Kay: Little Women Celebrates 150 Years

Louisa May Alcott

Did you read Little Women when you were a kid? Did you like it?

Published in 1868, this story is one that the world seems never to tire of. There have been two silent film adaptations and four talkies so far. Six television series have been produced, including four by the BBC, and two anime series in Japan. A 1998 American opera version has been performed internationally. A musical version opened on Broadway in 2005.

And now, 150 years after it was written, two filmed productions will be released in 2018.

So one could say it’s an enduring story.

I read Little Women when I was around 10. I was disappointed with it because I had a big problem with Jo. I liked her independence, but (I can’t imagine this could be a spoiler, but hey, if you haven’t read it—spoiler alert!), after developing a (as I remember) terrific relationship with Laurie for the whole damn book, Jo goes off, becomes a governess, writes stories, disappoints the Professor, and then marries him in about 12 pages.

I hated that. Well, I was 10. Maybe the Professor would appeal more to me now.

Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888) was already a successful and well-respected writer when her publisher asked her to write a book about girls that would have widespread appeal. The story is a semi-autobiographical account of her childhood with her sisters in Concord, Massachusetts, but she didn’t enjoy the writing experience. She wrote in her diary, “I plod away, although I don’t enjoy this sort of things.” She wrote Little Women “in record time for money,” she said, but the book’s immediate success surprised both her and her publisher.

The second of four daughters born to transcendentalist and educator Amos Alcott and social worker Abby May, Louisa May Alcott was raised unconventionally. Amos Alcott established an experimental school and joined the Transcendental Club with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. However, Amos Alcott’s school did not flourish, and the family suffered severe financial difficulties. They moved 22 times in 30 years, but finally, with financial help from Emerson, settled into Orchard House (now a museum) in Concord, Massachusetts, where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women.

Alcott never attended public school. Instead, her father taught her. She also received lessons from Emerson, Nathanial Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, and Julia Ward Howe, all of whom were family friends, as well as naturalist Thoreau, who inspired her to write Thoreau’s Flute based on her time at Walden’s Pond. In 1847, she and her family met Frederick Douglass and served as station masters on the Underground Railroad. Alcott admired the Declaration of Sentiments published by the Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights. She was the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts, for a school board election.

She never married. In her journals, she wrote about a romance she’d had, but she deleted the entries before she died, so the details of the affair remain obscure. She said: “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body … because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.”

Alcott suffered chronic health problems and died of a stroke at age 55. She’s buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, near Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau, on a hillside known as Authors’ Ridge.

So—150 years on, what value do we get from Little Women? A contemporary reader might value the qualities of sisterhood, family, friendship, and love that Little Women explores. But scholars have suggested that the book has important historical implications.

According to a biographer, Little Women legitimized the aspirations of American middle-class girls by reinforcing the value of individuality and female vocation. Alcott didn’t question the value of domesticity, but she challenged the social constructs that put spinsters on the fringe of society solely because they weren’t married. Moreover, the publication of Little Women spurred other women to take up the pen. More young women started writing stories with adventurous plots about girls’ individual achievement. These kinds of stories traditionally had been written for boys, so Little Women began a trend, current today, that created a literary genre specifically for girls.

Not bad for a 150-year-old gal. Have you read Little Women, and if you did, did you get any of that from it? I know I didn’t. I was just cheesed off that Jo didn’t marry Laurie. What do you think?



7 thoughts on “Kay: Little Women Celebrates 150 Years

  1. I read Little Women and Good Wives in the late 1960s, courtesy of the local children’s library and guess what, Kay? I was gutted that Jo didn’t marry Laurie. Yay! for Louisa May Alcott and female empowerment, but even aged 10 I thought that Professor was a most unsatisfying rebound.

  2. I liked it when I read it as a kid, but I think I had the same problems as you did: I was rooting for Team Laurie. Also, I never liked people dying in my books: not as a youngster, not now. I recognize that it is Important for Thematic Reasons or whatever, but it’s just not my cup of tea.

    I read it in my 30s, I think, and really liked it. Would recommend to anyone.

  3. When I first read Little Women, I was simply galled that Jo would choose to marry a stuffy old professor over Laurie. But isn’t that what everyone thinks? Reading it as an adult now, I try to see it from a less subjective point of view, and just face the facts that Jo just can’t allow herself to marry Laurie, so I’ll just have to get over it too. 🙂

    Would you be interested in joining my Louisa May Alcott reading challenge this June? (+ there’s a giveaway!) Details are on my blog…


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