Is it not a beautiful thing to decide, on a day off, to take up the book you are reading, and to vow to read it all at once until it is finished?
That’s exactly what I did today. Well, I had only 36 pages left, so it didn’t take long.
I’ve been reading Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, for the first time in decades. If you’ve been re-reading a book from long ago, I’d like to hear about it, too (see this post’s last sentence).
I’m re-reading Little Women because I intend to read March, by the Australian writer Geraldine Brooks. March takes up the story of the father of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Robert March is a shadowy figure in Little Women, and little is divulged about his time away from home while serving with the Union forces during the American Civil War. Brooks takes up his story, and from all accounts, it is a masterful work, for which she won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It was so long since I’d read Little Women that I thought I’d best refresh my memory.
Little Women is rather a strange book: endearing central characters, a strong moral and Christian message, a sentimentality that is too much at times, set against the turbulent times of the Civil War. Despite its almost preachy tone, it is compelling, however.
I’m most interested in the character of Jo(sephine), definitively played by Winona Ryder in the 1994 film version. The character of Jo is a reminder of how far women have come toward gaining equality. Only by acting, speaking and wishing to be a man does Jo consider she can live a valid life. And, in the 1860s, middle-class women were restricted to domestic duties. At one point, Jo tells her mother that she wishes all four daughters had been born boys. Some women broke with tradition, of course, including Alcott herself, who never married and whose income brought her family out of poverty. I can’t help thinking the English children’s writer Enid Blyton must have been influenced by Jo when she wrote her own “tomboy” character of George (Georgina) in the Famous Five series.
In places, particularly in its first half, Little Women becomes tedious with its moral lectures. At other places, however, it contains some excellent advice still relevant today. Here is my favourite:
“Have regular hours for work and play; make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you understand the worth of time by employing it well. Then youth will be delightful, old age will bring few regrets, and life becomes a beautiful success, in spite of poverty.” (Wordsworth Classics edition, 1993, p. 115).
Little Women’s book history is interesting. The first part was published in 1868—only three years after the war ended—and is partly autobiographical, drawing on Alcott’s childhood. Her father was Amos Bronson Alcott, a noted educator and writer. As in Little Women, there were four daughters in the family, and some of the events related in the story are descriptions of real events, notably in the sequel, Good Wives, Meg’s wedding (in reality that of Alcott’s sister, Anna). Good Wives was published in 1869, but the two are often published together now, although my book contains just the first. There are two more in the series: Little Men and Jo’s Boys.
Alcott, who never married, did not particularly want to write Little Women. She did so at her publisher’s insistence, and its great success made her family financially viable—just as well, because her scholarly father earned almost nothing for his work and relied on his wife and daughters to earn incomes.
One curious factor is that there are quite a few typographical errors in this book, and a few grammatical errors, too (“sung” instead of “sang” for example). You’d think these would have been fixed a century or so ago. But perhaps they crept in when books were re-keyed (and not copy-edited, obviously).
Literature in society
I work as a university lecturer and I’ve often thought it would be interesting to write an undergraduate subject called Lessons from Literature or Literature in Society. Over a 12-week semester, you would choose a number of classic books and examine the moral code of each. There would be a different theme each week. This wouldn’t be schmaltzy goody-two-shoes stuff: you could also choose a book that carried a message of evil, for example, and examine its effects. Through examining excerpts from these books, you could discuss social codes, ethics, morality and sensibility, in a bid to understand current moral systems, laws and social mores. Perhaps I will have the opportunity to do that one day.
Books with moral messages, such as parables, are still among our most popular. In the 19th century, there was A Christmas Carol; fast-forward to the 21st century and you have The Five People You Meet in Heaven, for example.
What book or books do you most remember from childhood?
I’d like to hear what books readers of this blog remember favourably from childhood and which you have re-read. You could simply comment below, or you could post a link to your blog. Happy reading!