[19 June 2013]
We were, and remain, a type. Adults called us “bookish” and admired our precocious vocabularies. Our schoolmates, who would today be called bullies, made fun. We were girls, and we loved certain books with an obsessive passion: the Little House series, any and all Helen Keller Biographies, and, of course, Little Women. We inaccurately aligned ourselves with Jo, longed for the Madame Alexander doll versions of our heroines, and wished Laurie Laurence lived next door.
We read (and reread) with equal measures of fascination and incomprehension, having no idea what war father was off to, what he was doing there, why the girls wanted to be “good pilgrims”, why they called their mother “Marmee”, or, for the life of us, what ailed Beth. We’d never heard of Transcendentalism and knew nothing of Louisa May Alcott’s famous father. The book’s myriad literary references sailed over our precocious heads.
In the spirit of equality, there were young male bookworms, but they tended toward Stephen King, Douglas Adams, and Dungeons and Dragons. Despite this, editor Daniel Shealy, in his annotated edition of Little Women, tells us that when the book was first published, in 1868, it was a runaway bestseller, read by all. Shealy’s Little Women is enormous, a coffee-table-sized book that is a Little Women fanatic’s dream, a book likely to have a limited but rapturous audience.
Filled with lovely color plates, photographs, facsimiles, and a photograph of the room where Alcott wrote her most famous novel, Shealy’s Little Women is truly a Little Women’s geek dream. The desk where Alcott penned her masterwork is tiny, unimaginable to those of us tapping away on our comparatively capacious keyboards, our papers and books spread about us (or not, as the case may be). Such a tiny, unassuming desk, built by Alcott’s father, in a room heated by a fireplace and lit by kerosene lamps. It gives one pause. So do those pesky annotations.
Annotated works can be immensely annoying when all you want is to sink into a book. In reading an annotated text, you must first accept the interruptions, then decide how to deal with them. You might read a few pages, then back up, going over the annotations, or read the notes first and then the text, or try for some kind of balance. I took this third way, stymied when the annotations ran several pages ahead of Alcott’s writing.
Much of what Shealy chooses to include is American historical information. Most of it will be common knowledge to older readers and complete news to anybody under age 30. Not because people under age 30 are stupid, but because the state of American public education is abysmal.
To my incredulity, much of Little Women has become archaic. Has so much been forgotten, fallen out of use, that even Faber pencils require explanation? Bonbons? The game of cricket? This is no criticism of Shealy; rather, it is shock. Has Little Women fallen out of favor? Become a quaintly recalled book of generations past? Shealy’s annotations offer much help with allusions to now-forgotten books and arcane language. The clear explanations of John Bunyan’s allegorical Pilgrim’s Progress are enlightening to non-Christian readers. But reading Louisa May Alcott is hardly like encountering Chaucer, and context lends much to comprehension.
I am no expert in such matters. I was a child who lived largely in books and have become an adult who continues to do so. I fell into this latest edition of Little Women with the same old joy, balancing Shealy’s ungainly volume in my lap, oblivious to the hockey playoffs blaring in the background. There I was again, in the familiar house of my imagination, shabby, a bit sparse, but clean, genteel, filled with girls with worries both large and small. There was the garret, the spinet old Mr. Laurence gave Beth, Marmee’s chair, Jo’s pillow. There was prissy little Amy, who could play 12 tunes on the piano, Meg, longing for pretty things, Beth, the angel of the house, and, of course, Jo. Jo, who is Louisa May Alcott in all her burning ambition to write, to remain unmarried, to be free.
Many readers will find Shealy’s biographical details helpful in understanding this most favorite of books. Alcott’s father, Bronson, was one of the early Transcendentalists. Unfortunately, he was unskilled as an orator or writer, and his conversational gifts brought no money to the family—a wife and four daughters. A failed Utopian community called Fruitlands nearly starved the Alcotts. It was Louisa’s writing that lifted the family from penury. But she suffered from ill health after a bout of Typhoid Fever, which was treated with mercury.
For the remainder of her life—she died at age 55—she blamed the mercury treatments for her myriad symptoms. More recent research, specifically on the website
PubMed.govm suggests she may have suffered from Lupus. Whatever the cause of her illness, there was but more grief in this illustrious family. Beth March had a twin in Lizzie Alcott, who died from complications of Scarlet Fever.
Shealy’s notes tell us Beth essentially was Lizzie, a creature who rarely ventured from home and like her fictional alter ego, lacked any real plans for adulthood. Aware she was dying, Lizzie spent her final moments frantically sewing exquisite little gifts for friends and loved ones, to be found after her death. This information, alongside Alcott’s beautifully understated writing of Beth’s death, will leave you crying anew. If not, you have grown into a hard-hearted adult, indeed.
Readers learn Alcott did not consider Little Women her strongest work and was amazed by its reception. Herself an early feminist, she struggled with the book’s overarching themes of goodness, particularly where they related to love and marriage. Even as she created happy marriages for Meg, Amy, and Jo, she took pains to insert language about marital equality, including words about a father’s equal role in parenting. She had her own progressive family as an example, along with Bronson Alcott’s endless support of her talent.
Alcott also had to contend with the furor caused by Jo’s refusal of Laurie’s proposal. Little Women originally appeared in two volumes; the second one explores adult love and marriage. Alcott knew all hell would break loose when Jo fled to New York and Laurie’s eye turned to Amy, but the author also knew her characters. Modern readers might wish Jo could have found fulfillment in her successful writing career, but she was a product of her era. So Alcott created the somewhat surprising Friedrich Bhaer, the antithesis of Laurie in every way save kindness.
Jo’s Fritz is a German immigrant, homely, older, and poor, but charismatic and generous. While Amy receives her marriage proposal in Europe, on a picturesque lake, Jo gets hers in the rain, both parties muddied and battened down by packages. Yet both women join Meg in the happiest possible ending: marriage and children. Amy and Laurie’s idyll is shadowed by their infant daughter’s frailty, while Jo’s masculine energy is channeled into Plumfield, a school for impoverished boys. Pen firmly capped, Jo becomes “Mother Bhaer”. Modern readers may cringe, but Volume II was published in 1869.
Consider: in 1869, Laura Ingalls Wilder was two years old. Women were still lacing themselves into corsets. The country was three years out of slavery and still reeling from the Civil War. If readers could not have Laurie and Jo, well, they’d settle for a Mother Bhaer.
Still, three volumes (a child’s abridged version, the unexpurgated paperback, now this edition) and 33 years later, Little Women continues to enchant this reader, and will likely round up the usual suspects, those mercilessly teased girls who longed to sit in trees, eating apples and reading Ivanhoe, or frolicking with impish Laurie. We’re older now, hopefully a bit wiser, with a deeper understanding of the challenges the March girls faced. But some of us will never let go of our inner Jo: a part of us remains in the garret, reading and scribbling, smearing pen ink on our pinafores. For us, then, the diehard Little Women, Shealy’s carefully researched, lovingly assembled edition.