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Nothing little about the little women

Amrita V Nair | Updated on December 21, 2018 Published on December 21, 2018

It’s the 150th anniversary of Little Women, a beloved classic that continues to impart lessons about love, hope and resilience

In September 1867, 34-year-old Louisa May Alcott wrote in her journal, “Niles, partner of Roberts, asked me to write a girls’ book. Said I’d try.”

In May the following year, she wrote again, “…Mr. N. wants a girls’ story, and I begin Little Women. […] I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.”

Despite her reluctance, Alcott finished the book, which was released later that year — with its first print run of 2,000 copies selling out in days.

This year, readers across the world celebrated the 150th, Little Women which remains in print, with millions of copies sold worldwide. Translated into more than 50 languages, the book has appeared on Broadway as a musical, inspired an opera of the same name and been adapted for radio, film and television. There is even a 2018 Hindi web series set in Kashmir, called Haq Se, that draws inspiration from this American novel.

To anyone who has so much as leafed through a copy of Little Women, the book’s enduring charm comes as no surprise. In Alcott’s characteristic clear and straightforward writing voice, the four March sisters — the title’s little women — come alive. Meg, the eldest, is beautiful and maternal. Amy, the youngest, is impetuous and selfish, especially at the start of the book. Beth is loving and sweet. Jo, the protagonist of the book, is determined and has a temper. And she remains one of the best-loved characters in American literature.

Simone de Beauvoir, the French philosopher and feminist, wrote in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter in 1958, “I identified myself passionately with Jo, the intellectual…”

 

Another milestone: Little Women celebrates its 150th anniversary   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

 

 

The story of Jo and her sistersdrew heavily on Alcott’s own childhood and adolescence. Like the March sisters, she too grew up in New England in genteel poverty. Jo and her strong-minded nature were modelled on Alcott herself. Like Jo, Alcott too supported her family with her writing from a young age — selling poems and stories as well as potboilers, the latter under the nom de plume AM Barnard. As an adult, she was an abolitionist, feminist and suffragist. When women received the right to vote in the state of Massachusetts in 1879, she registered immediately and wrote triumphantly in her journal, “Was the first woman to register my name as a voter.”

Though Alcott was a prolific writer, she became famous and well-respected as an author only after the publication of Little Women. The novelwas published in two parts — the first follows the girls through their adolescence; and the second (sometimes sold separately as Good Wives) depicts their journey into adulthood and marriage. Following the success of Little Women, Alcott wrote two sequels — Little Men, which portrays life at the Plumfield School founded by Jo and her husband; and Jo’s Boys, which follows some of the Plumfield School students into adulthood.

Alcott herself had been reluctant to write the sequels. In November 1868, she wrote in her journal, “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life.” Nevertheless, the clamouring public and an insistent publisher wore her down.

For many contemporary fans of the first book, the sequels are non-canon. Much resentment is directed towards Little Men and Jo’s Boys, which, as the titles suggest, sideline the March sisters as accessories to the male protagonists.

For readers who idolised Jo March and her irrepressible spirit, her subsequent domestication in these sequels felt like a betrayal of the highest order. Until recently, young adult literature could lay claim to few female protagonists with the wilfulness and determination of Jo. Many contemporary writers cite Jo and her aspiration to become a writer as inspiration or fuel for their own literary ambitions. JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, said in a 2012 interview with The New York Times, “My favourite literary heroine is Jo March. It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo, who had a hot temper and a burning ambition to be a writer.”

Besides Jo March’s enduring appeal, the books are also loved for the lessons in optimism and resilience. Alcott’s writing shines the brightest in her conveyance of these lessons and their subtlety and gentleness. Even readers who may have never seen a copy of Little Women might be familiar with an oft-quoted piece of wisdom from the book. In one of the last chapters in the second part, the once-immature Amy says, “I am not afraid of storms for I am learning to sail my ship.” For many young readers across the world, the book continues to serve as a lodestar to steer the uncertain seas of their growing years by, a century and a half after Alcott grudgingly put pen to paper to write it.

Amrita V Nair is a freelance writer and public policy specialist

 

Published on December 21, 2018

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