father, in part because he was promised publication of his book, Tablets, if she complied. But Bronson’s desire was genuine–he felt certain his daughter could write the perfect children’s book as he had shaped and molded Louisa and her sisters in his own image (or at least, attempted to). At any rate, he knew she would want to please him. While Bronson encouraged his daughters to read fiction, he deplored many of the books of his day. Little Women was to fulfill his desire for the perfect children’s book.

How much of Bronson’s influence do you see in Little Women despite the fact that Mr. March plays such a small role in the story?

I am currently going through my second reading of Little Women (listening, by the way, to a wonderful dramatic reading, available free on Librivox) and I see Bronson’s influence everywhere, from the use of Pilgrim’s Progress as the backdrop to the spiritual and moral lessons in the book. While Louisa could not seem to embody her father in a major character role, Mr. March is quite “present” despite his absence.

Why did Louisa May Alcott seem so approachable?

louisa readingLouisa deplored her fame even as she had wished for such as a child. Why did readers feel so bonded to her? And what was so onerous about it to Louisa?

Clark writes on page 20, “An early twentieth-century biographer declared that Alcott ‘felt the annoyances of glory more that most authors.’ But it seems likely that she was besieged more than most.” She goes on to cite sales of Little Women and writes, “Alcott was also a woman: she would have seemed more approachable than a ‘great man’ would, and … she had no wife or personal assistant to protect her. As an author whose works targeted children (as well as adults), she must have seemed more approachable still. Finally, given how autobiographical her Little Women series was, and given her willingness to call herself Aunt Jo, readers who felt intimate with the fictional Jo March seem to have felt intimate with Alcott. As an obituarist noted, ‘She wrote so much of her own life into books that she was nearer to the public than most writers.'”

Imagine yourself in Louisa’s time–would you have approached her? What would you have said to her? Do you think her fans were too intrusive?

I probably would have been too embarrassed myself to approach her and might have been disappointed in what I saw. I get the sense that Louisa could not always find it within herself to be gracious to fans. An inherently shy woman, the level of fame she experienced must have been excruciating at times. Still, that fame gave her entry into virtually any place where she could hob knob with other well accomplished and famous people. One of the things I most enjoyed about Madeleine B. Stern’s biography was how she described the pleasure Louisa sometimes took in her fame.

pickwick portfolioI think about the five Luken sisters who wrote to Louisa about the newspaper they published that was fashioned after the Pickwick Portfolio. How glorious it must have been to have the author of Little Women endorse your efforts! Louisa even made free contributions to the newspaper, impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit of the sisters.

Louisa the Romantic

jo writing (norman rockwell)As much as Louisa denied adopting the philosophy of her father, she could not prevent herself from living it. As Transcendentalism was influenced by the Romantic era in Europe, it makes perfect sense that drama queen Louisa (who I believe also had a martyr complex) would adopt such colorful images of herself as the artist possessed by her writing in the garret. She could not escape her upbringing no matter how hard she tried. She was excessively pragmatic in order to undo the damage of her father’s way of living that so deprived the family of material necessities and basic security. But at the same time her upbringing oozed through her writing and this is what attracted so many readers. It was so different, deep and inspiring to girls leading dull and limited lives. Jo March represented a breaking out of sorts, not only with seeking a career over marriage, but in her basic personality: her reading habits, the way she behaved, her use of the vernacular, and just the very fact that she lived her tomboy desires openly. Jo may not have always been the most likable character but she was real.

What is it about Jo March that attracts you? How has she inspired you?

I admit that Jo has not always been my favorite sister. I was first attracted to Beth as a child and always associated her name with beauty. As an adult I came to appreciate Amy as I learned more about her real counterpart, May. But now that I have become a writer, Jo is speaking to me. She hides out in the garret; I hide out in my cellar room decorated with posters of Norman Rockwell paintings of Jo. I love the whole romantic image of Jo as a writer and an artist. I relate to her bad temper, her unbridled enthusiasm and her desire to lead an uncompromising, authentic life.

There is much more in Chapter One but I will leave that for you to read in The Afterlife of Little Women. The next post will dive into Chapter Two: Waxing Nostaligic 1900-1930.

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4 Replies to “Nuggets from The Afterlife of Little Women – Fiction, Fame and Romanticism 1868-1900”

  1. I have a feeling that Louisa didn’t quite know what she was letting herself in for when she said she wanted to be famous. The young Jo March was always *saying* that she yearned for fame, but whenever she was actually put into a social situation, she was far happier lurking in the corner than being out on the floor making polite conversation. In Jo’s Boys, there’s a most heartfelt chapter – Jo’s Last Scrape – about the burden of living “in a lantern,” and somewhere in Louisa’s own letters, she laments that she can’t go to pick an apple in her garden without an artist peeping over the fence to sketch her – surely the first recorded mention of the papparazzi!

    In my own Little Women-inspired book – The Little Women Letters, a story of the modern-day descendants of the Marches – I decided that, as sometimes does happen, Jo’s literary fame had disappeared when fashions changed. This was partly a device of my own to give her descendants the opportunity to discover her afresh … and partly a tip of the hat to Jo herself, who I am quite sure would have heaved a mighty sigh of relief to settle back into obscurity once the family bills had been paid!

    1. Always a delight to read your comments Gabrielle. 🙂 Jo was the shy performer, wasn’t she? If she could assume a role or have an agenda, she had no problem being public, but if she had to just be herself with no agenda to rely upon, well, that was a different story. I can totally relate to that. I am like her at parties, terrible at small talk. BUT, if I have something specific to talk ABOUT, then you can’t shut me up! People always find it hard to believe that performers are often introverts.

      Nice device by the way in your fine book. Makes me want to look at it again …

  2. I’m sure that was Bronson talking when Mr. March told Jo, “aim for the best and never mind the money.” And I’m sure May said, I think the money is the best part.”

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