There are perhaps only two books that have a seemingly universal effect on the women that read them; Pride and Prejudice and Little Women. Which could be considered odd in the case of Little Women, as Louisa May Alcott never actually wanted to write a book about girls. In her words, she:
‘never liked girls or knew many except my sisters’
But Louisa had to pay her bills and so she agreed to take the gig writing a book for girls. And it’s probably thanks to that unwillingness that Little Women is so good. There are none of the usual trappings we see in stories designed for a female audience. No overly long descriptions of lush surroundings. No plot pause for a fashion show, and certainly no hastily forced in moments of ‘sisterhood’.
Instead it’s an honest tale of four sisters growing up. It’s extrodianry in its ordinariness. Every girl can relate to the March Sisters. They love each other deeply but when they attack each other they are ruthless, going straight for the jugular (how could you burn Jo’s beloved book Amy!?!?). Mistakes are learnt from, ambitions changed and childish trappings dropped. It’s a true tale of growing up, where the obstacles we face us girls may seem small but are huge in defining who we become as women.
But having an amazing plot isn’t the reason that Little Women has endured for over 150 years. The truth behind Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy’s ever growing legacy is a lot more fascinating. So lets get straight into this!
*Just as an FYI, I’m going to be talking about Little Women and Good Wives together. As both have been bundled into the same book since 1880.
Part 1 – ‘You are the gull, Jo, strong and wild, fond of the storm and the wind‘
At the time of its release the character of Jo immediately proved to be an inspiration to thousands of young girls. Ok, yes, that’s not a huge shocker, after all to this day Jo remains the majority of peoples favourite sister. However, in the 19th century, Jo’s impact was revolutionary.
Girls were starting to realise they could have aspirations beyond those of their mothers. That if they wanted, they could do so much more than any generation of women before them. The fight for equal rights was ready, jobs beyond the home were opening up, culture was welcoming female writers and visionaries. It was the dawn of an incredibly exciting age! But also a really bloody scary one.
After all, being one of the first to step into a brave new world is daunting. And that’s where Jo came in.
Jo was the model of the woman of the future. Bright, intelligent, unafraid to break boundaries, she continuously bucks the norm. Turning down Laurie’s marriage offer (despite the fact he is rich AF and that the amount of eligible young men post American civil war wasn’t exactly stellar) she becomes not just a writer, but one unafraid to follow her own path. She decides she would be happy to stay single and only changes her mind after meeting someone that she knows she will be an equal to. Even when Jo eventually has a child, she’s not the era’s traditional mother. Instead she pins up her skirt and joins her children to run wild.
This fearlessness not only gave girls an example of the women they were free to be, but also equipped them with the tools to do so!
Almost immediately after the book came out, girls were inspired to follow in Jo’s footsteps. The Luken sisters from Pennsylvania, started their own version of the Pickworth Papers (the newsletter the March sister’s write) and ended up with subscribers from all over the US. The young Martha Carey Thomas fell in love with the books, even pretending to be Jo at times. When she turned 15 it was this that helped her decide to peruse further education and this move led to her growing up to become a pioneer of womens rights and education.
Then there are those that came in the decades after. With Jo’s direct impact on their work being cited by the likes of JK Rowling, Caitlin Moran, Simone de Beuvoir, Gloria Steinham and Patti Smith. It’s undeniable that a huge reason for our enduring cultural love towards Little Women, is Jo.
Part 2 – “It’s so dreadful to be poor!”
When Little Women first came out it was almost entirely bought and read by white middle class girls.
Throughout the book class, poverty and the social impact of them appear again and again (seriously, the book has 47 chapters, and this theme is only withheld from 4 them of them!) and yet, the girls themselves aren’t exactly in poverty.
Ok, yes, Meg and Jo both have to work, Meg can’t afford fashionable clothes, Amy struggles for limes and Beth can’t get the piano of her dreams. But that’s not exactly being poor, especially when you look at The Hummels. The family who live close to the March Sisters and live in abject poverty, to the point that by the end of the book almost the whole Hummel clan have been wiped out by disease.
Though the March Sisters struggle at times, there is always a clear light at the end of the tunnel. They will always be able to move upwards and towards their dreams.
This is a very white middleclass look at class and the barriers it imposes. And understandably that didn’t really resonate with young women from poorer backgrounds or minority communities.
But then a few decades later the tide started to turn. The book was used by Russian Jewish immigrants as a way to connect themselves with their new home. Librarians and teachers encouraged the women to read what they felt was the best introduction to American womanhood. And although this was a very (I’m being nice) left field idea, it went against all the odds and worked, because these women could see themselves in the March Sisters.
In her book, My Mother and I, Elizabeth G Stern remembers coming to America as a young girl, an immigrant in a very foreign land. Living in an urban ghetto, she came across a tattered copy of Little Women in a rag shop and the March sisters helped her open up to the new world around her:
“Reading of them made my aspirations beautiful. My books were doors that gave me entrance to another world. Often I’d think I did not grow up in the ghetto, but in the books I read as a child.”
As time progressed, social welfare and rights improved, Little Women started to became a more universal book, a classic in it’s own right. It was translated into multiple languages, became one of Moscow libraries most borrowed books and was a bonafide international success.
Then came the adaptations. In 1912 Little Women debuted on the stage and was an immediate hit. As soon as the actress playing Jo uttered the opening line ‘Christmas just won’t be Christmas without presents’ the house went wild! Two silent films followed hot on the plays heels and by 1920 book sales of Little Women were second only to the bible (a crying shame, the former is a far better read)
And then things went stagnant. Book sales were still strong, but suddenly nobody wanted to adapt Little Women. After all, it was the roaring twenties and now the March Sisters seemed kind of hum drum.
This was a big problem. The adaptations were what was keeping the story fresh, essential in a time when what it meant to be a young girl was continuously changing.
But in the 1930’s Little Women’s luck changed. The economy crashed and though it was terrible for 99% of people, it was a god send for the March Sisters.
Part 3 – “I do think that families are the most beautiful things in all the world!”
The Great Depression lasted from 1929 to 1939 and completely upturned the everyday lives of countless people. Gone was any certainty for the future and everyone was desperate for something to take their mind of the economic hellscape they were living it. Step in the March sisters.
Little Women was the equivalent of putting on a cosy blanket (even if the world was on fire just outside your window), it was familiar, but also offered a gentle dose of fighting spirit and hope for tomorrow.
The book boomed once more, becoming England’s top seller, but more than that, the adaptations not only restarted; they became an unstoppable juggernaut! Across the US community theatres staged low cost productions, the play went back to Broadway and then came the big one. Hollywood got it’s hands on Little Women.
1933’s Little Women starred some of the eras biggest names, Frances Dee as Meg, Katherine Hepburn as Jo, Jean Parker as Beth and Joan Bennett as an incredibly mature for a 12 year old, Amy
Audiences lapped up the 1933 adaptation. Partly because it was the Great Depression and everyone was down for anything that wasn’t utter bleakness, but also because this adaptation really bought the March sisters story into the now. Like so many of the audience, the March’s were having financial struggles. The longing for a new dress or a delicious dinner were things that pretty much everyone watching totally got.
The film also did something major – it tweaked the March Sisters traits and personalities to fit in with the young women of the 1930’s.
Jo is so much more athletic in this film than she is in any other adaptation. She slides down banisters, hurdles fences and climbs trees (as well as down from a second story window at one point, which frankly just seems dangerous.) This makes perfect sense. The 1930’s were an era in which women’s sport was on the rise, along with the notion that women could be active without it being a major gender issue. So of course in the 1930’s Jo is boundary breaking not only in her wit and ambition, but also in her physicality. Because that’s the version of Jo that would most hit home to this audience.
Similarly, 1933’s adaption is perhaps the last time we see Meg’s decision to become solely a wife and mother treated with respect, rather than as a throw away ‘oh yes, I guess Meg does this now’ plot line. By the 1930’s, women were of course able to have a career and go down the Jo route of chasing work ambitions, but it was still a very real societal expectation that most women would eventually settle down and become a homemaker. So Meg’s story, resonated just as much as any of the other sisters.
Then in 1949, following another huge chapter of societal upheaval (AKA two world wars) came MGM’s adaptation of Little Women. Created to once more cash in on peoples want for something comforting yet hopeful.
MGMs adaptation pretty much followed the same script as the 1933 film. This too has a ton of A list actors (Elizabeth Taylor as Amy for example) and they even had a much older pregnant actress as one of the sisters (with 31 year June Allyson as Jo). Bar that, it’s essentially the same film…but in technicolor.
Then almost five decades later came 1994’s Little Women. Perhaps the best show of how this story constantly adapts to it’s audience.
Since 1949 a lot had changed. First wave feminism had hit and bought with it massive changes. Women were now firmly in the workforce, able to raise a family and chase a career. Which all meant BIG changes for the March Sisters.
The biggest changes are arguably to Meg and Jo. If you compare the 1933 and 1994 versions of Jo, they are totally different. Gone is the OTT Katherine Hepburn athleticism, instead replaced by a more fitting 90’s theatre kid take on the charterer. She is also the only on screen Jo that we actually see write. All previous Jo’s talk a lot about it, but never visually do it, whereas in this version it’s a constant.
This is because this adaptation focuses on Jo’s ambition to be a writer, more than her lack of marriage. The biggest indicator of this is that the film strays from the books ending. In the book, Jo gets married and puts writing to the side, instead focusing on raising her family and opening a school where she plays surrogate mother to her pupils. But in this version, when Jo says yes to marriage, it’s clear she will also continue her journey to become a professional writer – she’s the epitome of the new ideal; a woman who has it all.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Meg, whose basically now a back seat passenger to the story. Gone is the 1930’s respect for her decision to be a homemaker. Compared to Jo’s broad strides forward, the filmmakers clearly feared it would be seen as outdated. In this version Meg is just there to be occasionally bossy and portray a prissy form of femininity to play contrast to Jo.
Overall feminism plays a much bigger role in this adaption. Marmie, is a much stronger character and there is a clear shift from the Girls being called their fathers ‘Little Women’ to choosing to be ‘Little Women’ for their mother and then themselves.
This brings us to the 2019 adaptation, which takes the ball of modern femisim and runs with it.
Amy is given an overhaul and more character development. She is far more aware of her world and an equal to Laurie. She starts life as girl who cares more about dresses than the world outside and ends up a smart capable woman in a difficult era to be that. She has an interest in suffrage but also knows she lives in a time when who she marries is just as much a business deal as a love match.
And for the first time in any of the adaptation, Beth actually gets a fully fledged narrative (it only took 150 years…) This Beth isn’t just ‘nice’ but incredibly strong. The 2019 adaptation beautifully picking up the parts of her character that are so often dropped or underplayed. Including that Beth knows she is going to die, has made peace with it and works to strengthen those around her to continue on in her absence.
Every generation gets it’s own Little Women. With Louisa May Aclott’s work becoming far more than a book, but a vital chapter in millions of young lives.
From the first print which inspired girls to step forth into a brave new world, to the fresh off the boat immigrants who discovered a whole new take on an old story. The girls of the depression who found hope and solace in these four sisters and the ever rolling change of adaption that keeps this story alive today.
Be you a Meg, a Jo, a Beth or an Amy, it looks like the story of our Little Women is set to live a long life for generations to come.
If you liked this, here are some amazing Little Women deep dives to sink your teeth into: