Two Women Writers, Their Classics

Article excerpt

Byline: Bruce Allen, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Two notable women writers, admired as both international literary celebrities and forerunners of modern feminism, are currently represented by handsome new editions of their most famous works.

The Library of America offers Louisa May Alcott's domestic sentimental classic "Little Women" in the expanded later edition which incorporates its immediate sequel "Good Wives" together with its closely related companion volumes "Little Men" and "Jo's Boys."

And the new Penguin edition of Norwegian Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset's great trilogy of medieval life, "Kristin Lavransdatter," makes this epic saga accessible as never before, in a lucid English translation purged of archaisms and rhetorical ornamentation.

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) was born in Pennsylvania and raised mostly in Concord, Mass., the center from which her father, utopian transcendentalist educator and "philosopher" Bronson Alcott, hatched numerous visionary schemes that left his large family devoid of support except for his daughter's herculean labors. Churning out adult novels, children's stories and pseudonymous thrillers, Alcott (who never married) essentially sacrificed herself for her family.

She was a successful writer by her early 30s, known for the "Hospital Sketches," (1863) about her experiences as a Civil War nurse, the somber novel "Moods" (1864), and her work as editor of the popular children's magazine Merry's Museum. But the success of "Little Women" (1868-69) was as unprecedented as it has been lasting. Never since out of print; the inspiration for several film versions, a recent Broadway musical, even an opera: The story of the four March sisters growing up in an idealized New England village has long since become part of our American mythology.

Everyone has a relative or acquaintance reminiscent of vain, petulant Meg, gentle Beth, "artistic" Amy or headstrong, take-charge Jo (the self-appointed "man of the family, now Papa's away" serving as a Civil War battlefield chaplain). Everybody wants a mother like "Marmee," the warmhearted (if disciplinarian) matriarch who guides her daughters' not untroubled relationships among themselves and with the beckoning wider world outside their tight family circle.

Of course "Little Women" is sentimental, but its tendencies toward mawkishness are curbed by the precisely distinguished characterizations of its principals, engaging secondary figures (such as severe Aunt March, who might have taken tea with David Copperfield's Aunt Betsy Trotwood), and a warmly detailed portrayal of 19th-century New England life.

Alcott also does something very interesting with John Bunyan's classic allegory "The Pilgrim's Progress," the source of an educative "game" the March girls play, and a virtual template for their own progress toward the condition of ("little") womanhood. This strategy functions most clearly in the palpably autobiographical figure of Jo, a creature of impulse bent on achieving independence, and like her creator an accomplished woman who earns success as a writer, yet bends her strong will dutifully in the direction of the conventional happiness for which she was raised.

Unlike Alcott, Jo does marry an older man, Professor Fritz Bhaer, with whom she founds the boys' school (Plumfield) where the actions of "Little Men" (1871) mostly occur. It's a novel of education riddled with cliches and uninteresting characters the only partial exception being reclaimed street urchin Dan Kean, a semi-Byronic "firebrand" whose travels and adventures spill over into Alcott's last novel "Jo's Boys" (1886).

This decidedly autumnal and genuinely depressing book places so much emphasis on the strength of women who channel their energies into shouldering domestic burdens that it's difficult not to read it as an apologia: for a life subdued to duty, enervated by such sublimation, redeemed only by the unquestionable achievement of "Little Women. …