“Make it short and spicy,” says a man (probably a publisher) to Josephine (Jo) March in the trailer of the latest screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’ (the film released in the US on December 25), “and if the main character is a woman, make sure she is married by the end”.
It is not known whether Alcott’s publisher had given her similar tips for her classic tale of four sisters, but the story goes that it was he who asked her to write a book on girls. Based on the lives of Alcott and her sisters, the novel was so successful that Alcott wrote a second volume, published as ‘Good Wives’ the following year (1869). In 1880 the two were issued as a single book.
Modelled on life in Orchard House, Alcott’s family home, the narrative follows Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March, as the four sisters make the transition from girls to women.
Virtue over wealth
At the core of the novel is the idea that virtue, hard work, family ties and true love are more important than wealth.
The March family are not worldly. When Meg, returning from spending a week at a rich friend’s house, tells her mother she heard some people discussing her plan to get one of her daughters married to rich Laurie (their neighbour and friend), her mother admits she does have plans. But adds: “I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world – marry rich men merely because they are rich… I’d rather see you poor men’s wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.”
A tale of constant striving to be “good” and to follow in their parents’ footsteps, could have been tedious, but the sisters pepper their parents’ lessons and wisdom, with their own escapades – from Meg’s foolish flirting and affectations at a ball, to Amy burning a manuscript of Jo’s writings in a fit of rage, and Jo burning Meg’s hair in an attempt to curl it. Their moments of weakness are what make the story real and relatable. What’s more difficult to take is the social expectation from the girls to behave, not just as good humans, but model women.
“Girls, girls! have you both got nice pocket-handkerchiefs?”, calls out Mrs March after her two eldest daughters as they leave for a party one evening, causing Jo to say with a laugh: “I do believe Marmee would ask that if we were all running away – from an earthquake.” Meg, much more of a young lady than tomboy Jo, answers: “a real lady is always known by neat boots, gloves, and handkerchief…”.
While there are different interpretations of the title of the novel – some feel it is a reflection of the age of the March sisters – one idea is that it is a take on the superior way men would often address the ladies at the time. And there is enough in the novel to bear out that theory.
The sisters are encouraged to work – Jo hopes to make a name as a writer and Amy as a painter – but they always have to act the lady. Marriage is not just desirable, but a “gift”. “To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman…” says Mrs March. There are other clichés – the men are often looked upon as wiser, more knowledgeable. Then there is Meg’s lack of interest in politics and her fear her husband will think her stupid if she tries to discuss such things with him.
Jo chafes against such norms and through her, Alcott reflects on the society of the time. The film, it seems, remains true to this inner struggle.
“Women, they have minds and they have souls, as well as hearts…,” says Saoirse Ronan’s (the actor who plays Jo), at one point in the trailer. “They’ve got ambitions, they’ve got talent, as well as beauty… I’m so sick of people saying love is all that a woman is fit for…”
It this inability to confirm to the norm and be more lady-like in her ways perhaps that makes Meryl Streep – who plays the family’s elderly relative Aunt March, dismiss Jo as a “lost cause”. And when Jo tells her: “I intend to make my own way in the world”, Aunt March is quick to rebuke: “no one makes their own way [in the world], least of all a woman”. As the trailer ends, the man who is probably the publisher, asks Jo, “So who does she marry?” Ronan’s expression of exasperation might find reflection in many among the audience.