I began reading Anne Boyd Rioux’s book Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: the Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters a couple of hours after seeing Greta Gerwig’s new film Little Women. Even though as a girl I found Alcott’s book a bit dated, I loved the film, and Rioux’s in-depth analysis of Alcott and her famous novel only enhances my appreciation. I remember enjoying the children’s version of Alcott’s biography, and Rioux’s book covers the real life of Alcott which contrasts to her idealized family in her novel. Rioux writes, “Writing Little Women gave Alcott the opportunity to immortalize some aspects of her life while concealing others. It would be over a century for readers to learn just how difficult and troubled her real life was… The cozy nuclear family of the Marches (nearly) all under one roof was rarely a reality for the Alcotts.”
Alcott grew up partly in an utopian community called Fruitland in Harvard, Massachusetts. Her father was an unsuccessful teacher, writer and lecturer in the American Transcendental movement. He may have been bipolar with many extremes. The Alcott girls were often under/malnourished and inappropriately clothed in cold weather. He forbade the family to eat meat or any diary products, which left fruit, bread and vegetables that they grew or bought when they could afford it. They couldn’t wear cotton because it was raised by slaves. They couldn’t wear wool because it had been “stolen” from sheep, which left linen for them to wear in the harsh winters. It is thought that Louisa’s tiny bone structure was the result of her poor diet as a child. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a neighbor and a frequent benefactor of Abigail Alcott and her four girls. Rioux describes Bronson Alcott as “a dreamer with little concern for the practical necessities of life and utterly incapable of earning a living wage.” Abigail and her girls had to support themselves with the help of charity from Abigail’s wealthy relatives or neighbors. But think of the scenes that Louisa would later write of the family table laden with delicious food, and the sisters discussing clothes while poignantly lamenting their poverty. Remember- Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.
Little Women can be considered American Realism before its time. The first part was published on September 30, 1868, and it sold 2,000 copies in two weeks. The second part was published April 14, 1869, and Alcott earned an initial $1000, which for the first time in her life she didn’t have to use to pay family debt. She invested it to ensure their future stability. After the second part was published in 1869, “Little Women was a cultural phenomenon that knew no boundaries of age, gender, or class…The dividing line between adult and children’s literature was not yet clearly drawn, and Little Women benefited from the crossover then possible.”
Why did Alcott write Little Women? Her publisher of her short stories requested it. Alcott originally thought she didn’t have enough life experiences to write a successful novel because women had so few options at the time. He told her to write of what she knew, thus the famous story of the four sisters, their adored Marmee and a largely absent father was written. Alcott goes on to write sequels to her famous story which were also successful.
Why did Alcott marrying off Jo? Her publisher insisted. At this time, strong independent women had to die or be married off by the end of the book. Alcott had wanted Jo to be a literary spinster as she was. Her compromise was developing the character of Prof. Bhaer, an enlightened and intelligent man who appreciates Jo’s intellect and strength. Bhaer is partly based on Ralph Waldo Emerson whom Alcott adored. As you can see, Rioux’s book is chocked full of great information about Alcott, her sisters and her most famous book, Little Women.