Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
As I've mentioned before, when I was eight or so my mother bought me a box set of Louisa May Alcott's novels. I never read them as obsessively as I did the Little House books, but I have probably read Little Women at least twenty times. I've known Meg, Jo, Beth & Amy almost all my life. As soon as I sit down and open the book, I am right back in their world and their lives. I wore out the original copy from the set, and it was only when I bought a replacement that I realized how heavily the copy I knew had been edited, to remove much of the moralizing, particularly about alcohol (like the discussion at Meg's wedding). When I re-read now, I come across scenes or lines that still seem new because they were missing from the familiar version that I read so often.
I know many people who never re-read a book, because "I've read it, I know what happens, why would I ever need to read it again?" I admit that I've read some books so many times that I feel like I've worn them out, but someday I'll open them up again. In general, though, a familiar book can seem quite different, because I'm reading it in a different context or from a new point of view. While I enjoyed the story of Little Women just as much this time around, I was also reading it in light of The Pilgrim's Progress, which I had just finished. No wonder that book felt so familiar. It is one of the major themes of the first part of Little Women, from the opening chapter, where the girls accept their mother's suggestion that her "little pilgrims" should "begin again, not in play, but in earnest, and see how far on you can get before father comes home." And of course in the chapters that follow their adventures echo Christian's, and there are constant references and allusions to Bunyan's work. My favorite was naming John Brooke "Great-Heart," as he prepares to escort Mrs. March to Washington, much as Bunyan's character guided Christiana and her children through their travels.
Perhaps because I was looking for Bunyan, I noticed for the first time how many other authors and books the March family reads. I first learned about Mary Elizabeth Braddon from Alcott, and I picked up Lady Audley's Secret in part because Fanny in An Old-Fashioned Girl curls up with it on a snowy day. In Little Women alone, there are references to Sir Walter Scott, Charlotte Yonge, Shakespeare, Maria Edgeworth, Fanny Burney, Goethe, Boswell and Johnson, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Hannah More, and of course Alcott's beloved Charles Dickens. And if there is no overt reference to Jane Austen, I don't think I ever appreciated before how perfectly Aunt March plays Lady Catherine de Bourgh to Meg's Elizabeth, with John Brooke as a much sweeter but much poorer Darcy.
In my bowdlerized original version, it was never clear exactly what Marmee is doing in "the rooms," where she works "getting the boxes ready to go tomorrow" and "cutting out blue flannel jackets." Now I gloat over knowing that, like her real-life model Alcott's mother, Marmee works with the New England Women's Auxiliary Association, supporting the work of the Sanitary Commission in the Civil War. The Alcotts' cousin, Abigail May, was the head of the Boston branch and a tireless worker for the cause. She is mentioned twice in connection with the work in George Templeton Strong's Civil War diary (though he disapproved of her as a strong-minded woman). Likewise, I didn't know for years that the Fair where Amy organizes the flower booth is raising funds for work among the South's newly-emancipated slaves, nor that at the end of the book Plumfield accepts a mixed-race child, "a merry little quadroon, who could not be taken in elsewhere." I would love to know the reasoning behind these editorial decisions. It can't just have been about shortening the book.
It was also interesting to read this again after having read The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott (Joel Myerson & Daniel Shealy, editors). Through her letters, I felt like I got to know something of the models for the Marches. And in Amy's letters home from Europe, I could see echoes of Alcott's own, particularly from a trip abroad in 1870-1871, which took her to Vevey, where Amy and Laurie meet again. I was reminded too of Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, with Amy and Flo bouncing in rapture from side to side of the railway carriage, and Uncle Carrol rushing out to buy his dog-skin gloves and be shaved à la mutton-chop, so he could fancy "that he looked like a true Briton."
I recently read about someone who loved Little Women as a child but found it unreadable as an adult, because of all the boring pilgrims' talk. I'm glad to find that I still love it, even all the moralizing, lectures and life-lessons. I think that's because, like Jo's unsensational but successful stories, "There is truth in it . . . humor and pathos make it alive."