"We are what we believe we are."
C.S. Lewis

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Little Women


 "Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark, and sad, and dreary."
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
"The Rainy Day"

So with this quote ends Little Women...not the cheeriest note to end on considering the messages of innocence, goodness and the rewards of restraint hidden within.

I found myself quite surprised reading this book after a thirty year absence.  I first read it at age 12 or 13, and at the time the feeling that I took away from the novel was the overwhelming desire to live within its pages.  It seemed an idealized, uncomplicated world of nature, simple beauties, sincere personalities and above all, comfort.

This time I found myself slightly irritated with the message of "goodness" that was repeated endlessly until about halfway through my reading... I had to give my head a shake and remind myself of the times in which the book was written.  Alcott was a feminist and an abolitionist, and what platforms did women have in the 1870's?  The book was written "in record time for money"(1) and even the author pokes fun at her own preaching ways:
"Gentlemen, which means boys, be courteous to the old maids, no matter how poor and plain and prim, for the only chivalry worth having is that which is the readiest to pay deference to the old, protect the feeble, and serve womankind, regardless of rank, age or color....
Jo must have fallen asleep (as I dare say my reader has during this little homily)..."
page 441, chapter 43 "Surprises"
By this time I was reading "the homily" and shouting Hear Hear!  The little lessons sprinkled throughout were an effective method of conveying ideals to the masses (though the popularity of the book came as a surprise to both author and publisher), and a fine little platform it was for a poor author without power or money.
Do you see the feminism in this book?  The longing for equality above all things?
The heartbreak of the story is Beth, of course.  If innocence is celebrated it dies with Beth, that trusting, pure soul whose only pleasure was her family and her faith in the spiritual and natural world:
"Beth could not reason upon or explain the faith that gave her courage and patience to give up life, and cheerfully wait for death.  Like a confiding child, she asked no questions, but left everything to God and nature, Father and mother of us all, feeling sure that they, and only they, could teach and strengthen heart and spirit for this life and the life to come."
-page 374, chapter 36 "Beth's Secret"
Was Beth's life a celebration of innocence or a reminder of our fleeting time, our "rainy days"?
The underlying theme of the virtue of poverty is autobiographical of course, though it is an idealized world of genteel poverty (not the life lived by Alcott and her own sisters).
 Perhaps the greater message is the sin of wealth and its displays?
"Wealth is certainly a most desirable thing, but poverty has its sunny side, and one of the sweet uses of adversity, is the genuine satisfaction which comes from hearty work of head or hand; and to the inspiration of necessity, we owe half the wise, beautiful, and useful blessings of the world."
page 269, chapter 27, "Literary Lessons"
Is wealth portrayed as sinful?  How do Laurie and Amy compensate for their own wealth as a character deficit at the novel's end, are their plans for charity a way of saving themselves?

One thought that did occur to me is that in all of the lessons learned about the idea of "happiness" the virtues extolled in this novel are right in line, and this is with current thought!  A purpose (work), community (family, sincere relationships) and an appreciation of the natural world... these are all themes in Little Women.
Do Marmee's lectures address real ideas of happiness?

How about the acknowledgement of flaws in personality (Jo's temper, Amy's vanity, Meg's shame for her poor clothes) which leads to acceptance and personal triumph for the sisters when they overcome these deficiencies?  I found that refreshing yet disciplined, and it made me wonder about modern lack of character and virtue...
Is the emphasis on character flaw merely a method of carrying the story forward in a sort of moral trajectory?  Is the book really about the development of morals and the hard work it takes to polish oneself into a useful member of society?

In the end I so enjoyed reading it again, and I've been wondering what it would be like to raise a family of Rascals in these vastly different times.  So I guess I still long for this world and to live in it, idealized of course!  How about you?  There are many themes I haven't touched on but I leave it to you, and remember that long comments are encouraged, the last thing I want is to do all the talking.
xoxDani


63 comments:

  1. Very nice intro Dani. I'm on the go all day but will keep a close eye on the discussion via phone and share my thoughts tonight.

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    1. GSL thank you and I look forward to your thoughts on the book later tonight!

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  2. Good morning. I also read this book when about twelve...some thirty five years ago. I vaguely remember loving it and finding comfort within the pages. This time, like you, I was initially put off but then found myself "seeing" the characters through a mother's eyes. I saw Emily's innocence and the passing into womanhood that she is experiencing now. Boy did I weep...at just about everything.

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    1. Oh, and I still wanted Jo with Laurie!

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    2. Blue Booby I wondered if that aspect was causing the weeping... I understand completely, thinking about my two daughters and the transition to adult life is a theme of mine. One of my worries.
      The Jo and Laurie story line is one of the best things about the novel, I like it when an author doesn't necessarily give the reader what they want!
      Funny that we read this at the same time in our lives (age 12) and loving it for the same reasons. I think too that it is not necessarily a book for young women, I actually wish I had read it as a young mother as well... the scene with Meg and John getting control over their children and learning to share the responsibilities of parenting is priceless!

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  3. Hi Dani! I have to go out again in a bit but just wanted to say hi and quickly put down some points before I come back later tonight. Like you I read this ages ago probably at 10 years old or so. Like all books, one takes what one can according to age. But I didn't realize this was such an exploration about women's roles in society! At the time I just thought it was purely about family and sisters and fireplaces and a saintly mother singing sweetly. But I suppose like the Village People and YMCA - there was a whole other layer/layers to it. Even though it was set in "another time" I find we still very much have the same issues...plus ca change.etc

    I remember being sorts peeved with the book back then but am much more accepting of them now. So much imagery laced in the book with singing in tune etc and being "good" and austere and saintly. I think this is a book I should have read in my teens and in fact every decade. But the one thing I dislike in general is this notion of female sacrifice. For some reason as shown in the book - there is always a sacrifice of something : ambition, voice, pleasure, and indeed life. Heavy stuff Dani but I am glad you chose this book - and sorry if I went on too long but I have to go now! x

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    1. Naomi the message of continuous self-sacrifice is a bit hard to take and really illustrates the struggles women have had and continue to have in society. Which is exhausting to think about!
      I so agree too that it is a book for every decade. Funny that it is thought of as a book for pre-teens.
      Laughing about the Village People layers! So true!

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    2. Jo sacrificing her career for her husband would have just pissed me off if I had read this book in my late teens/early twenties…I do not think i would have made it through the book at that age. Of course, now having done the same for my family, I realize it was not a sacrifice but a choice I was lucky enough to have.

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    3. Blue Booby the sacrifice Jo made didn't even register with me the first time I read the book... I was a bit in love with the Professor I remember that. Yes how pissed would I have been reading this at 18 or so... wish I had!
      Staying home with a family is a luxurious choice to be sure, I've also really appreciated my opportunity to do the same.

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    4. LMA wrote porn to pay her bills and those of her family. Beneath euphemisms, that's what she had Jo doing when she met Prof. Baer. I was not surprised that Jo was glad not to need to do that any longer. In real life, of course, it took LMA a lot longer to make money from her more respectable writing and there was no Prof. Baer.

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    5. Fred, Porn! So that's what Jo was really doing, going to the dark side. Very interesting.

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    6. Fred, never heard that before. What is your source?

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    7. Wow..that sheds a bit of light on Jo.

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  4. My own personal message from this book was that the idleness of my body really affects my mind, my joy. Busy work can be quite cathartic.

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    1. BB I liked that bit of it too, when Marmee encourages Meg to do housework for exercise... I always have a good day if I'm busy with physical work. Nothing worse for me than sitting around all day like a big slug.

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    2. The best procrastination technique as well! My 22 yr old has taken this to heart(finally-- she is like Pigpen)

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    3. A good slug day is periodically a necessity.

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    4. BB I agree completely, guilty of one of those at least every couple of weeks.

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  5. This was a terrific post, beautifully and thoughtfully written. I read Little Women as a boy, many decades ago, inspired to do so by the weeping ideniftcation my sisters had with the book, a beloved favorite of theirs. Rerreading books that inspired one years ago can be a rewarding practice. One rediscovers old friends, finds what had once been fascinating is now less-so, or has an entirely different appreciation altogether. I ecently reread Gone With the Wind after a thirty year's abasence, and loved it (althought the first 70 or so pages were a bit slow, but once gotten through the book really took off). Edith Wharton is an entirely different (and more meaningful) experience for me in my 50s than it was when I read her books in a college survey of her work. Of course there are books that I happly return to again and again: most anything by Jane Austen, the Mitfords, and Evelyn Waugh. Thanks for an excellent post, Dani, you have given me much to think about today! Reggie

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    1. Please excuse the myriad typos in this comment!

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    2. Reggie thanks so much. I really like the image of you reading this as a boy, following the teary example of your sisters! You've given me a great idea: reading Gone With the Wind again, I wonder what I would see in it now.
      I only discovered the Mitford sisters in this last year, I had so much reading the novels of Nancy Mitford. Her non-fiction is pretty great too.
      Thanks for the wonderful comment Reggie.

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  6. I don't know who LMA's intended audience was; I suspect it's we moderns who pigeonholed this book for the young, but as you have noted there is something for all here.

    Beth's role seems a Christian theme-- the perfect one as the one who has to die. The life expectancy then was a bit less than 50 so death was a common event. Sobering for us to ponder.



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    1. Lane, wow that has really got me a pondering.

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    2. Which is interesting that they were all so innocent at 16/17.

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    3. Rather truncates the non-innocent period!

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  7. Just getting on now - getting ready for the Dickens dinner, who was certainly somewhat similar to Alcott in his desires for freedom, especially freedom from want and bondage.

    Rereading this after about 10 years (syd and I read it when she was younger), I am struck by the characters and the overall themes you note above, in particular, service and humility.

    I am also struck by Marmee, who is doing her best to support her Little Women in less than ideal circumstances.

    I have to say that I have never read Pilgrim's Progress, but during this reading, I cannot help but wonder if the structure is similar in any way to that book - do you know?

    Everyone's favourite is Jo, and their heart is with Beth. However, I was struck by Meg's challenges with motherhood and the one who still remains a disappointment to me is Amy, who I think loses the spark that we all love, growing up to be demure and refined. I think Alcott did indeed use these girls as archtypes and quite effectively I should think.

    I am with Lane - the need to pigeon-hole books about the young as children's books is a 20th century construct I think, although the lessons gave Alcott a ready made story that parents could use with their own children.

    What I like, in the end, is that all of the characters speak their truth. If they are unsure - they ask; they do not chance assumptions and misunderstandings and the four sisters are impeccable with their word and with one another (save Amy's incident) WHat I remember loving most about this book was the genuine love that the four girls have for one another and their parents and how everyone with whom they come into contact want to bask in that love, especially all of the men next door - Laurie, Mr. Lawrence and John. It is as if falling in love with one gives you access to the many and I just adored that.

    I have tried little men but it seemed to lack the same charm - anyone else try that one?

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    1. Wendy the preparations must be well underway at your house for the Dickens Dinner, good luck! I remember trying Little Men and not caring for it, as you say it doesn't have the same charm.
      I have not read Pilgrim's Progress but I think I would find it interesting, great idea and I'm going to source it while Little Women is fresh in my mind.
      The fact that the characters live in truth and are so supported to do so is one of the comfortable aspects of their lives, and what I noticed reading it as a young girl. They are not alone, they have Marmee, the idea of their father (and then of course he comes back), their God and most of all each other. So much unconditional love.
      I was also struck by the troubles that Meg faced and the problem solving that went on, with Marmee's help of course. This is why I wish I had read it again in my early 20's, when my own children were young, I would have found that very interesting and helpful!

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    2. I do remember reading Little Men but that's about it. They were so open and honest and really, really nice (for the most part) with each other. And yes they were very "aware" of their virtues and flaws. A bit humbling for those of us that think we are perfect.

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  8. Lane I was expecting a much more juvenile book, I think many things in it flew right over my head when I read it as a young girl.
    Very interesting to observe that Beth is a Christ-like character. Her innocence and purity were preserved. One thing I really noticed during this reading is that LMA tells us, as readers, repeatedly that Beth is going to die, in not so subtle ways. Yet when I first read it I was surprised and heartbroken when she did die, I cried and cried over it.

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    1. Yes, hard not to tear up during that; the nobility of sick children is truly heartbreaking in a way illness in adulthood is not.

      I loved the part when Jo's book is printed, and she is digesting all the opinions,completely contradictory. ( Wendy, hope this prepares you!)

      Also, the part when Meg is first married is very charming and echoes to the present day; who has not tackled Julia Child's tomes early on, hoping to cook through the volumes. Ok, not all of us. The misunderstanding that occurs when John "brings someone home" for dinner, as he is urged to do, but selects a day when the jelly will not gell. And her weak moment at the dressmaker's.

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    2. Lane I agree! Those moments could be happening today, and I think I have had those moments in my own marriage! I really was fascinated with the relationship between Meg and John, as a girl I didn't give it a thought. Those are the scenes that have stuck with me this reading.

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  9. I wish I'd re-read this, but I only made it a few pages in this time. My strongest remembrance about the book is how I wished I had sisters, I don't have one. Although I liked the book, as a tomboy I did not identify very much with the characters, only with Jo somewhat.

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    1. cate - that's it, I also remembered wishing for sisters! So I must have read it. When this topic came up, I struggled to recall whether I had read it, and if so, in what language (I was bi-lingual at one time).

      Also wishing I'd read it again, the discussion is wonderful.

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    2. cate I have an older sister which gave me some comfort when I first read it, though she can't be pegged down to any one character type as she is so smart and singular.
      The family life that the March sisters have is a great source of envy for me, I just think it's such a beautiful and engaging cocoon. It makes me wish I had maybe had 7 or 8 children instead of "only" 3!

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    3. Yes, there was no one at home, just me, I always wished for a family, still do.

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  10. Dani - something you reminded really struck me just now, "God and nature, Father and mother of us all" ... thinking through those relationships ...

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    1. Tiffany Rose, that trust in God and nature is really gone from our lives, to our detriment, I think it contributes to a cultural emptiness. One of the reasons I find this book really sad is just this: the spiritual comparison to our modern world.
      Read it again and come back and read the comments, I'll remind myself to keep an eye on the post so I can respond again.

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    2. I agree, Dani, to our detriment. What went through my mind fleetingly is something like the father lays down the law and the mother teaches the application ... perhaps sterotypic or sexist but the start of some reflection.

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  11. I fully agree, Dani. Little Woman was such a milestone in literacy at the time, and it's a shame for anyone to miss out on reading it.

    One part of the book that really stayed with me was Beth. She was really the only truly pure character, and although I most likely should've seen such a tragedy coming, all the same I did not. Beth was truly an incredibly selfless character, and I must say, although I have met many amazing people, I've never met someone quite like her.

    Yet another thing I've taken away from the book is the character of Marmee. Often quite over looked after reading the strong characteristics of the young girls, but Marmee was truly a brave women. Raising four children, giving them such advice, curing there illnesses and staying calm while doing it.

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    1. Anon aka Little Rascal, thanks for your lovely comment Darling! When I first read this book I was also devastated to lose Beth.
      I encourage you to read this book every decade, though I have to say for an 11yo you certainly have a wonderful grasp of the feelings and sentiments.
      Yes Marmee, mothers everywhere should be honoured to be part of her club! :)xox

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    2. Yes, Little Rascal very well said and you are quite right regarding Marmee. and pay no mind to MissLedFred as I'm about to take her to the woodshed for sullying the name of a good woman...no make that two as she also drug my Jo into her kinky hallucinations.

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    3. Little Rascal, I could not agree with more about Marmee! When I read the book this time at the ripe old age of 50 I was reminded how Marmee with the rock, the mooring against which they are all tied and which brings them safely home. Yay for Marmee! Yay for Little Rascal!

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    4. Hilarious GSL!
      I think Marmee is quite wonderful, she did whatever she could to feed her family, she is the Great Mother.

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  12. Alcott's "stories for money" are obliquely referred to in the scene where Prof. Baer shames Jo for the story he finds her working on - "I would rather sweep mud in the streets," he declares, than produce such poison. Encyclopedia Brittanica tells us "Alcott produced potboilers at first and many of her stories—notably those signed “A.M. Barnard”—were lurid and violent tales." One such novel, which later saw daylight as A Long Fatal Love Choice, was considered too sensational for publication. Rights to the unexpurgated version of the manuscript sold for $1.5 million in the mid-1990's.

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    1. A woman falls in love with a Roman Catholic priest is what was too sensational for publication. Rights to the unexpurgated version sold for $1.5 mil???? Ohhhhh my! MisLedFred, I'll bet Larry Flynt was not among the bidders. Sometimes provenance and rarity have a little something to do with selling price as the Bay Psalm Book just went for over $14 mil.

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    2. Fred that's incredible isn't it. Who purchased "A Long Fatal Love Choice" for that money. Worst title ever but there must be something in it. Thanks for your comments and for leading us into other directions, I haven't read much about LMA but I certainly will now.

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    3. In the context of the times, her stories were considered racy and scandalous, and the publisher had her revise the first draft and rejected the second on those grounds. No, it wasn't the Story of O or its pale cousin the Gray series… and if anything these writings show LMA's desperation to survive, and to help her family who were in dire financial straits.

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  13. First of all thank you very much Dani for causing this wonderful reading experience. I would have never picked up this book on my own as I always assumed it was a Tom Sawyer for little girls. The March's reminded me so much of my maternal grandmother's family from rural western Ohio who due to their father's tragic death before the age of 30 were thrown into severe financial hardship but always cherished their blessings of a comfortable if modest home and a deep appreciation of music and literature. My own mother is Beth living to adulthood. I stumbled across a letter she wrote to herself at age 15 about the woman she wanted to grow up to be and I couldn't get it out of my head when reading about Beth. A very powerful scene for me was when Mr Laurence had that piano that had belonged to his dead daughter refurbished and tuned and presented to Beth who in turn made Mr Laurence a pair of slippers (thank goodness I was not in a public place during that passage). I still don't get the suggestion that any of these women were sacrificing something they might one day (or today) regret. All the little women and Mrs March profoundly improved every man in their life while never shortchanging themselves. Certainly Jo, who didn't expect to inherit Aunt March's estate, sacrificed nothing as she always wanted to start a school for 'ragamuffins' and had her grandest ambitions fulfilled along with finding a soulmate to share the journey with.
    The business with Meg and John and Mrs March absolutely was not a directive to obey but rather an encouragement to see things from his perspective and allow him to share in the child-rearing duties in the nursery as it would benefit everybody and make their union deeper and more fulfilling. I really liked and identified with Amy as she was the one who had great charm, keen insight, and a taste for the finer things in life. She turned down an opportunity to marry a very wealthy man (who was no monster) in order to call out and assist a misdirected young man into becoming the man of substance he was capable of which also had the effect of molding her into a better person. I really liked who she was at the end.

    **MissLedFred- where did you come up with that 'porn' nonsense? LMA wrote under a nom de plume A Modern Mephistopheles which "touched" on sexuality and drug addiction hardly earning the label you gave it. Jo was engaging in what was later called yellow journalism which would graphically describe violent crime scenes, marital squabbles, but again in the context of the 1870s. Making a claim like that today in England earns you a libel suit but on this side of the pond it's just bad form.

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    1. GSL you're most welcome as are your comments. Isn't Marmee clever in bringing Meg back to happiness while engaging John in his duties as a parent? I was stunned by that. Stunned by the brilliance of Marmee!
      Your family history is so interesting and how often do we have poor relations who (historically) made the best of it and appreciated their simple comforts? Hmm not often and your own mother aka grown-up Beth sounds like a treasure.
      I have to say that the piano gift, that whole scene was the only time I wept a few tears on this reading... I had forgotten the pain and the longing written into that scene.
      It seems that these were more sincere times, which I long for! That might be what grabs us still?
      Uh oh I fear for the war of words between you and Fred as you are both very worthy opponents.
      And thank you for your kind words to anon aka Little Rascal, who is herself a young Jo.

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    2. I too found the scene between Mr. Laurence and Beth probably the most precious of all. I was at home and wept the ugly cry. The tenderness in which he treated Beth and the the utter joy she allowed herself was extremely moving.
      Dani, I have enjoyed this. Thank you for your time and effort in this book club. I look forward to the next reading.

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    3. GSL, your mum and my mum are absolute stalwarts, my mum's life was given over to us ragamuffins ( I was an unwanted child, 20 plus years oder than the others but I think she loves me now (!) and a husband who had been very badly injured in the war. I toast to both and mums everywhere.

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  14. well I won't leap into the whole fray except that a) kindness is a virtue and debate is good so long as it is respectful of each other and most of all, of Dani and b) I am sure Jo, who read Pilgrim's Progress and led a very sheltered life, would not write porn. As for LMA, can't speak to this because I am no expert on LMA, but I do know this is a wonderful book!

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    1. Jo's early writings for The Volcano were, um, not up to 19th century standards of morality and propriety, and that's why Professor Baer rebuked her so strongly and why she cried and cried and burned a story. Little Women is largely autobiographical and knowing the context in which the characters were developed and the choices made adds much to the reading experience, although reading this way can indeed sometimes be startling. I would not necessarily define poverty as having to wear the same ball gown a second or third time, nor indeed as having balls to go to, but in the context an adolescence where one is constantly reminded of being a poor relative, sometimes a little hurt stings just as much as a big hurt. Jo and Meg had to earn their way, and in the context of the time, this made them just a little above shopgirls. I'm not criticising the book, although I think it might have been stronger with less sentimentality and more honest reflection on the class system. But even as a child I found it hypocritical that the March girls bewailed their poverty, and their mother supported them in this, while they had a cook-housekeeper (Hannah). I applauded Jo for trying to manage on her own - it was a tough time to be a woman at any economic level.

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    2. Love that Little Women has caused a stooshie!

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    3. I aim to please my dear Tabitha!

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  15. Great post and interesting debate. I grew up reading LMA and dip back into her books occasionally now in my 50s. My favourite is Jack and Jill. I've read a bit about LMA's father and he sounds a bit useless. In my mind if you're going to be a patriarch and a moralist you could at least make up for it by providing decently for your family instead of losing it all to 'help a friend' (what kind of a friend would take money from a family?). Perhaps it is this sort of father that shapes feminists? I say this, because my dad was foolish about money and I grew up knowing I would make my own way in the world. Can't say I ever cared much for Prof. Baer, too bossy for me; then again, I wonder if Laurie ever grew up? I may have to check out some of AM Barnard's work! Early day bodice-rippers, it sounds like they were.

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    1. Shelley thanks for your comment! I like the term "bodice-ripper" for some reason, it just sounds so silly. From what I have read about LMA's father he does sound fairly irresponsible, very interesting point that these fathers raise good feminists. I think you've got something there.
      Father March was certainly an idealized version of LMA's own father, notice too he doesn't say much when he returns from the war. He is loved but really fades into the background.

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  16. Have you read Harriet Reisen's biography of Louisa May Alcott? I was fascinated, having loved Little Women from the age of 8 and later the other books she wrote. I had not imagined that Alcott had such a background, although I always knew the story was partly autobiographical. What an interesting bunch of people (however positive/negative!) they were (Thoreau & co.)...

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