Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.” This is how Louisa May Alcott begins Little Women. She wrote it in 1868, when she was 35, after months of urging by Thomas Niles, a Boston publisher who wanted a story for girls. She had not had much luck with a serious novel, she needed money, and it was part of a deal that her father, Bronson Alcott, had proposed. If Louisa said yes, Niles would agree to publish Bronson’s philosophical treatise, Tablets. A dutiful daughter, she couldn’t say no.
I know the novel by heart. I read it for the first time when I was nine years old; my father bought me a British edition of the first part—the original Little Women. (Good Wives, the second part, appeared just over six months later. In America, the two parts were immediately combined, but in England, they are still published separately.) We were living on a hill above Florence, Italy, but Concord, Massachusetts, where the story is set and where the Alcotts lived, became for me the most exotic town in the world.
The book begins on Christmas Eve during the Civil War. Four sisters sit in the parlor waiting for their adored mother to come home. I skipped over the illustrations because the girls were so vivid on the page that I knew exactly what they looked like. Jo sprawls on the floor like a boy, voicing a secular notion of Christmas: The day is an occasion for gifts, not worship. She is tantalizing and subversive; she flares with anger at the family’s poverty. Jo’s pretty older sister, Meg, only sighs at her shabby dress. Amy, the youngest, is peeved that she can’t have every pretty thing she wants. Sweet Beth is the peacemaker: “We’ve got mother and father and each other.”
“The characters were drawn from life,” Louisa May Alcott later wrote to an acquaintance, and the book ebbs and flows between actual event and authorial desire. The novel records the anguish of Louisa’s struggle to control her impatience and rash temper—a struggle she shared with her mother. In life, the family—Bronson and his wife, Abigail May, and their four daughters, Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May—built a precarious fortress of love, duty, and pride around themselves. With her art, Louisa secured that stockade. She locked inside it her idealized family—and especially her father, whom she rendered saintly and benign for all the world to see.
Reading Little Women, I inhabited their fortress with them; the house in Concord was real to me and at the same time as magical and impossible as a fairy-tale castle. The March girls were the sisters and Marmee was the mother generations of readers wished we had, and we wished we had a next-door neighbor like Laurie, the handsome, musical, rich boy who becomes Jo’s soul mate and partner in innocent crime. In Little Women, Louisa turned her family into an enduring symbol of tender domesticity.
But it is a household of women; Father is not there. Too old to fight, idealistic Mr. March has volunteered to serve in the Union Army as a chaplain. If he earns money, we don’t hear about it, and we don’t know what work Mrs. March does to make ends meet. Jo, a paid companion to her Aunt March, and Meg, a governess, bring home little, and how they can afford a housekeeper is never explained. The Marches end up celebrating Christmas morning with bread and milk because Mrs. March gives their holiday breakfast to an immigrant family even poorer than they are. Louisa knew her Charles Dickens. She improved upon A Christmas Carol, giving her scene an egalitarian, American moral. No condescending presents of roast goose here. This charity comes at a price to the giver.
Louisa May Alcott was born November 29, 1832, on her father’s 33rd birthday, in Germantown, Pennsylvania, where Bronson Alcott was teaching school. His parents were Connecticut subsistence farmers; Louisa’s mother came from a prominent Boston merchant family, which might explain why Louisa felt the need to give her fictional family a servant (she herself had once hired out as a maid).
Self-educated, charismatic, and manipulative, Bronson preached and practiced progressive methods of education, but the drummer he elected to hear drowned out the trumpet calls of earthly responsibility. With the May family’s assistance, he founded the Temple School in Boston. Briefly, it flourished. Elizabeth Peabody, a formidable intellect at the center of the Transcendentalist movement and the eldest of the Peabody sisters, taught with Bronson and wrote a popular book about the school. Peabody advised Bronson against publishing further accounts of his methods, which included frank discussions of procreation. They had a falling out, Bronson went ahead with his project, and after a scandal the school failed.
But Ralph Waldo Emerson believed in him. Emerson helped the Alcotts find a house in Concord, the gracious town beside a slow river 15 miles from Boston that was proving fertile ground for a flowering of American letters. He also encouraged Margaret Fuller, the brilliant feminist editor of The Dial, to publish Bronson’s convoluted and often incomprehensible prose. Bronson helped Henry David Thoreau frame his cabin at nearby Walden Pond, and Louisa had the run of Emerson’s library.
From the beginning, Bronson Alcott’s children were the subjects of his educational and utopian experiments. He took thousands of pages of notes describing how he praised, punished, and instructed his young daughters. Then in June of 1843, Bronson moved his family to a rundown farm in nearby Harvard, Massachusetts, where he intended to live a spiritual, self-sufficient, chaste, and vegan existence. Optimistically, he named the place Fruitlands, though Louisa recalled years later that there was no orchard, and it was too late to plant many crops. The experiment lasted seven months until, out of food and firewood, the family retreated to a neighbor’s house.
Father commits no such mayhem in Little Women. As if she loved the idea of him more than the reality, Louisa May Alcott keeps Mr. March firmly offstage, first at war and later in his room convalescing from a grievous wound. Never has an absent character felt so pervasive. Father’s Christmas letter to Marmee (very like a letter Bronson Alcott sent his wife from England) coils the plot, spelling out how his daughters should spend the year he is gone. Overflowing with tenderness, the letter also sets forth commandments: “They will be loving children to you, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.”
Bronson was by nature itinerant; he had gone to live with admirers in England and embarked on speaking tours that yielded neither money nor fame. His talents—an impressively calm bearing and a flair for observation, conversation, and carpentry—were ephemeral. Bronson warmed to Louisa’s ambition, especially after she began earning good money from her Brontë-like romances, ghost stories, and children’s stories and sending it to her family. During the time it took her to finish the first part of Little Women, Louisa came back home to live. Her father had installed a shelf by the window in her bedroom, a place where she could write. That shelf still hangs from the wall, and there is something poignant about how small it is, how minimal compared to Bronson’s ample desk.
Orchard House is one of the most--visited small museums in New England; this year it has been celebrating its hundredth anniversary with readings, concerts, re-enactments, and lectures around Boston, including an Alcott exhibition at Harvard’s Houghton Library. In collaboration with the Concord Museum, the house is hosting an exhibition of photographs by Annie Leibovitz from her recent book, Pilgrimages, which contains an image of the Alcott girls’ dolls. The narrow brown clapboard house, half a mile from Emerson’s square white one, sits close to the road, against a steep hill. Inside, you can see the chart of chores that Bronson devised for his daughters, and Anna’s plain gray wedding dress. Drawings by May, whose inept illustrations accompanied the first edition of Little Women, decorate the walls. Even today, when a girl can aspire to be a combat--hardened, laser-gun-toting heroine, the parking lot overflows with visitors eager for evidence of Marmee, Father, and the March sisters.
The museum’s tour guides flip back and forth between fact and fiction. They point out Jo’s pillow (“Louisa had one, too”), which, according to how she placed it on the sofa, indicated her mood. In Little Women, volatile Jo has to do most of the brave fighting; she is physical, kindhearted, passionate, hungry for the world, and always, as she says, “getting into scrapes.” Amy, the artistically talented youngest, shares many of Jo’s qualities but not her conscience. Although Meg is already almost perfect, she, too, confronts the temptations of pretty clothes, parties, and worldly acquaintances. Gentle Beth just wants everybody to be happy.
The Marches’ growing friendship with their dashing young neighbor Theodore Lawrence (called Laurie by the girls) and his tutor drives much of the action. The Lawrences breach the Marches’ proud isolation with companionship, fun, and occasional luxuries. Laurie takes the girls on picnics and to the theater, and his grandfather gives Beth a piano. At the end of the first part, a year has passed, and Father comes home to peace and happy expectations.
This is, Louisa tells us, a story about how to be good. The girls take to heart their father’s exhortation; with their mother’s help, they transform themselves from girls into young women. The task is especially hard for rash, impatient Jo. Marmee suggests that the sisters take The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s 17th-century devotional novel—one of Bronson Alcott’s childhood favorites—as their guide.
Little Women was my guide. I read it 18 times, and I—along with most readers—was Jo, the tomboy with literary ambition. Like me, Jo was a girl of action and ambition in a culture (and a family) that did not encourage those qualities in a daughter. The concerns of my real and fictional families were not so different: lack of money, the moral shortcomings of society, how to remain true to one’s calling in the face of adversity. At home, I often felt excluded; inside the covers of the book, I belonged to a different family, one which saw through my faults to my inherent goodness.
After I turned 12, I did not read Little Women again, not even to my own daughter. The novel was hers to possess and to use for herself, I felt, part of her own growing up. A year ago, when I finally did pick it up again, dutifully, because a friend asked me to come to a book group, I was shaken. I recognized the people, especially Marmee, with her empathy, directness, and protective love for her girls. It made me wish I’d reread it when my daughter was younger; I could have learned a lot about being a mother from Mrs. March. But though I still knew the words by heart, I did not recognize the story I was reading.
Little Women is brutal, a ferocious wolf dressed up in the curly white sermons and sentimental homilies of children’s stories. Though full of references to a kind and loving father, its fundamental faith lies not in God but in books: in life as a literary construct. It is a great and complicated work, Louisa May Alcott’s American response to English writers like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters who had posed similar questions about life and love and ambition. With its overt mix of autobiography and invention, Little Women is an enduring model for women’s stories, but it is rarely considered literature itself. It should be.
What happens is fierce: Jo burns off half of Meg’s bangs when she tries to frizz her hair with a curling iron, just before a party—a party organized, like the one that opens Pride and Prejudice, to introduce eligible girls and boys. But Austen’s Bennett sisters accept as a given that looks and fortune get husbands; such a crass assessment of their marketability outrages the Marches. Next, because Jo has not invited her to the theater, Amy burns Jo’s manuscript, stories that Jo had been working on for years. Jo, in retaliation, lets Amy skate on the river without warning her that the ice is thin. Amy falls through, and Jo barely manages to rescue her. Then Jo cuts off and sells her own glorious hair—the only beautiful part of her—to buy her mother a present. Beth is pathologically shy and hardly leaves the house for fear of having to talk to people. When Laurie’s tutor declares his love for Meg, everyone is thrilled but Jo, who is bereft at the imminent dissolution of her family. She understands the heartbreak inherent in marriage and in the separation, the growing apart—and possibly the growing objectivity—that marks the end of childhood.
In Little Women, a chronicle of familial combat and calamity roils under the surface of a coming-of-age novel. One story embraces convention: Even Jo had a literary precedent—Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, prolific author, women’s clothing reformer, and anti-vivisectionist, published the first in her series of books about tomboy heroine Gypsy Breynton in 1866, two years before Alcott introduced Jo. But it was Alcott’s genius to fill the didactic frame of a girls’ book with her ambition—with disturbing ideas, anger, and frustration as well as her father’s inspiring and impossible striving for moral perfection, to which her mother provided a humane antidote.
Little Women was published in September 1868, and the first printing sold out, although one reviewer warned that it was not “a Christian book.” Another 4,500 copies were printed, a British edition was scheduled, and the publishers begged for a sequel. Good Wives is a harrowing book. Sure enough, kind and whimsical Laurie, who is a great improvement on aloof Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, proposes to Jo. She turns him down.
That’s just the beginning. Alcott piles punishments on Jo: Rich Aunt March sends spoiled Amy to Europe instead of her older sister. Beth catches scarlet fever and dies a lingering death. Laurie turns around and asks Amy to marry him (Amy, who, shielded by Jo from the truth of Beth's condition, didn't come home to say goodbye). Worst of all, Jo burns her own manuscripts: the stockpile of potboilers, ghost stories, and romances she has begun selling to magazines. Professor Bhaer, a middle-aged, portly German and a teacher of young children whose ideas about education echo Bronson Alcott’s, persuades Jo that her sensational tales corrupt her and her readers. So Jo marries him. They will run a school that has the feeling of the Temple School and Fruitlands combined and done right. Jo will be her husband’s helpmeet. She will not write.
When I was ten, this was not my idea of a happy ending. I still want to object; I find Jo’s protestations of happiness heartbreaking. But this ending is also part of why Little Women has lasted. Although Jo’s hard duty made me angry, and I questioned the author’s assurances that everything had come round right, that Jo’s scourging was what she had to pay to earn her loving home, I was also aware of the profoundly subversive nature of this book. I knew that Louisa May Alcott did not share her heroine’s fate. The author had escaped her own narrative.
While she was writing Good Wives, Alcott announced in a letter to a friend that when it came to Jo and Laurie, she was not going to give readers the satisfaction they expected. And why should she have? Louisa had had suitors and turned them down, though she may once have been in love and possibly had an affair while she was in Europe in 1866. During the Civil War she had volunteered as a nurse and contracted typhoid, and her health was ruined. In life, she and not her father sacrificed for the Union cause. She no longer had to make anybody—including her readers—happy. So she took those readers beyond romance.
The first part of Little Women had made Louisa independent. But Jo had to marry somebody. That was a convention Alcott couldn’t flout, and I imagine that she allowed herself to succumb to her own circumstances and yearning to concoct Professor Bhaer, a more suitable match for a 35-year-old free-thinking spinster than for a 20-year-old girl. If in Little Women, Alcott lays out what a good girl should aspire to—happiness and marriage—the book’s very existence demonstrates what an ambitious girl can hope to achieve: literary fame. It is, indeed, subversive, sustained by an almost unbearable tension between action and commentary and between its fiction and Alcott’s reality.
As part of a serious literary conversation, the book’s voice has been almost ignored. George Eliot knew of the Alcotts. Her friends Harriet Martineau and Thomas Carlyle had encountered Bronson, and both thought him a fool. Middlemarch, which was published in 1874, begins where Little Women ends. Eliot’s heroine, Dorothea Brooke, marries Casaubon, an older man, a philosopher whom she idolizes and whose fraudulent intellect sucks dry his humanity. Ultimately, though Casaubon tries to control her from his grave, Dorothea marries the adorable man she loves. But in the epilogue, Eliot suggests that by following her heart and becoming her husband’s helpmeet, Dorothea finds happiness, and she is diminished. She lives a life filled with “unhistoric acts,” and dies in oblivion. She lies in an “unvisited tomb.”
At Fruitlands, ten-year-old Louisa wrote in her diary: “I wish I was rich, I was good, and we were all a happy family this day.” The Orchard House we visit today is a testament to Louisa’s obedience and kindness. We tour not the modest place where she wrote Little Women but a later version, the house she improved with the money she earned. What we find there is evidence of the family she invented, the family she made happy. A gothic wooden building in back, designed by Bronson, contained his School of Philosophy, where he spent his last years organizing lectures and regaling visitors. He became a celebrity; people came to see Mr. March. He died in 1888, and Louisa died two days later.
Louisa’s grave in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord is well visited. The flat stone, with the little American flag and metal disk marking her as an army veteran for her nursing service, lies in the Alcott plot, which is next to the Thoreaus and the Hawthornes and down the path from the Emersons.
In the last scene of Little Women, Marmee, Father, Mr. Lawrence, the sisters, their husbands, and their children (Louisa has given Jo a pair of sturdy boys) are picking apples, of the variety Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruitful abundance. Of course Marmee has the last word: “Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this.”
Louisa May Alcott never knew such fulfillment. But even when I was ten, I imagined her perched in the branches of an apple tree, watching. She was not on the ground herding toddlers; she was aloft gathering fiction. Hers was a hard-won fruitfulness, a dangerous happiness, and that is what her readers picked up: the scary joy of possibility.
CORRECTION: This article has been corrected to reflect Bronson Alcott's age at the time of Louisa May Alcott's birth and to clarify the reason why Little Women's Amy March continues in Europe while her sister is dying. An earlier version misidentified the Middlemarch character who writes a children's book; she is Mary Garth, not Dorothea Brooke.