“She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain.” -Louisa May Alcott
As a thirteen-year-old bookworm following in my feminist mother’s footsteps, I tossed aside white-gloved girl detective Nancy Drew and her ilk for pioneering female authors of an earlier age: the Victorians. The writing was lovely, but after plowing through a few of the classics, oh, how it rankled. Despite Jane Austen’s relatively high-minded Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice (even though she ended up with über-hot Mr. Darcy), it still bugged the pants off me that these women were so…dull. They played the piano and did needlepoint. They spent a mind-numbing amount of time fussing with their frocks, nattering on about dances, and waiting, all that WAITING, to be introduced to men who might make suitable matches, after which they would probably die in childbirth or become young widows married off to skeevy dudes old enough to be their fathers because everyone knew they could not possibly survive without a Y chromosome in the house.
Give me a flippin’ break, I thought, too young myself to appreciate my generation’s lack of corsetry, coerced early marriage, and scarlet fever. (And too young to appreciate the beautiful writing and historical significance of these novels.)
Then I read Little Women. Originally I balked, because my mother had recommended it. Nothing against my mother, who is a wonderful woman, but a thirteen-year-old girl is almost required to run fast and far from anything endorsed by Mom. Sure, the March sisters did their fair share of needlework and nattering. Then I met Jo.
Josephine (Jo) March changed my young life. She was a second child, like me. A bit of a tomboy, like me. She loved to read and write, like me. Yes, she did her chores and minded her mother, because she loved her family, but she yearned for more. Adventure, publication, and not necessarily marriage, were her life’s goals.
Asked about her fantasies, Jo says, “I’d have a stable full of Arabian steeds, rooms piled with books, and I’d write out of a magic inkstand, so that my works should be as famous as Laurie’s music. I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle-something heroic, or wonderful-that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all, some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous; that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream.”
This was no fragile Victorian flower. She yearned to fight in the Civil War alongside her father. She was bold and brash and clumsy and maybe a bit too loud, but she was always her quirky, opinionated self and was not ashamed of it. In an era when—the horror—girls were never to initiate any sort of social contact with boys, when Jo hears the boy next door is sick and lonely, she plows right over uninvited and befriends him. Jo and Laurie become great companions.
For me, she became a terrific role model in a literary world where women were expected to be “nice girls,” to do what they’re told, to accept marriage and family life as the limit of their aspirations. And she was a terrific friend during a time when the feminist movement was urging modern women out of their traditional roles, too.
Recently I reread the book, to see what the intervening years had done—if anything—to my initial perceptions. Now I can more fully appreciate Alcott’s legacy and her boldness at writing a character like Jo, purported to be modeled on Alcott herself. At a time in America’s history when boys’ adventures ruled (think Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn), she came out with a well-received book about girls’ lives, girls’ adventures. And my beloved Jo led the way.
If you’re a fan of our current crop of kick-butt female protagonists who fight evil critters of all stripes and save civilization as we know it, you have, in part, Jo March and Louisa May Alcott to thank for getting the women out from behind their pianos and petticoats and into the world.
Who are your favorite literary protagonists? What do you love about them?
* * * * *
Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She is the author of two novels, The Joke’s on Me and Drawing Breath. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley with her very patient husband, Paul Blumstein, a commercial illustrator. Learn more about Laurie at http://laurieboris.com and her Amazon author page.
28 thoughts on “Not So Little Women”
Wonderful! Must go back and read about Jo again. I love historical fiction and hope to graduate into writing it, but Oh! I agree with you — the women had it dull and difficult. To fashion an appealing heroine out of that plain cloth will be daunting.
Some did have some gumption…
Amen! I LOVED Little Women and Little Men! Both wonderful books!
Yes! There was recently a modern re-telling of parts of the Little Women saga; the novel was set in England, where a daughter descended from one of the original Little Women finds Jo's letters. Oh, wish I could remember the title!
D'oh! It's called The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly. Rather fun.
Really?? Yay! I'll have to pick it up!!!
Laurie, thank you so much for writing about Jo! Little Women, read when I was eight, was the first book that ever moved me to tears. I loved the independent character of Jo and how she wanted to move around in the world. I don't think that character gets nearly enough credit.
Overshadowed by the prettier sisters (and Tom Sawyer), no doubt… 😉
Are you kidding? She was overshadowed by Beth, who had the temerity to die young. 😀
Little Women is my favourite novel and Jo is adorable. I love the book so much, I educated my POV enough to read it, just so I could mention it in my debut novel! I have the treasured copy my grandfather gave my mother in 1953, and cannot count how many times I have read it!
I am sure I based myself on Jo. 🙂
When I read Atlas Shrugged as a teenager, I wanted to be Dagny Taggart. I still do!
You know, Krista, that book's been sitting on my shelf for years. It's one of my husband's favorites. One of these days, I'll get to it!
I used to be a huge Ayn Rand fan way back when. I loved the Fountainhead. I wanted to be an architect after reading it. I read the first 13,987,222 pages of Atlas Shrugged, loved it too, but I couldn't get through the last 50.
(Hides head in embarrassment) I never read "Little Women". When I tired of Nancy Drew i went to the hardy boys. They had more fun.
thanks for this post! Jo March was and is a lifetime 'hera' to me. I wasn't ever a tomboy, but everything else about her fit to a T, well, not everything, I didn't and don't have luxurious chestnut hair to sell… By the time I was eleven or twelve I'd read Little Women, Little Men and Jo's Boys [the third of that 'trilogy, that I think is still rather under rated] so many times over I lost count and loved every character, every small adventure, every laugh and every tear, too.
Alcott took parts of her own life and the people around her and made marvelous stories that any girl and a lot of boys could easily relate to, and still can. If you've read these stories a million times or never, I recommend picking them up right away, they open a window , as all good stories do into a very different time and let us live there for a short while.
Thanks for reading, Gabrielle! Time travel made easy!
Thanks, Laurie. I think it's time I reread Little Women. I always did love Jo's refusal to keep the confining conventions. I'm a second child, too. My older sister had the social compliance role in hand. I needed room to wiggle. You'll get lots of responses to this one.
Thank you, Patricia! I had conflicting expectations…the second child, but the only girl. What I needed was lots of time alone. Perfect breeding for a writer!
Between my father [who wanted a son and had to make do with me] and Jo, I never had the chance to become a girlie girl and for that I thank them both with much love. 😀
Awesome, Meeks! 😀
"Little Women" was my favorite book for years and years ('til I read "Jane Eyre" when I was in the 8th grade). I identified with both Jo and Beth (I was into music as well as writing), but of course Jo was my favorite. I read "Little Men" years later and thought it was okay. Not sure I ever got to "Jo's Boys." Hmm, might have to rectify that…
I love Idgie from "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe." And Jo, too, of course, and for similar reasons.
Idgie! How could I forget her? 🙂
Thank you for this piece. Laurie. I loved "Little Women" and the character of Jo, as also all the other characters, major and minor. Of course, I have to admit my sense of disappointment of Jo losing Laurie to Amy. Don't know how many times I read and reread all the four books that make up this quartet. Growing up in another part of the world from the rest who have posted here, it amazes me to see how women across the world relate to the same books. Probably accounts for how a good book can become famous everywhere. Besides, this quarter, I would list "Jane Eyre" and the "Katy Did" series as books, which had strong women characters. Wonder if anyone remembers Cousin Helen from the "Katy" series? Of course, I love the character of Elizabeth Bennett too!
OK, PLEEEEEEEZE don't tell anyone, but I've never read it! I have the DVD!!! It's one of my favs–as is the Colin Furth version of P&P. I admit to being a movie-junkie and there's absolutely NOTHING wrong with that. I adore Little Women. Jo is definitely the breakout star of the family–with her feminist attitudes and WORKING brain. But, don't forget all that loving encouragement from Marmie! Without her mum, she might have been squashed into a tight mind-numbing corset so tight that a literary thought could never have taken the path from brain to pen-holding hand. May we all have a Marmie in our lives. She's a rock star in my book—ah, film.
I'll never tell a soul, LRB! I loved Marmie, too.
Comments are closed.