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are a slew of novelisations, adaptations for very young readers, and even a brand-new Alcott novel on the way – an unpublished thriller called A Long Fatal Love Chase, written in 1866 and rejected then as too sensational.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.’

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