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Why ‘Little Women’ Still Matters, 150 Years On

MEG, JO, BETH, AMY
The Story of “Little Women” and Why It Still Matters
By Anne Boyd Rioux
Illustrated. 273 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $27.95.

One reason I learned to read was so that I could understand “hard books” like “Little Women,” which was read aloud to me as a preliterate child. I remember Louisa May Alcott’s heroines — the March sisters — more vividly than some real people I dimly recall from those years. Now Anne Boyd Rioux’s lively and informative “Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy” makes it clear why having these fictive young women implanted in my consciousness has been a good thing, helpful for every girl facing the challenges of growing up to be a woman.

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CreditLouisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

Rioux’s book features a useful, highly compressed biography of Alcott and an account of how her most famous novel was written. Like Charlotte Brontë, Alcott was obliged to support a household. Her father, Bronson Alcott, a friend of Emerson and Thoreau and the founder of Fruitlands, a short-lived utopian community, was so focused on leading “a spotless spiritual life” that he’d forget he had a family. His periods of instability, his delusions and his refusal (or inability) to earn a living meant that the Alcotts moved often and were frequently separated. Yet Bronson recognized and nurtured his daughter’s gifts. Louisa was publishing stories at 20, and, after serving as a Union nurse in the Civil War, she began to write novels. Reluctant when her publisher asked for a book about girls, she told a friend, “I could not write a girls’ story, knowing little about any but my own sisters & always preferring boys.” But she persevered, and when “Little Women” was published 150 years ago, in September 1868, 2,000 copies were sold in two weeks. The book has never gone out of print, and has appeared in hundreds of editions and dozens of foreign translations.

A chapter on the adaptations of the novel — for radio, stage and screen — is a compendium of fun facts, much of it about casting. It’s pleasant to imagine how liberating it was for Katharine Hepburn to play Jo March as a full-on tomboy in George Cukor’s 1933 film. Other roles were less successfully cast, a problem that would persist in films that valued star power over fidelity to the novel. In the 1933 film, “Amy, who is supposed to be 12 years old, was played by 23-year-old and secretly pregnant Joan Bennett. When she could no longer hide her condition, her costumes had to be altered. … Douglass Montgomery makes a much-too-polished Laurie, who is supposed to be 15; Montgomery was 26 and looked 30.”

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Rioux, a professor at the University of New Orleans, tracks the literary works that owe a debt to Alcott: “Just as Hemingway claimed that all of American literature (by men) came from ‘Huck Finn,’ we can also say that much of American women’s literature has come from ‘Little Women.’” She considers the debate about “whether ‘Little Women’ tips toward realism or sentimentalism” and the ways in which feminists have praised — and critiqued — the novel for its (cramped or expansive) view of female experience. Ultimately, she argues for the positive influence exerted by the book and in particular by the character of Jo, who chooses the life of the mind over the lure of privilege, pretty clothes and boys. More recently the book’s readership has declined, and it’s only rarely taught in schools, where, Rioux suggests, many educators believe that requiring a boy to read a book with “women” in the title will forever turn him against reading.

“Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy” does what — ideally — books about books can do: I’ve taken “Little Women” down from the shelf and put it on top of the books I plan to read. I’m curious to check in on the March sisters, and — inspired by Anne Boyd Rioux — find out how they seem to me now.

Francine Prose’s most recent book is an essay collection, “What to Read and Why.”

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