- How to be Well Read – Winnie the Pooh
- How to be Well Read – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- How to be Well Read – Little Women
I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to try to become well read. I understand that it all seems so daunting, almost overwhelming. You can feel like you need to be well read, or at the very least highly educated, before you can even attempt to read classic literature. But you don’t. It’s easier than you think. So where should you begin? This series is here to help you, to walk you through the veritable minefield that is classic literature.
Why should you choose to read classic literature? Classic literature is the best of the best from a bygone era. It offers a glimpse into our former social habits and customs, the foundations of our modern society and intellectual reasoning. In coming to understand those times and people, you will know our modern life better.
Louisa May Alcott was a maverick thinker, activist and writer. She fervently believed in and actively worked for women’s suffrage, the abolition of slavery and integrated schooling – boys and girls, blacks and whites educated together. She was a woman who was unafraid of the world, or of being alone in it. Famously a spinster, a fate worse than death for most women of the 1860s, Louisa May was unconcerned and even uninterested in others opinions of her unmarried status and explained it once in a interview saying “I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man”.
She came by these feelings and beliefs quiet naturally. The bohemian world in which she was raised was filled with forward thinkers, liberal minds and unorthodox educators; most notably her father, the philosopher, educator and influential Transcendentalist, Bronson Alcott. Bronson surrounded his young family with the people who would help to direct and shape the modern world, people like Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller. So it may come as a surprise that she should write a book full of such strong conventional, even traditional values.
Little Women was not Alcott’s first book, but it is by far her most well known. Considered her seminal work, Little Women was originally published in two parts in 1868 and 1869, part two was titled Good Wives in the UK and Europe and still is in most cases — an important fact if you’re looking for just one book, when what you really need is both books. It revolves around the life of four sisters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March and is based heavily on her own life in Concord, Massachusetts in the family home Orchard House.
Alcott’s simple tale of four girls growing-up, learning to love each other and themselves, follows the group from early adolescence (Meg 16, Jo 15, Beth 13 and Amy 12) through to adulthood. Alcott’s moral message and the themes of family, god and simple pleasures can frequently feel a bit heavy handed to the point of preachy, but her charming characters, their fun and lively society and friends more than make-up for the moral battering you sometimes feel you’re receiving.
Main character Jo is the centre of this tale and obviously meant to be Alcott herself. This rambunctious, curious tomboy loves writing plays to be performed at home with her sisters for the sparse but appreciative audience of her Mother, Father and maid Hannah Mullet. These plays are a forerunner to the sensational stories she will eventually write and sell to the tabloid papers of the day, and form the cornerstone of her writer’s education.
Jo is the down to earth and sensible, but passionate, sister with sparse physical possessions and a grumpy distrust of physical beauty or societal attributes. Strong and independent, it is easy to see early feminist attitudes in the lovely Jo, although Alcott wouldn’t see that herself. Jo is all strong character with a wide stubborn streak, prickly on the outside, but tender, caring and kind on the inside. Although she tries to hide this softer side, all those who know her best help her protect this. Her sisters’ characters are all significantly different than Jo’s, which allows Alcott to teach her moral lessons. Each sister has a different strength and each suffers from a different character flaw.
Meg is the natural mother and her goals and desires mostly revolve around home, husband and children, but with a desire for material things that she will always struggle with.
Youngest sister Amy is blessed with natural grace and beauty. She is also possessed of a true artistic talent and instinctively understands and respects those little niceties of society that make her charming in company. Unlike Jo she understands the need to return social visits and be polite, holding her tongue rather than blurt out honest opinion, things Jo just can’t seem to comprehend. But Amy is vain and strutting, spoiled by her sisters and her parents, who all indulge her in her little vanities.
Middle sister Beth is painfully shy and stoic, always labouring to ease her sister’s burden. She loves with an open innocent heart and is the person Jo will try to emulate but will never quiet succeed. Although her shyness prevents her from truly experiencing the fullness of life and love, Beth’s journey is fated to end far too soon. Beth and Jo have the special bond between helpless babe and protector, with both girls alternatively being either protector or vulnerable child. Jo and Beth share the most emotionally wrenching moment in the book and in their singular moment of need they will both comfort and be comforted until the end.
Although Little Women can feel a bit preachy and Christian-centric, the basic tale is one of love, self-improvement and family and is well presented. The Marches are a strong, close, loving family with their share of trials and tribulations. Alcott’s ability to convey the young girls’ personal catastrophe of not having the right gloves or dress is entertaining and enchanting and will evoke your own personal memories of adolescent devastation upon discovering a blemish on Prom Night or spinach stuck between your teeth on a first date.
The images and ideas are unmistakably of a century long gone and a life most of us wouldn’t even recognise, offering us a glimpse of the beginnings of recognisable contemporary social attitudes and the start of the classlessness and equality that society has worked so hard to finally achieve.