The novel resolutely crushes Jo into the shape of a woman, and then a wife and mother, taking away her passion for writing in the process, writes Victoria White
I SUSPECT Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is a con job.
That doesn’t mean Greta Gerwig’s film, which opens in cinemas today with Saoirse Ronan in the leading role, is a con too, mind.
The film is meant to be about “girls who defy the odds and challenge society’s expectations”, writes Amy O’Connor in The Irish Times. ‘Own Your Story’ is the film’s feminist tag line and Ronan is hotly tipped for an Oscar for her interpretation of Jo.
Read the novel again, however, and it falls far short of being a feminist founding text.
For a start, Jo is a boy. She actually speaks the words “if I were a boy”, as if predicting the words of Beyonce’s wonderful song.
Alcott’s first full description of her heroine gives her “the uncomfortable appearance of a girl who was rapidly shooting up into a woman and didn’t like it”.
Nowadays we might call Jo transsexual.
We sure as hell wouldn’t applaud as the novel resolutely crushes her into the shape of a woman, and then a wife and mother, taking away her passion for writing in the process.
My daughter just can’t excuse the fact that Jo ends up marrying Professor Bhaer, who is old enough to be her father and might as well be her father, for all the chemistry between them.
Alcott may have scored her commercial bull’s eye with Little Women, first published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, because she presented a socially acceptable pathway through life for a girl who wanted to be a boy.
It seems to me, however, that she sacrificed Jo and her own truth in the process.
“I am more than half-persuaded,” she said in an interview, “that I am a man’s soul put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body … because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.”
It is the torment of huge numbers of little women who have read the novel since it first came out that Jo does not marry Laurie, the handsome boy from across the road, who is just slightly older and mad about her.
Laurie is Jo’s alter ego, the person she would be if she were a rich boy, not a poor girl.
He is as girly as she is masculine. In the first edition of the book, Laurie was given androgynous qualities:
He is also explicitly foreign, giving Jo “a queer little French bow”.
The critic Elaine Showalter has pointed out that, in the second edition, Laurie is taller and manlier and his bow is “gallant”, not French. Alcott was deliberately turning him into an all-American male lead to please her market.
I find the incursions of Catholic Europe into the novel’s puritanical, Protestant New England, absolutely fascinating. Not only does Laurie bow like a Frenchman, he is half-Italian. Just look at those black eyes and that black, curly hair.
As in so much Victorian literature, Catholic Europe is equated with danger, sexuality, lax morals … and excitement.
Reading the book again this week for the first time in decades, I was amazed to see Amy, the youngest March girl and the one who marries Laurie in the end, explicitly identified with Catholicism.
While Amy is working as a companion to old Aunt March, she comes under the influence of a French maid called Estelle, who her aunt has renamed Esther to make her sound Protestant.
Undaunted, Estelle makes a little shrine to the Virgin Mary in a secluded corner of the house, where Amy worships daily, though she draws the line at using rosary beads.
Amy’s mother doesn’t disapprove and in fact gives her daughter a picture of the Madonna and Child for Christmas.
Amy’s character is repeatedly assassinated in the novel. She is the one who wants to be an artist, and significantly, goes to Rome to refine her craft though she gives up on art completely when she compares herself with Raphael and Michelangelo.
She may be the one who marries sexy Laurie and ends up rich, but she remains trivialised to the end.
She is also envied. Life for a girl who doesn’t struggle to grow into a woman was always going to be easier in Victorian New England than life for a girl who wanted to grow into a man.
You could see this as simple sibling rivalry: Little Women is loosely based on Alcott’s home life and the character of Amy is loosely based on that of her sister May, who was, in fact, a talented artist.
Amy is also a fairly grotesque symbol of meretricious femininity which Jo — and Alcott — seems to both despise and envy.
For Jo — and for Louisa May — economic independence becomes the be-all and end-all.
You could say that the writer was, in that determination, an important midwife of Second Wave feminism. Feminist writers from Simone de Beauvoir to Gertrude Stein and Joyce Carol Oates to Elena Ferrante have identified passionately with Jo and Little Women has been described as “the American female myth”.
I think her Yankee feminism is way too limited in its total correlation of personal independence with economic independence and its lack of respect for inter-dependence within families and within societies.
It’s not surprising that Alcott totally wrote off the role of men as providers, given that her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was an idealistic head-the-hell who was wholly unable and unwilling to support his sometimes starving family.
Forget the March girls’ suffocatingly moral father, who went away to minister to the troops in the civil war. Amos Alcott was founding a utopian colony aptly named Fruitlands which lasted all of eight months.
It was Alcott herself who witnessed the Battle of Fredericksburg, from the vantage point of a nurse; her father quipped that he had sent his “only son” to war.
FROM the age of 11, Alcott was writing:
To make those bucks, she wrote thrillers featuring “spies, transvestites, and drug addicts”, according to her biographer, Harriet Reisen.
She wrote Little Women because her publisher asked her for a girls’ story, complaining as she wrote: “I plod away, although I don’t enjoy this sort of thing.”
Why do we assume that Little Women is heart-felt, and its portrait of Jo, sincere?
Is it not just a commercial cover for the more interesting life of Louisa May Alcott, who may have cared less about Mrs Jo Bhaer and her home for errant boys than she did for the “spies, transvestites, and drug addicts” in her early stories, which she described in Little Women as “desecrating the womanliest attributes of a woman’s character”?
Little Women opens today in cinemas nationwide.