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Liberated Girls

An author who creates characters that become wildly popular, and take on a kind of independent life, may eventually tire of them and even turn against them, sometimes violently. Conan Doyle grew so weary of Sherlock Holmes that he had the famous detective murdered by the arch-villain Professor Moriarty. Later, Conan Doyle was forced to bring Holmes back to life by pressure from desolate readers. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and its sequels were by no means her favorite works: she once called her children’s stories “moral pap for the young,” and preferred her more dramatic—even melodramatic—tales for adults. Yet popular demand and financial necessity kept Meg, Jo, and Amy March alive through three sequels (though Beth, of course, dies in the second volume of the series).

All four Little Women have continued to survive in the imagination of readers everywhere, and their story has been retold over and over—as a play, a film, an opera, and recently on Broadway as a musical. Over 125 years after the original publication, the March girls are still famous. There are now Little Women dolls and comics and coloring books and Web sites, and a historically accurate and entertaining mystery series by Anna Maclean in which Louisa is the detective. The rest of the family has not been neglected: earlier this year Geraldine Brooks published a novel about the imagined adventures of the father of the Little Women, March. Here, as in Louisa’s story, Mr. March serves bravely as an army chaplain and nearly dies in a Washington hospital. In real life it was Louisa and not her father who went to the Civil War, working as a nurse in Washington, where she contracted typhoid. (She was treated with calomel, a mercury compound that made her ill off and on for the rest of her life and was probably responsible for her death at fifty-six.)

Now Little Women and its sequels have been honored by publication in the literary equivalent of the Academy Awards: the Library of America. Some readers may be sorry that none of Louisa May Alcott’s Gothic melodramas were included in the volume. Others may regret the omission of Work (1873), a serious semi-autobiographical novel based on her real-life experiences in some of the few jobs open to young women in the 1850s (servant, nurse, actress, governess, lady’s companion). It is true, however, that Alcott has always been best known for Little Women, which, if not a literary masterpiece, is a social and historical phenomenon.

As time has passed, however, the meaning of the book has changed. When Little Women first appeared in 1868 it was innovative and almost shocking. The characters were only partly disguised versions of the author and her family; and, compared to most contemporary children’s literature, the book was strikingly realistic. In most juvenile fiction of the time everything was drawn in black and white. Girls’ books like Jo’s own favorites, Charlotte Yonge’s The Daisy Chain and Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World, featured a single suffering, self-sacrificing heroine of near-perfect virtue and patience. But in Little Women there are four heroines, all different and all imperfect. In the course of the story they struggle to become good, but like most human beings, they never completely succeed. The implication is that it is possible to have serious faults—vanity, anger, impatience, timidity, and selfishness—and still deserve happiness.

Modern readers, including many of my students at Cornell, have often complained that the March girls are unbelievably innocent. In fact they would seem unbelievably innocent today, but not in the mid-nineteenth century. Louisa May Alcott was portraying herself and her sisters as typical adolescents of a time when most women did not reach puberty until their mid-teens. In England, where the best records were kept, the median age of menarche (first menstruation) in the 1840s was 15.7, and by the 1880s it had fallen only to 15. (In 1990, in the United States, it was 12.8.) A young woman born in the 1830s, like Louisa May and her sisters, might be barely sexually mature when she left school or married. When Little Women begins Amy is twelve, Beth thirteen, Jo fifteen, and Meg sixteen. Like most ten-year-olds today, they are uninterested in boys, and in no hurry to leave home.

Because there were four protagonists, Little Women and its sequels were able to present and comment on a variety of possible roles open to mid-nineteenth-century American women. Beth is the ideal mid-Victorian girl-child: sweet, shy, modest, and innocent, like many of the early heroines of Charles Dickens. But she is unlike them in that her shyness and modesty are presented as slightly pathological: unlike her sisters she never takes a paying job; she dreads strangers, and is afraid to go to school. They dream of a happy marriage or a career in the arts; Beth’s greatest wish is “to stay at home safe with Father and Mother.” Her death, like that of Dickens’s Little Nell, is emblematic: it suggests that innocence and virtue alone are not enough to ensure survival in the real world. Historically speaking, she represents an ideal of womanhood that was literally passing away in the 1860s, when Little Women was published.

Meg, on the other hand, is a typical woman of her time—an exemplar of what was then known as the Domestic Movement. The first volume of Little Women is set at the time of the Civil War, which, like World Wars I and II, removed men from the American home and gave women more power and responsibility. After the war ended, some writers encouraged middle-class wives to keep what they had gained: to take charge of their own homes and children rather than let men make all the decisions and direct servants to carry them out. That this was in many ways a new idea is clear from the episode in which the four March girls try keeping house for a week without the help of their mother or their servant, the faithful Hannah, and it turns out that none of them, not even Beth, knows how to cook. Later, when Meg marries, she is still without many domestic skills, but by the end of Part Two of Little Women she is fully competent and in control of her own household. Her mother encourages her in this, but also wants her to be more than a perfect wife and mother. “Don’t shut yourself up in a bandbox because you are a woman,” Marmee tells her daughter, “but understand what is going on, and educate yourself to take your part in the world’s work, for it affects you and yours.”

Amy, the youngest Little Woman, embodies one of the newest developments in late-nineteenth-century America: the entry of middle-class women into the arts both as practitioners and as collectors. She belongs to the generation of painters like Mary Cassatt (1845–1926), whom Louisa’s youngest sister, May Alcott, knew when they were both art students in Europe. Though Amy studies in Paris, she doesn’t become a professional artist; but she is a talented amateur. Later, as a well-to-do married woman, she becomes a patron of the arts, like Isabella Stewart Gardner, who was May Alcott’s near contemporary.

As Beth represents the past, so Jo represents the future. She is what was called at the time a New Woman, who chooses a career. She is also one of the first and most famous positive examples in juvenile fiction of a new kind of girl, the tomboy. Jo loves boys’ games; she envies—and when possible copies—their physical freedom. She hates her given name, Josephine; she has a nickname that might belong to a boy, while her friend and neighbor Theodore Laurence is known by the girlish name of Laurie. All through Little Women and its sequels, Jo’s friends and relatives keep trying to restrain her boyish impulses, but they never totally succeed, and even as a middle-aged wife and mother she is still romping about, careless of her clothes, and using boys’ slang.

The life Alcott gives Jo in Little Men and Jo’s Boys is nearly a hundred years ahead of its time. She not only has a loving husband and children, but two careers, and she doesn’t have to do her own housework or cooking. She gets away with it partly because both her occupations are what were then considered “woman’s work”—teaching and writing for children.

The man Jo marries and the boarding school they found together, Plumfield, owe a lot to Louisa’s father, the philosopher and educational theorist Bronson Alcott. But Professor Bhaer is a greatly improved version, with all Louisa’s father’s virtues and none of his faults. Like Bronson Alcott, he is high-minded and seriously devoted to education; but he is also practical, down-to-earth, a good provider, and physically affectionate. Even so, Alcott’s most recent biographer, Martha Saxton, finds him too much like his original. As she puts it,

Professor Bhaer is a man indistinguishable in temperament and philosophy from Bronson. He provides moralisms and control, telling Jo to stop writing lurid stories. The professor is sufficiently old so that Jo’s interest in him cannot be construed as sexual.*

This seems exaggerated. When Jo, in her early twenties, first meets Frederick Bhaer, he is not yet forty, and she is instantly attracted to him. The gap between their ages also appears less remarkable when we know that Louisa May Alcott was at one time in (unrequited) love with Henry Thoreau, who was fifteen years her senior. (In Little Men he appears, only slightly disguised, as the gifted naturalist Mr. Hyde, who takes Jo’s favorite student, Dan, on as an assistant.)

Bronson Alcott failed as an educator, driving parents away from several schools with his radical religious views and teaching methods, but Plumfield is a great success, and so is the coeducational Laurence College, founded in the last volume of the series. The educational philosophy and practice of these institutions, described in detail in Little Men and Jo’s Boys, incorporate many of Bronson Alcott’s ideas. Like Rousseau and Wordsworth, he believed that children are naturally good; and, like the European educational philosophers Friedrich Froebel and Johan Pestalozzi, he emphasized the development of the body and soul as well as the mind, learning from observations and experience, and the importance of nature study.

Plumfield School also practices a modern type of mainstreaming. It includes all sorts of students: old and young, rich and poor, healthy and sickly. Some of them are mentally or physically—or even morally—handicapped. Those who cannot pay may get scholarships or free tuition, and Dan is a former homeless delinquent boy. There are several girls at Plumfield, and also a mulatto child. (Here Professor Bhaer succeeds where Bronson Alcott had failed: in 1839 Alcott admitted a black girl to his Temple School in Boston; as a result many parents removed their own children, and the school was forced to close.)

The students at Plumfield have their own garden plots and keep pets; they practice gymnastics and go on long walks. Learning is not by rote, but through observation and discussion. Like Bronson Alcott, Dr. Bhaer conducts conversations on important philosophical, religious, and social questions. But unlike Louisa’s father, who according to report did almost all the talking at his “conversations,” Dr. Bhaer does not dominate these discussions—every student gets a turn to speak. Physical punishment is rare: in a scene that repeats an actual episode at the Temple school, Dr. Bhaer punishes a boy by making him hit his teacher’s hand with a ruler, in a literal acting-out of the phrase “this hurts me more than it does you.” In both cases, the boy breaks down and weeps, promising not to repeat his fault.

The students at Plumfield end up having widely varied careers. Some become businessmen, one a sailor, one a minister, and one a professional musician. Others have remarkably modern occupations: wild, restless Nan becomes a famous doctor, while Jo’s favorite student, Dan, ends his life in the far West, working for Indian rights.

In 1868, when Little Women and its sequels first began to appear, they might have been seen as innovative or even shocking in their insistence on the right of all students to a better and more child-centered education, and the right of girls to education and a career. (Some juvenile classics of the time went further: Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland [1865] took the side of a restless, skeptical child against an array of grotesque figures, many of them caricatures of the adults in her life. In Twain’s Tom Sawyer [1876] the hero lies, cheats, acts up in school and church, smokes, and runs away from home, yet becomes rich and admired by everyone in town. But the Alice books were dream tales, in which the heroine ended up back in the limited upper-class Victorian world from which she took off; and Tom Sawyer was not a well-brought-up New England girl but an orphan in a frontier town.)

As Louisa May Alcott admitted at the time, and as scholars have made even clearer since, many of the characters and events in Little Women were heavily idealized versions of their originals. Jo and Beth are fairly close to life, but Anna Alcott (Meg), for instance, as she herself explained in 1871, was plain rather than pretty, and a talented amateur actress rather than merely a devoted wife and mother. Meg becomes engaged at eighteen and is married only a few years later, but Anna was twenty-nine (by nineteenth-century standards, an old maid) when she wed John Pratt, and May Alcott did not marry until she was thirty-seven. Mrs. Alcott, like Marmee, was a devoted and affectionate parent, but she was also a frequent invalid who wore herself out early trying to support the family.

The most complete revision was made in the character of Bronson Alcott (Mr. March). In real life he was an eccentric idealist who for many years lived on the earnings of his wife and daughters. According to Martha Saxton’s biography, his assistant in the Temple School, Elizabeth Peabody, found him “a tyrant and a bore…intolerant and closed-minded.” Emerson wrote that he was “very tedious, and prosing and egotistical and narrow.” In Louisa’s books, however, Mr. March is a successful minister who is offstage most of the time—but always wise, gentle, and loving when he does appear.

Bronson Alcott’s conversations and writings seem to have had little or no permanent effect on his audience. But his ideas on education, as presented in his daughter’s widely popular books, were tremendously influential. What came to be called “progressive education” in the early years of the twentieth century looked a lot like Plumfield. In my own progressive day school, for instance, there was the same rejection of physical punishment and rote memorization of facts; the same emphasis on a varied student body and a varied daily schedule in which recreation, physical activity, and free time were important; and the same belief in the importance of reading aloud to children, and encouraging them to study nature, think for themselves, and express their ideas and opinions freely.

Little Women made Louisa May Alcott rich and famous and rescued her beloved mother from years of ground-down poverty and menial labor. But the financial needs of her family were so great that Louisa felt unable to stop producing stories for children that were sure to sell. Her mother was too ill to work, and her father had heavy debts. In 1870 her sister Anna’s husband died, leaving two young sons, and in 1879, her sister May died in Europe, leaving a baby daughter, who was sent back to her aunt in Massachusetts. Louisa took financial responsibility for all three children, and it never seems to have occurred to her that she might have declined to pay her father’s debts or support her niece and nephews. As Bronson Alcott told everyone proudly, and in some critics’ view rather smugly, she had become “The Child of Duty.”

Even today, Little Women is still widely read, though it may now seem nostalgic and old-fashioned rather than, as in 1868, innovative and sometimes almost shocking. It is impossible to know now whether the work Louisa May Alcott might have produced if she had had more free time and no practical worries would have made a more brilliant and literary volume in the Library of America; but it is unlikely that it would have been better loved by generations of children, or done more to further progressive education and women’s independence.

  1. *

    Louisa May Alcott: A Modern Biography (Noonday, 1995), p. 11.

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