Dangerous Happiness: Louisa May Alcott and the Mother of All Girls' Books
Weisgall, Deborah, The American Prospect
Christmas won't be Christmas without any present, s, 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 30th 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). …