Little Women, or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy Holt, Knopf, Little, Brown, Macmillan, Oxford University Press, Penguin, Puffin, Random House, Scholastic, Simon and, Schuster, and Viking Penguin
A hundred and twenty-six years after its publication, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is a smash hit again. The new film version is setting records (mainly, as one might expect, among women of various sizes); the book is doing well. The new paperback “novelization” of the film, which is even briefer and more banal than one might expect, has already sold nearly 300,000 copies. And at Orchard House, the Alcott homestead in Concord, Massachusetts, mobs of tourists have created what are described as chaotic conditions.
In some quarters Little Women is also being welcomed for its support of what are called “Christian family values.” After all, it is the story of a united and affectionate family living in a small New England town that has become part of the American myth. It features kind, wise, and loving parents, always ready with a warm hug and a moral lesson, and four charming teen-age daughters who have never heard of punk rock or crack cocaine. Moreover, the book is American history as well as myth: it is based on Alcott’s own childhood and adolescence.
One era’s conservatism, however, may be the liberal protest of an earlier time. When it appeared in 1869, Little Women was in many ways a radical manifesto. Its author was an independent, self-supporting single woman in an age when, as Meg puts it in the book, “men have to work and women to marry for money.” Louisa May Alcott was also a committed feminist who wrote and spoke in favor of women’s rights. In 1868, while she was creating Little Women, she joined the New England Woman Suffrage Association.
Alcott came by her radicalism naturally. She was the daughter of what would now be described as vegetarian hippie intellectuals with fringe religious and social beliefs, and spent nearly a year of her childhood in an unsuccessful commune. Her most famous book, Little Women, was equally radical in its time. Its central character, Jo March, has almost nothing in common with the self-sacrificing heroines of the best-selling girls’ books of the day—books like Charlotte Yonge’s The Daisy Chain (1856) and Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World (1851), both of which Jo reads in the course of the novel.
Developments in intellectual and social history, and even in human biology, have greatly altered the impact of Little Women. The unaffected asexual innocence of the four teen-age March sisters, for instance, now seems almost unbelievable. In fact it would be inconceivable today, but not in 1868. Louisa May Alcott wasn’t portraying herself and her sisters as unnaturally immature, but as typical adolescents of a time when most women did not reach puberty until their late teens. In England, where the best records exist, the median age of menarche (first menstruation) in the 1830s was 17.5; by the 1860s it had fallen only to 16.5, and by the 1890s to 15.5. (Today it is down to 12.5.) A …