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 …

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