Welcome to the first installment of Drunk Austen’s Classic Alice Book Club! We hope to begin with Pygmalion as soon as the second season is up and running, but until then, we’ll be reading Little Women, as decided by you, our followers and fans of Classic Alice!
To begin, I’d really like to give a little background on Louisa May Alcott, the authoress of Little Women. She was born near present-day Philadelphia, but is most commonly associated with the setting of many of her novels, in Massachusetts and especially Boston. (Holla!)
Alcott’s writing style is particular, in that it’s very… well, domestic. She was a champion for the ideal family, and her work has been described as “cozy.”
Don’t let the simpleness of her message fool you though, Alcott was an educated woman, rare for the time, who came from educated parents, which was even rarer. She wrote novels of domestic tranquility, but candidly speaks of women’s rights and ideals.
In chapter one, we are introduced to the March family, the four sisters, Margaret “Meg,” 16; Josephine “Jo,” 15; Elizabeth “Beth,” 13; and Amelia “Amy,” 12. Meg is the level-headed but vain eldest sister, Jo is the creative but high-spirited sister, Beth is the peacemaker and Amy is the little sister we all dreaded having. Their father is away at war, and they have only their mother.
The very first lesson the March sisters teach their readers is a swift but simple one, that of the spirit of Christmas and the joy of giving. They each spend their mere dollar buying a gift for their mother, who unknowingly rewards them with a letter from their father on the front lines.
Now, let’s hold up a minute here. The thing about Alcott’s style that you have to remember is that much of it is bold-faced. It’s easy to feel knocked upside the head with all this righteousness emanating from the page. Instead of getting fed up with the preaching, take Alcott’s words at face value, and put yourself in the March girls’ shoes (or lack of them.) They’re poor, their father is at war, and they have so little that they’ve given up anything they might have liked for Christmas to give to their mother. Is it realistic? Maybe not. But it is a picture of a better world. (No wonder Little Women is so often adapted for children.) Those are good lessons, and ones that adults rarely see. I for one, can’t disapprove of Alcott writing of a better society.
Plus, Alcott really, REALLY hated those terrible penny-dreadful novels that were all violence and no substance, so she pretty much wrote these as a backlash against books she thought were corrupting Victorian youth. (Next time you hear a parent complain about GTA VI: Hookers ‘n’ Blow, you can launch into a proper Alcott-approved tirade. hint: Drop a few curses, like “gol’darn.”)
But really, just let yourself sink down into the virtuous good of it all and enjoy the book. (And remember, Marmee wouldn’t approve of your mockery!)
Getting back to the plot: I’m struck by how quickly we’re able to decipher the characters of these young ladies. Within a few paragraphs, I can already tell a lot about our protagonists. Look at Beth, she says maybe all of 12 words in the first chapter, but we already know she’s her sisters’ keeper and the quiet, strong presence in the family, much like her mother. To introduce five characters with in the space of one chapter and have each of them be their own type of woman is a feat. heck, to have five women and no men at all in the first chapter of a book published in the mid-19th century is nothing short of a gol’darn miracle.
Chapter 2 continues with much of the same lesson about Christmas, but early on that we learn more about Marmee’s character. She may be recently poor, but still warm and charitable. She acts to spend Christmas helping a poor(er) neighbor, rather than enjoying Christmas breakfast with her daughters. Her sacrifice compels the girls to do the same and they have a merrier time at the neighbor’s home than they probably would have at home.
Now, I mentioned before that Little Women is oftentimes remade or abridged for children, but I truly believe that Alcott intended it for people of all ages, especially women. Marmee is neither a girl nor one of the main characters, but a full-grown woman with daughters of her own, and she’s set up here as an example not only to her daughters of what kind of woman they should aspire to, but to us as readers as the same. It’s one of those lessons again that you don’t often see aimed at adults.. but one that I know a lot of adults sorely need.
In addition, it’s this chapter that first introduces us to Jo’s talent as a writer during her Christmas play — but more on that later — and also to the Laurence family, who are the March’s neighbors. “That Laurence boy,” better known as Laurie, is our first male character, and in true Alcott fashion, does not cut such a virtuous role as the sisters do. Sent home from boarding school to live with his grandfather, he’s clearly enamored with Jo from the start, and they do have a good time together at the New Year’s Eve ball. (But Jo will have none of it.) You might call it one of literature’s first friendzones.
Also, Jo manages to ruin the back of her dress, ruin her gloves, ruin Meg’s gloves, then ruin the front of her dress. All this and she still gets a ride home in Laurie’s carriage. I clearly need to try this tactic at the next party I’m at in order to catch a man.
Chapter four, and the last for this week, finds the girls squabbling over math (I’m with you there, Amy) and Meg trying to kick a kitten. (No, seriously. Read it. She threatens to drown them.) The eldest leave for their respective jobs (Another first: young ladies were not supposed to work, but Alcott gets away with it by having them support their family with the money they earn.) Meg is a governess and Jo works as a companion for her wealthy Aunt March.
(I’m not sure if we’re supposed to actively root for Aunt March keeling over and leaving all her money to the March sisters, but I have to admit, I really do wish she would. She’s annoying and biting at poor Jo, who, like me, has absolutely no patience for grumpy old ladies. Though I’d tolerate her for an awesome library too!)
We also find out more about the younger March girls: How sickly and childish Beth is, almost as if she has not yet begun to grow up (a very important theme, as we’ll soon find). And Amy, whose biggest worry in life thus far is the shape of her flat nose. Beth is talented at the piano, and Amy can draw wonderfully. I try to be fair, but I can’t help liking Beth with her dolls and caring nature, over Amy who is described as “suffer[ing] deeply at having to wear a red instead of a blue bonnet.” We find out that the sisters are best suited in pairs, with Meg and Amy preferring each other’s company as Jo and Beth tend to pair off as well. This is certainly a tidy family.
We’ll leave you with the words of Jo tonight, quoting from uncle Tom’s Cabin: “’Tink o byer mercies children, an’ read Chapters 5-10 for next week!”
(Ok, I might have added that last part.)
This week’s best of #CAbookclub: