Generations of readers young and old, male and female, have fallen in love with the March sisters of Louisa May Alcott’s most popular and enduring novel, Little Women.
Here are talented tomboy and author-to-be Jo, tragically frail Beth, beautiful Meg, and romantic, spoiled Amy, united in their devotion to each other and their struggles to survive in New England during the Civil War.
It is no secret that Alcott based Little Women on her own early life. While her father, the freethinking reformer and abolitionist Bronson Alcott, hobnobbed with such eminent male authors as Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne, Louisa supported herself and her sisters with woman’s work,” including sewing, doing laundry, and acting as a domestic servant.
But she soon discovered she could make more money writing. Little Women brought her lasting fame and fortune, and far from being the girl’s book” her publisher requested, it explores such timeless themes as love and death, war and peace, the conflict between personal ambition and family responsibilities, and the clash of cultures between Europe and America.
Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania on November 29, 1832. She and her three sisters, Anna, Elizabeth and May were educated by their father, philosopher/ teacher, Bronson Alcott and raised on the practical Christianity of their mother, Abigail May.
Louisa spent her childhood in Boston and in Concord, Massachusetts, where her days were enlightened by visits to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s library, excursions into nature with Henry David Thoreau and theatricals in the barn at Hillside (now Hawthorne’s “Wayside”).
Like her character, Jo March in Little Women, young Louisa was a tomboy: “No boy could be my friend till I had beaten him in a race,” she claimed, ” and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences….”
For Louisa, writing was an early passion. She had a rich imagination and often her stories became melodramas that she and her sisters would act out for friends. Louisa preferred to play the “lurid” parts in these plays, “the villains, ghosts, bandits, and disdainful queens.”
At age 15, troubled by the poverty that plagued her family, she vowed: “I will do something by and by. Don’t care what, teach, sew, act, write, anything to help the family; and I’ll be rich and famous and happy before I die, see if I won’t!”
Confronting a society that offered little opportunity to women seeking employment, Louisa determined “…I will make a battering-ram of my head and make my way through this rough and tumble world.” Whether as a teacher, seamstress, governess, or household servant, for many years Louisa did any work she could find.
Louisa’s career as an author began with poetry and short stories that appeared in popular magazines. In 1854, when she was 22, her first book Flower Fables was published. A milestone along her literary path was Hospital Sketches (1863) based on the letters she had written home from her post as a nurse in Washington, DC as a nurse during the Civil War.
When Louisa was 35 years old, her publisher Thomas Niles in Boston asked her to write “a book for girls.” Little Women was written at Orchard House from May to July 1868. The novel is based on Louisa and her sisters’ coming of age and is set in Civil War New England. Jo March was the first American juvenile heroine to act from her own individuality; a living, breathing person rather than the idealized stereotype then prevalent in children’s fiction.
In all, Louisa published over 30 books and collections of stories. She died on March 6, 1888, only two days after her father, and is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord.
Meg obediently following the long grass-blade which her new tutor used to point with, read slowly and timidly, unconsciously making poetry of the hard words by the soft intonation of her musical voice. Down the page went the green guide, and presently, forgetting her listener in the beauty of the sad scene, Meg read as if alone, giving a little touch of tragedy to the words of the unhappy queen. If she had seen the brown eyes then, she would have stopped short, but she never looked up, and the lesson was not spoiled for her.
“Very well indeed!” said Mr. Brooke, as she paused, quite ignoring her many mistakes, and looking as if he did indeed love to teach.
Miss Kate put up her glass, and, having taken a survey of the little tableau before her, shut her sketch book, saying with condescension, “You’ve a nice accent and in time will be a clever reader. I advise you to learn, for German is a valuable accomplishment to teachers. I must look after Grace, she is romping.” And Miss Kate strolled away, adding to herself with a shrug, “I didn’t come to chaperone a governess, though she is young and pretty. What odd people these Yankees are. I’m afraid Laurie will be quite spoiled among them.”
“I forgot that English people rather turn up their noses at governesses and don’t treat them as we do,” said Meg, looking after the retreating figure with an annoyed expression.
“Tutors also have rather a hard time of it there, as I know to my sorrow. There’s no place like America for us workers, Miss Margaret.” And Mr. Brooke looked so contented and cheerful that Meg was ashamed to lament her hard lot.
“I’m glad I live in it then. I don’t like my work, but I get a good deal of satisfaction out of it after all, so I won’t complain. I only wished I liked teaching as you do.”
“I think you would if you had Laurie for a pupil. I shall be very sorry to lose him next year,” said Mr. Brooke, busily punching holes in the turf.
“Going to college, I suppose?” Meg’s lips asked the question, but her eyes added, “And what becomes of you?”
“Yes, it’s high time he went, for he is ready, and as soon as he is off, I shall turn soldier. I am needed.”
“I am glad of that!” exclaimed Meg. “I should think every young man would want to go, though it is hard for the mothers and sisters who stay at home,” she added sorrowfully.
“I have neither, and very few friends to care whether I live or die,” said Mr. Brooke rather bitterly as he absently put the dead rose in the hole he had made and covered it up, like a little grave.
“Laurie and his grandfather would care a great deal, and we should all be very sorry to have any harm happen to you,” said Meg heartily.
“Thank you, that sounds pleasant,” began Mr. Brooke, looking cheerful again, but before he could finish his speech, Ned, mounted on the old horse, came lumbering up to display his equestrian skill before the young ladies, and there was no more quiet that day.
“Don’t you love to ride?” asked Grace of Amy, as they stood resting after a race round the field with the others, led by Ned.
“I dote upon it. My sister, Meg, used to ride when Papa was rich, but we don’t keep any horses now, except Ellen Tree,” added Amy, laughing.
“Tell me about Ellen Tree. Is it a donkey?” asked Grace curiously.
“Why, you see, Jo is crazy about horses and so am I, but we’ve only got an old sidesaddle and no horse. Out in our garden is an apple tree that has a nice low branch, so Jo put the saddle on it, fixed some reins on the part that turns up, and we bounce away on Ellen Tree whenever we like.”
“How funny!” laughed Grace. “I have a pony at home, and ride nearly every day in the park with Fred and Kate. It’s very nice, for my friends go too, and the Row is full of ladies and gentlemen.”
“Dear, how charming! I hope I shall go abroad some day, but I’d rather go to Rome than the Row,” said Amy, who had not the remotest idea what the Row was and wouldn’t have asked for the world.
Frank, sitting just behind the little girls, heard what they were saying, and pushed his crutch away from him with an impatient gesture as he watched the active lads going through all sorts of comical gymnastics. Beth, who was collecting the scattered Author cards, looked up and said, in her shy yet friendly way, “I’m afraid you are tired. Can I do anything for you?”
“Talk to me, please. It’s dull, sitting by myself,” answered Frank, who had evidently been used to being made much of at home.
If he asked her to deliver a Latin oration, it would not have seemed a more impossible task to bashful Beth, but there was no place to run to, no Jo to hide behind now, and the poor boy looked so wistfully at her that she bravely resolved to try.
“What do you like to talk about?” she asked, fumbling over the cards and dropping half as she tried to tie them up.
“Well, I like to hear about cricket and boating and hunting,” said Frank, who had not yet learned to suit his amusements to his strength.
My heart! What shall I do? I don’t know anything about them, thought Beth, and forgetting the boy’s misfortune in her flurry, she said, hoping to make him talk, “I never saw any hunting, but I suppose you know all about it.”
“I did once, but I can never hunt again, for I got hurt leaping a confounded five-barred gate, so there are no more horses and hounds for me,” said Frank with a sigh that made Beth hate herself for her innocent blunder.
“Your deer are much prettier than our ugly buffaloes,” she said, turning to the prairies for help and feeling glad that she had read one of the boys’ books in which Jo delighted.
Buffaloes proved soothing and satisfactory, and in her eagerness to amuse another, Beth forgot herself, and was quite unconscious of her sisters’ surprise and delight at the unusual spectacle of Beth talking away to one of the dreadful boys, against whom she had begged protection.
“Bless her heart! She pities him, so she is good to him,” said Jo, beaming at her from the croquet ground.
“I always said she was a little saint,” added Meg, as if there could be no further doubt of it.
“I haven’t heard Frank laugh so much for ever so long,” said Grace to Amy, as they sat discussing dolls and making tea sets out of the acorn cups.
“My sister Beth is a very fastidious girl, when she likes to be,” said Amy, well pleased at Beth’s success. She meant ‘facinating’, but as Grace didn’t know the exact meaning of either word, fastidious sounded well and made a good impression.
An impromptu circus, fox and geese, and an amicable game of croquet finished the afternoon. At sunset the tent was struck, hampers packed, wickets pulled up, boats loaded, and the whole party floated down the river, singing at the tops of their voices. Ned, getting sentimental, warbled a serenade with the pensive refrain…
Alone, alone, ah! Woe, alone,