This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of a classic read by millions around the globe. Written by Louisa May Alcott, a writer under duress fulfilling the assignment of an insistent publisher, Little Women, in the words of Anne Boyd Rioux is the “paradigmatic book about growing up, especially for the female half of the population.” Her latest book, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, tells the story of Alcott’s enduring work as well as its impact on the lives of millions of readers.
Unlike most readers of Little Women, I could not seem to grasp the significance of this book because of my focus on the Alcotts as historical figures. I did not read Little Women for the first time until I was fifty-five so I never had that childhood experience of the story. I was so immersed in the author’s life that her fictional counterpart, Jo March, seemed a shadow of the real and complex woman. After reading Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy I better understand the genius of Little Women: why it has resonated with so many readers, and why it still remains relevant today.
Rioux, a professor of English at the University of New Orleans is that rare academic who can combine meticulous research with a writing style that appeals to a broad range of readers. The work is succinct and appealing, providing more than enough information to satisfy the scholar while engaging the mainstream reader. I was delighted with Rioux’s many sharp and surprising insights not only about Little Women, but of the Alcott family as well. She brings fresh ideas to Alcott scholarship.
One of those ideas dispels the notion that Alcott for the most part did not edit her work. In reading parts of the original manuscript (housed at the Concord Public Library), Rioux discovered story changes. She surmises that Alcott, transitioning from her “potboiler” style to that of writing for young people, had to tone down some of her ideas. The two chapters that exist, “Our Foreign Correspondent” (Chapter 31) and “Heartache” (Chapter 35) show heavy editing in the manuscript; for example in “Heartache,” Alcott envisioned a far more dramatic (and even somewhat violent) interaction between Jo and Laurie which was moderated for the final book. The recent discovery by scholar Joel Myerson of manuscripts from Eight Cousins backs up the notion that Alcott did indeed edit her work.
Although taken on as a job to satisfy both her father and the publisher, Alcott poured herself into Little Women once it was established that the book would hit with her target audience. Rioux described the work as “drudgery” for Alcott and yet at the same time noted that she fell into her legendary vortex, finishing both parts of Little Women in record time. The prospect of the book helping to support her family was the compulsion that drove Alcott to the point of illness even for work she did not like.
Insights into Alcott family members
In the introduction Rioux writes, “What seems like a tale from a simpler time turns out to be the product of a difficult and sometimes troubled life.” While providing the customary biographical information for each family member, Rioux provided fresh insight on familiar themes. For example, she poses the nagging question with regards to Bronson Alcot: “What could possibly make a man so obstinate that he was willing to allow his own family to starve?” While concluding it was not a simple question to answer, she offered this:
“Bronson was known by all to be eccentric, another reason Louisa probably left him in the background of her novel, not wanting to expose him to further ridicule. But even more than simply eccentric, I think it is fair to consider Bronson a kind of religious fanatic, forbidding his family to engage in many practices he viewed as sinful. While he was quite liberal in his encouragement of his daughters’ energies, he restricted them in other ways. For much of Louisa’s childhood, she was improperly clothed and subsisted on little more than bread and water making her ‘skinny, undernourished, and usually hungry’ according to one of her biographers.” (pages 24-25)
No other scholar has been quite so blunt in assessing Bronson Alcott’s behavior and yet it is so obvious. The label of religious fanatic opens the mind to many possibilities and offers answers to the numerous questions about his character and his life.
Rioux’s analysis of the anger issues presented in Little Women is spot-on, linking it to the difficult life led by Abigail Alcott as she coped with the dire consequences of a husband who would not, or could not, support his family. She cites Marmee’s confession to Jo about controlling her anger as packing in “the years of extreme poverty the Alcotts endured and the anger Abigail felt about it.” Abigail’s anger was absorbed by Louisa who was, in Rioux’s words, “deeply marked by these early experiences of poverty, family instability, and worry for her father’s sanity.” She writes that Abigail was particularly resentful of Bronson’s inability to recognize the many sacrifices she made to do the work he refused to do. As a result, Louisa made it her life’s mission to right that wrong and provide for her mother. This is reflected in Jo’s inheritance of Beth’s role as the family caretaker after Beth dies.
A final example of Rioux’s insight is a revelation that is very close to my own heart (thus making it difficult to be objective on this point). Through a series of conversations before Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy was completed I discovered that Anne and I hold very similar opinions regarding Beth March and Elizabeth Alcott, particularly when it comes to her final illness. Without giving away the essence in this review, I will say that Rioux summed up to perfection my own feelings on the matter and graciously cited me in her footnotes. Her bold, succinct and logical argument opens up many possibilities regarding Beth, taking this character seriously for the first time. It has been noted that Beth’s shyness (which is far too simplistic a word to describe her trouble) is becoming understandable to the modern audience thanks to its treatment in the recent Masterpiece series plus the YouTube series, “The March Family Letters.” It may be that Beth’s time has finally come and Rioux is leading the way.
Other aspects of Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy
There is far more to Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy than biographical information. As it is impossible in this review to get into that kind of detail with which I would like to indulge as it would constitute a novella, I will instead offer a summary of the other aspects of this book and hope that these few details I have offered will encourage you to read this ground-breaking work.
Reviews of the time
Rioux presents a chapter on how Little Women was received. I have often longed to experience Little Women as did readers in 1868 (the closest approximation being the Harry Potter phenomenon with my teenage children). Rioux’s explanations and insights have deepened my understanding of the originality and genius of Alcott’s book. Those aspects of Little Women that are normal and accepted ways of living for today’s readers were considered radical in Louisa’s era; Rioux got that sense across to me such that I could appreciate it for the first time.
Rioux’s analysis of the numerous theatrical, film and musical adaptations takes into account the historical background of the period when they were produced, demonstrating its influence how Little Women was interpreted and presented. Two compelling examples were how the Great Depression influenced the 1933 Katherine Hepburn version, and how aftermath of World War II affected the 1949 June Allyson movie. It is unfortunate that the Masterpiece series came out after the writing of Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy but Rioux does provide a review on her website, https://anneboydrioux.com.
Influence on writers, readers and literature
A chapter is devoted to the many prominent women writers, leaders and politicians influenced by Little Women. Rioux points out the common experience of all these women in recognizing themselves in Jo March, thus drawing inspiration from her experience. Jo became a guide, a means by which a reader could say, “That is me, and I can do what Jo has done.” One of the most important legacies of Little Women is the sheer number of women who have gone on to greatness because of Jo March.
The second half of Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy draws upon Rioux’s experience as a college professor teaching Little Women in her classes. Her interaction with students provides valuable information on how young people today perceive the classic. An entire chapter is devoted to the question of boys reading the book which is quite fascinating and timely. Rioux also provides a chapter on how the reading of Little Women varies so much from person to person revealing again the genius and complexity of the story, hidden behind a seemingly simple telling of four sisters growing up.
The final chapter recounts present-day books, television shows and movies influenced by Little Women including the long-running “Gilmore Girls” and the character of Rory, and Hermione from the Harry Potter series.
I highly recommend the reading of Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy. Read it first for pleasure and then go back a second time and study it with care. My own copy is riddled with notes, underscores and exclamation marks. I am using Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy as one of the main sources for my upcoming 5-part class on Little Women for the Worcester Institute for Senior Learning (WISE) this fall. I cannot think of a better source to which I can direct my students for a thorough study of a book that will never die. Louisa’s work of “drudgery” produced a masterpiece; Anne Boyd Rioux has captured the genius of that masterpiece in Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy demonstrating without question why Little Women still matters.
Where to order, and a pre-order giveaway!
Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters can be ordered from Rioux’s website, https://anneboydrioux.com/little-women/. Signed copies can be ordered at Octavia Books: https://www.octaviabooks.com/book/9780393254730
Just write a note (in “Order Comments” section at the bottom of the check-out page), and Anne will sign the book before they ship it out.
Be sure and subscribe to Anne’s newsletter, “The Bluestocking Newsletter;” in July’s issue she is announcing a pre-order giveway!
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