Advent Reading Challenge: Little Women

7th December

‘Christmas with the March sisters’

an extract from Little Women (which was the subject of a previous post ) Louisa M Alcott

Christmas Flowers

Christmas Flowers

Little Women opens with Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy regreting the prospective lack of Christmas presents. Mr March is away at war, which is naturally hard for the family left behind who miss him a great deal. Money is also scarce in the March household but Mrs March (Marmee) has assured the girls that there will be one special gift under each of their pillows:

Jo was the first to wake in the grey dawn of Christmas morning. No stockings hung at the fireplace, and for a moment she felt as much disappointed as she did long ago, when her little sock fell down because it was so crammed with goodies. Then she remembered her mother’s promise, and, slipping her hand under her pillow, drew out a little crimson covered book.

The book was John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and each sister received a copy that Christmas morning. Marmee had reminded the girls how much they had enjoyed playing at pilgrims when they were younger, taking bundles on their backs and travelling from the City of Destruction (the cellar) up to the Celestial City (the attic).

Marmee says to her daughters that they should ‘begin again not in play, but in earnest, and see how far you can get before father comes

Pilgrim's Progress

Christian bearing his bundle

home‘. In fact, the March girls begin their progress that very day by giving up their Christmas breakfast to a desperately poor family, the Hummels, living nearby.

The true spirit of Christmas in action…

Note: The Pilgrim’s Progress was first published in England in 1678. The illustration above is taken from a 1778 edition (thanks to Wikipedia).

Photograph: Chris Mills

A Tale of Four Sisters: revisiting Little Women

colour illustrations of the March sisters

The March family

A few posts ago, I mentioned that I had bought a biography of Louisa May Alcott at the Trinity College Book Sale. This book by Martha Saxton conveniently ties in with my Landing Project since Alcott’s best-known novel Little Women and its sequels are residents on the landing. Little Women was written in 1868 and Good Wives, the second volume in 1869. Both stories were published together in 1880 as Little Women. Alcott continued the saga in Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886). Sadly, none of my volumes dates from that early on so they have no financial value. I think I bought all of them in second bookshops several years ago to replace my original childhood copies. They are from a series called Juvenile Library and all have a colour plate in the front depicting the characters. Only Jo’s Boys still retains its illustrated dust jacket. As you can (just) see from the photograph the girls are depicted as rather more glamorous than is consistent with the novels.

In common with so many other teenagers, I read and loved Little Women and I am sure that I was not the only one to identify with and be inspired by, the lively, tomboyish character of Jo March. In sharp contrast, Meg was too good and youngest sister Amy was too fine and fussy. Poor saintly Beth died after illness and decline, which would not have inspired anyone a great deal. I also remember being deeply disappointed that Jo eventually married Professor Bhaer instead of Laurie, the wealthy boy next door. I wanted fun, romance and frivolity but got practicality and companionship instead.

It is strange to pick up an old childhood favourite to re-read and then perhaps to revise long held memories of a cherished book. I started to read the opening chapters of Little Women, revisiting the March sisters as they prepare for their Christmas festivities. After such a lengthy passage of years, I now find myself not particularly in sympathy with the constant striving for goodness and selflessness on the part of the girls. While I can appreciate the solid work ethic and the ability of making the best of what they had, so much virtuousness is hard to take. The emphasis on womanly attributes and virtues is of course strange from a twenty first century perspective. During the progress of the novel, poor Jo is urged to put away her boyish ways and become a woman; an angel of the home. This is in contrast to the eldest sister Meg who is already well on the way to conventional, domestic womanhood.

Until I picked up Martha Saxton’s biography, I had not read anything about Alcott’s life. I had always assumed that her own family inspired the March family portrayed in her work. Which indeed it did, but there was much more to the story than a straightforward re-working of her family life. The March sisters were fictional versions of Louisa and her sisters: Anna (Meg March), Louisa (Jo March), May (Amy March) and Elizabeth (Beth March). Similarly, Bronson and Abba Alcott inspired the characters of Mr and Mrs March; but Louisa’s relationship with her parents was much more problematic than her fictional counterpart’s was with her parents.

I would like to return to Louisa Alcott and her family in a future post, but meanwhile please let me know which was your favourite March sister and why…

All should have bonnets: a letter from Louisa M Alcott

After the dedication of my #LetterMo writing challenge efforts have faded gently away, I have decided to return to the compendium of historic letters that I mentioned in one of my earlier entries. Having struggled to post at least one item of correspondence every day for a month, I can truly say that I stand (pen poised) in awe of the sheer effort involved in letter writing pre-Microsoft Word technology. After all, even keeping up with just a few relatives in the last century would have been a Herculean task. But thank goodness that so many people did just that, providing a mine of information and insight that would otherwise have been lost to later generations.

One of the epistles in The World’s Great Letters is one from Louisa M Alcott to her sister Anna and while it could not be claimed to hold huge historical importance, it does give you a glimpse into the life of a would-be writer who was struggling to support her family. Alcott was also mired in domestic chores as well as suffering the frustration of waiting for editors to reply to her story submissions.

Alcott’s letter, written around 1861 describes the trials and tribulations of fashioning a decent bonnet (a social necessity) with only one dollar to spend; the contents of Alcott’s ribbon box supplemented the lack of cash. She makes the whole enterprise into an entertaining anecdote for Anna Alcott, but she clearly would have loved to be able to go out and buy a smart piece of headgear. She describes her attempts to trim the one-dollar bonnet thus:

I extracted the remains of the old white ribbon (used up, as I thought, two years ago), and the bits of black lace that have adorned a long line of departed hats. Of the lace I made a dish, on which I thriftily served up bows of ribbon, like meat on toast.  Inside put the lace bow, which adorns my form anywhere when needed. A white flower A.H. gave me sat airily on the brim, – fearfully unbecoming, but pretty in itself, and in keeping. Strings are yet to be evolved from chaos. I feel that they await me somewhere in the dim future.

 

book cover with portrait of L.M. Alcott

Louisa May

All this occurred before Alcott struck gold with the phenomenally successful Little Women, which was published in 1867. At that time, she was still a ‘young woman with one dollar, no bonnet, half a gown and a discontented mind’ as she described herself. In one of those moments of literary serendipity, I spotted Louisa May (Martha Saxton, 1978) while rummaging in the Trinity Booksale on Saturday. I was meaning to re-read Little Women after seeing the sell out production last month at Dublin’s The Gate Theatre.  As Little Women and its sequels reside on the landing I can justify doing just that, but I will have to make (yet another) exception for reading the Louisa May Alcott biography. But, one of the joys of reading is that you never know what is going to be around the next corner of the bookshelf!

What have you discovered this week? And how is your Reading Challenge going? Drop a line in the comment box…