“Many wise and true sermons”: Louisa May Alcott, Little Women


Amy stood a minute, turning the leaves in her hand, reading on each some sweet rebuke for all heart-burnings and uncharitableness of spirit. Many wise and true sermons are preached us every day by unconscious ministers in street, school, office, or home; even a fair-table may become a pulpit, if it can offer the good and helpful words which are never out of season.

It’s not really possible for me to read Little Women: even though the last time I turned every page of the book was probably more than thirty years ago, it’s so familiar that all I can do now is remember it. Here are the four girls, cheerfully reconciled to giving away their Christmas breakfast; here’s Amy, falling through the ice after the terrible breach with Jo; here are the slippers Beth (dear Beth!) worked with pansies, for Mr. Laurence; here’s Meg, blushing with her John on her wedding day then ruining all the jelly and their first dinner party; here’s Laurie, dashing and impetuous and all wrong for Jo; here’s Professor Bhaer, warmhearted and avuncular as the last time he offered the shelter of his umbrella. Such good old friends!

ebeditionI used to read about them in my mother’s old, cherished copy: I discover, peering around online, that it was the “Illustrated Junior Library” edition from Grosset and Dunlap, with an original copyright date of 1947. The cover alone is immediately evocative of my childhood! I loved the novel and reread it often; I had been feeling mournful that I didn’t have a nice copy of my own, so I put the Penguin Threads edition on my Christmas wishlist this year and was thrilled to get it. It’s very satisfactory: not only is the cover delightful to an embroidery buff like me, but the whole volume is tactile in all the right ways, from the raised graphics on the artwork to the heavy, deckle edged pages. It feels the way a classic should.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the stories of the March girls, from the opening line (“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents”) to their varied but all equally happy endings. I suppose I identified most with Jo, or wanted to (I was never so daring!), but it was the quartet as a whole, I think, that made the greatest impression on me — that, different as they were from each other, they loved and stood by each other. I don’t remember ever noticing how didactic the novel is, or how quietly but assertively religious, or how conservative some of its lessons are, especially about women’s roles (“a woman’s happiest kingdom is home, her highest honor the art of ruling it – not as a queen, but a wise wife and mother”). These qualities did all stand out to me this time, and I wondered why I didn’t — indeed, why I still don’t — chafe against them. I think it’s because Alcott suffuses her story with such humane tenderness: all of its lessons are so thoroughly embodied, especially in Marmee but also in the girls as they struggle to grow into their best selves.

It was interesting reading Little Women at the same time as Vanity Fair. They are companion pieces in a way, really: both built on the model of The Pilgrim’s Progress, but one a cautionary tale about folly and vice, teaching its lessons entirely by negative example, the other a reassuring story about the possibility of virtue. In class today we discussed Thackeray’s ambition to make us all dissatisfied, as a means of goading us into being and doing better. His characters die alone, unhappy, unloved, and unwept; in Vanity Fair, he offers us a saving deathbed revelation, a chance to save ourselves from such a miserable end. How different is Beth’s sad but beautiful death:

As Beth had hoped, the ‘tide went out easily’; and in the dark hour before the dawn, on the bosom where she had drawn her first breath, she quietly drew her last, with no farewell but one loving look and a little sigh.

With tears, and prayers, and tender hands, mother and sisters made her ready for the long sleep that pain would never mar again — seeing with grateful eyes the beautiful serenity that soon replaced the pathetic patience that had wrung their hearts so long, and feeling with reverent joy, that to their darling death was a benignant angel — not a phantom full of dread.

Where is the “Celestial City” in Thackeray’s vision? We couldn’t find a glimpse of it in his book — which seems all part of his lesson that we have to seek it out for ourselves, and resist the lures and temptations arrayed in Vanity Fair. In contrast, Little Women doesn’t just hold it out as a final destination but insists that we can create it around ourselves in this world if we are just honest and kind, generous and loving, patient and disciplined. Alcott’s final message is actually very similar to Thackeray’s: “The world is a looking-glass,’ his narrator observes, “and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face.” It’s just that unlike Becky (or Amelia, for that matter) the March girls learn to turn their best faces to the world — and they are richly rewarded for it. I made the argument today that the dissatisfaction Thackeray urges is a necessary component of moral and social change: if all’s well that end’s well, what is left for us to do, after all? But in its own way, Little Women is at least as motivating. And it’s certainly a lot more comforting!