Meg, Jo, Beth and Me

Elaine Showalter

Who would have thought it? Little Women is on the American bestseller list again, with the name ‘Winona Ryder’ over the title instead of Louisa May Alcott, as if she had written the book. But maybe Ryder deserves top billing, for pulling people into the movies to see Alcott’s March sisters updated for the Nineties. Directed by Gillian Armstrong of My Brilliant Career, with Susan Sarandon as Marmee, the film has made Alcott not only relevant but even exciting for a new generation. In the wake of its success in the States, there are a slew of novelisations, adaptations for very young readers, and even a brand-new Alcott novel on the way – an unpublished thriller called A Long Fatal Love Chase, written in 1866 and rejected then as too sensational.

Kent Bicknell, the New England headmaster who heard that the manuscript was for sale and raised the money to buy it, sees publication as an overdue act of reparation. ‘I think it’s an appropriate feminist act to restore her text to its original form,’ he told the New Yorker. ‘It was rejected by a man, who didn’t really appreciate it in the first place.’ Not even Little Women has been overwhelmed with masculine approbation. To be sure, Amory Blaine boasts in This Side of Paradise of having read it twice, but on the whole there can be no other book so loved by one sex and ignored by the other. In Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Simone de Beauvoir writes: ‘There was one book in which I believed I had caught a glimpse of my future self: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott ... I identified passionately with Jo, the intellectual ... She wrote; in order to imitate her more completely, I composed two or three short stories.’ What Jean-Paul Sartre thought of Little Women has gone unrecorded.

The BBC has filmed Little Women once; Hollywood twice. The 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn as a coltish, high-spirited Jo, won the Oscar for Best Screenplay Adaptation, and is still a critical favourite. The same screenwriting team plus Andrew Solt wrote Mervyn LeRoy’s 1949 remake, with June Allyson as Jo, Janet Leigh as Meg, Elizabeth Taylor as Amy and Margaret O’Brien as Beth. Peter Lawford played a glamorous Laurie – indeed, the screenplay describes Laurie as looking ‘not unlike our idea of Edgar Allan Poe’.

Armstrong’s Little Women is the most British and Pickwickian of the movie versions, set in a vague 19th-century neverland which seems barely American. The film was actually shot in Vancouver and, with the exception of Mary Wickes as Aunt March, the characters speak in polished mid-Atlantic accents instead of Alcott’s Yankee vernacular. Laurie’s grandfather is played by John Neville, and the scenes, whether meant for Concord, Boston or New York, have that interchangeable Merchant/Ivory, Masterpiece Theatre look.

The Anglo-American effect isn’t totally off base. Both ‘Marmee’ and Louisa herself thought of the Alcott sisters as American versions of the Brontës, especially after they read Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1856 biography. ‘Read Charlotte Brontë’s life,’ Alcott confided to her journal in 1857. ‘A very interesting but sad one. So full of talent, and after working long, just as success, love and happiness come, she dies. Wonder if I shall ever be famous enough for people to care to read my story and struggles. I can’t be a C.B. But I may do a little something yet.’

Dickens’s influence was even greater, more than on any other American novelist, and only Alcott’s stigmatisation as a writer of girls’ fiction can have prevented American literary scholars from studying the thematic, stylistic and cultural echoes of Dickens in her work. Both the novel and movie show the March sisters organising their own Pickwick Society, and taking the names of Dickens’s characters. Alcott was deeply disappointed, however, when she actually heard Dickens read in London in 1865; she found him a ‘red-faced man, with false teeth, and the voice of a worn-out actor’, who ‘had his scanty grey hair curled’. ‘Nothing was abrupt, nothing in a hurry, and nowhere did you see the desperately go-ahead style of life that we have,’ she reported to her father Bronson on her first trip to England. ‘The very cows in America look fast ... but here the plump cattle stood up to their knees in clover, with a reposeful air that is very soothing.’ No one, however, who reads the letters and life of ‘topsy-turvy’ Louisa, as she called herself, or the lurid stories she published under the pseudonym of A.P. Bernard can imagine Alcott truly enjoying what was steady and slow.

Alcott used another English text, Pilgrim’s Progress, to structure the first 24 chapters of Little Women, which were published in October 1868. She was desperate to earn money for her perennially needy family (Bronson Alcott, a minor and very eccentric Transcendentalist philosopher, was incapable of making a buck). Success was immediate; and she rapidly wrote Part II, published in April 1869, acceding to readers’ wishes that the little women should marry despite her own distaste for women’s traditional destiny. Maybe the sequel should be called ‘Wedding Marches’, she sardonically told her publisher. In the United States, the two parts have been published as a single volume since the 1880s, taking Jo from the age of 15 to 35. In Canada, Britain and other European countries, however, the book is often published as two separate volumes: Little Women and Good Wives (a moralising title Alcott would have despised) in England; Petites Américaines and Le Docteur March marie ses filles (how patriarchal can you get?) in France.

In the New York Times Anne Hollander has argued that the movie’s explicit feminism, abolitionism and colloquialisms reflect the present decade rather than the novel’s original spirit; but the Alcotts – and the Marches – were politically correct avant la lettre, and Alcott’s use of American colloquialism is, if anything, rather lost in the film. She meant to write in the American vernacular, to give the Marches the distinctive accents of American girls rather than the bland language of Charlotte Yonge’s heroines or the heightened rhetoric of her own sensation stories. In 1880, however, Alcott’s publishers issued a gala illustrated edition of Little Women, and took the occasion to correct and tame many of the stylistic idiosyncrasies of the original. Most readers know the book through this toned-down edition, in which Marmee has gone from being ‘stout’ to ‘noble-looking’, while Laurie is no longer a swarthy and effeminate music-lover with a ‘long nose’, who is just Jo’s height, but rather a dashing young fellow with a ‘handsome nose’ who is romantically ‘taller’.

In the new film, Winona Ryder makes a charming, but diminutive and unchallenging Jo, sparkly and tomboyish, not the clumsy, brooding intellectual with volcanic fantasies who inspired writers like Beauvoir. Meg, the most conventional of the sisters, is given some depth by the sweet-faced actress Trini Alvarado. The role of hard-headed, narcissistic Amy, who gets everything she wants including Laurie, and the secret favour of many women readers, is shared by the gifted Kirsten Dunst (from Interview with the Vampire) and Samantha Mathis. Most interestingly, Beth is played by Claire Danes, a 15-year-old actress in her first movie role, who has been the cult star in the States of a remarkably moving and well-written prime-time TV series, My So-Called Life. The series, about a high-school girl, her family and her friends, boasted a combination of literacy, freshness, insight and acting that made one fear for its life, and indeed it has been suspended after 19 episodes by ABC, despite the passionate efforts of fans, organised through computer networks in America Online, to secure its survival. Danes is not conventionally pretty – think of a very young Glenda Jackson – but has great intelligence and subtlety. This Beth is not a frail and wispy consumptive, but more a sturdy drudge, who dies in the aftermath of a bout of scarlet fever caught nursing German immigrants. If Little Women had been written by Chekhov, Beth would be Sonya; and there is indeed a poignant scene in which she tells Jo that although she likes to be at home, she does not like to be left behind. Dying young will at least mean that for once she is the first to leave.

The film concentrates on the evolution of Little Women itself: how Jo, broken-hearted over Beth’s death, and stung by the criticism of Professor Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne, very sexy), who disapproves of her first unpublished sensation novel, sits down to write the book we are seeing, and even receives the galleys entitled Little Women by Josephine March. Turning the story into a biopic like this is an effective, if obvious, narrative device.

Ironically, A Long Fatal Love Chase, the rejected sensation novel Louisa May Alcott dashed off just before she embarked on Little Women, has been disinterred, and will soon be published. According to the New York Times and the New Yorker, Alcott’s executors, the Pratt family (descendants of ‘Meg’, Anna Alcott Pratt), decided in 1991 to take the 284-page manuscript out of the Houghton Library at Harvard, where it has been for many years, and to place it on consignment with a New York bookdealer, Ximenes. There it was seen by a private Alcott collector, Kent Bicknell, the co-founder and headmaster of a progressive private school in New Hampshire. Bicknell was able to raise the money (reputedly $50,000) to buy the manuscript and copyright, and then sold the book to Random House through his enthusiastic agent Lane Zachary, another Alcott buff, for what is described as a seven-figure advance. (Eat your heart out, Martin Amis.)

Part of the mystery is why the Pratt family, and the Houghton Library, so underestimated the worth of the manuscript; by these accounts, Bicknell has made a killing (he’s giving some of the money to his school, and some to the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association), and Random House will be sure to cash in on the current Alcott boom. I was certainly kicking myself when I saw the story in the Times: I read A Long Fatal Love Chase (also called ‘The Long Love Chase’) at Harvard many years ago, commented on it briefly in my edition of Alcott’s adult fiction (Alternative Alcott, 1988), and thought about editing it for publication; but that looked like a long and relatively thankless task, especially since the copyright and serious money were firmly in the hands of the Pratts.

My regrets, however, must be minimal compared to those of the great Alcott scholar Madeleine Stern, one of the two dealers and editors chiefly responsible for identifying and reprinting Alcott’s pseudonymous thrillers in the past twenty years. Stern wrote extensively about A Long Fatal Love Chase in 1987, in her Introduction to A Modern Mephistopheles, the novel Alcott published anonymously in the No Name series in 1888. While Alcott wrote of the latter novel as a revision of the former, it is really an entirely different work; only the inspiration of Goethe’s Faust is common to both texts.

Stern explains that Alcott dashed off A Long Fatal Love Chase during the last two weeks of August 1866, just after her return from a year in Europe, where she had been the paid companion to a young invalid. Still a fledgling writer of 33, Alcott jumped at the invitation of the Boston publisher James Elliott to write a 200-page novel for $125. She hired a girl to help care for her ailing mother, and wrote the story at night, putting into it all the imaginative violence that had characterised her adolescent dramas, but Elliott ‘would not have it’, she noted in her journal, ‘saying it was too long & too sensational. So I put it away & fell to work on other things.’ Stern points out that the novel’s settings were drawn from Alcott’s recent visits to Paris, Nice and Wiesbaden, while the homage to Goethe expresses a long-felt admiration. She had visited Goethe’s house in Frankfurt on her trip.

A Long Fatal Love Chase is a feminist cross between The Tempest, one of Alcott’s favourite Shakespeare plays, and Faust, her favourite classic. The heroine Rosamond lives on an island off the coast of England with her Prospero-like grandfather. She is dying of boredom and isolation, and in the beginning dreams of making a deal with the devil in order to get out. ‘I often feel as if I’d gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of excitement.’ No sooner is he summoned than he arrives, in the person of Phillip Tempest, a dashing adventurer who has ‘become unutterably tired of everything under the sun’. He knows ‘the art of playing on that delicate instrument, a woman’s heart’, and Rosamond hasn’t got a chance against him. ‘No hope for you,’ he tells her, ‘when Faust & Mephistopheles are one’ – when the philosopher and the seducer are the same man. In the wildly improbable Gothic plot, Tempest wins Rosamund in a card game, elopes with her after a fake wedding ceremony, pursues her around Europe with stops in a convent and a madhouse, and commits suicide over her dead body, exclaiming: ‘Mine first – mine last – mine even in the grave.’

Bicknell describes the book as a surefire bestseller, a book ‘for people at the beach’, but I’m not entirely sure he’s right. A Long Fatal Love Chase certainly has a lot of twists and spills, but Alcott’s lurid manner, subversive as it may have been in sober Concord, was not her best. She was always dismissive of Little Women, but it is her finest book, a classic American novel that deserves to be read alongside Twain. Rosamond’s adventures may help to while away an hour or two on the Costa Brava, but Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth are characters who will endure for ever. Let’s hope, anyway, that this unexpected Alcott revival, with all its Nineties hype, will attract many thousands of new readers. Maybe some of them will even be men.