So, here we go with the first entry in the countdown of the twelve childhood favourites that I would take with me if I were stranded on a desert island indefinitely and, for this first month, I have picked one of my favourite books of all time and the perfect novel to warm my heart in these grey, chilly days of January. It it Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.
Meg – the sweet-tempered one. Jo – the smart one. Beth – the shy one. Amy – the sassy one.
Together they’re the March sisters. Their father is away at war and times are difficult, but the bond between the sisters is strong.
Through sisterly squabbles, happy times and sad, their four lives follow different paths, and that discover the growing up is sometimes very hard to do. . .
Why do I love Little Women so much? I think it was the first book I ever read where I identified really strongly with one of the characters, combined with the historical aspect of learning how people lived in a different time and place (my love of historical novels endures to this day.)
Jo March was my first literary heroine and, to be honest, she still is one of them today. She is one of four sisters, as I am, tomboyish and obsessed with books, just as I was as a child. She was the first person I really saw reflected back at myself from the pages of a book, which made me fall in love with it, because being able to relate to characters is always key to making us love a book. We have to be able to sympathise and understand a character to really put ourselves in their place and live their life through the pages.
Aside from relating to Jo March, she actually inspired me in real life. She planted the idea in my head that writing a book and getting published was a possibility, no matter who you are, an idea that has endured to this day (although it still remains a dream at the moment.) There were parts of the book that I loved that actually spilled over into actuality. One of my favourite scenes is early on, when they put on a play on Christmas Day. After reading this, I decided we would do the same, and I press-ganged my sisters into my performance, with full costumes and scenery and a script I wrote from scratch, which we forced my parents to watch. Our first play was an adaptation of Rumpelstiltskin, but many more followed each year, getting more and more ambitious. We started performing annually at my parents’ Boxing Day party, and the performances expanded to include my cousins (of which I have a surfeit), rehearsals for a week before, music, complex plots, costuming and makeup, pantomime dames and male relatives co-opted as scenery handlers. We did A Christmas Carol, Cinderella and many others, with full scripts written by me, and these plays are still the stuff of family legend today.
Another favourite part, featuring The Pickwick Club, inspired me to start producing a weekly newspaper which I wrote myself from beginning to end, fully illustrated and pinned up on the kitchen wall for all the family to enjoy. I can’t think of another book I have read that has actually inspired me to take action in my real life the way that Little Women did, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that it partly shaped what I loved and who I became. There are few books that are that powerful.
Reading back over the book now, at the age of 48, it seems a lot more preachy than I remember from my childhood. I think this is largely because I am a lot more cynical than I was when I fell in love with this book as a child, whereas a lot of the deeper morals would have washed over me at that young age. But it also taught me a lot about some weighty issues, that were alien to me at that time. Illness, death, romance, anger, jealously, vanity, pride – all of these things are discussed and dissected in the book, and we learn from how they are dealt with between its pages. This is what great children’s literature does without the child even realising it.
My daughters have no interest in this book, to my dismay, it is too old-fashioned for their tastes now, although they may come to it as they get a little older, and I’m hoping to persuade them to watch the latest movie version of the story with me soon. When I read it now, I still want to be Jo March, scribbling away in her garret, wrapped in an old comforter, eating ‘russets,’ watched over by her pet rat, Scrabbles (maybe without the rat.) I don’t know if I will ever get my writing garret (Julie Cohen’s office is the closest thing I’ve seen to how I imagined it would be, and I am very jealous) but I will get my publishing dream one day, I’m determined. When I do, I’ll be tipping my hat to that fictional heroine who first inspired me so many years ago.
The cover shown is of the V&A Collector’s Edition of Little Women and you can buy a copy here.
About the Author
Louisa May Alcott (November 29, 1832 – March 6, 1888) was an American novelist, short story writer and poet best known as the author of the novel Little Women (1868) and its sequels Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886). Raised in New England by her transcendentalist parents, Abigail May and Amos Bronson Alcott, she grew up among many of the well-known intellectuals of the day, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Alcott’s family suffered from financial difficulties, and while she worked to help support the family from an early age, she also sought an outlet in writing. She began to receive critical success for her writing in the 1860s. Early in her career, she sometimes used pen names such as A. M. Barnard, under which she wrote lurid short stories and sensation novels for adults that focused on passion and revenge.
Published in 1868, Little Women is set in the Alcott family home, Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts, and is loosely based on Alcott’s childhood experiences with her three sisters, Abigail May Alcott Nieriker, Elizabeth Sewall Alcott, and Anna Alcott Pratt. The novel was well-received at the time and is still popular today among both children and adults. It has been adapted many times to the stage, film, and television.
Alcott was an abolitionist and a feminist and remained unmarried throughout her life. All her life she was active in such reform movements as temperance and women’s suffrage. She died from a stroke, two days after her father died, in Boston on March 6, 1888.