Tanya Sweeney: Little Women’s big ideas still relevant in today’s world
"You are the gull, Jo, strong and wild, fond of the storm and the wind, flying far out to sea, and happy all alone."
When I read Little Women at around 9 or 10 years old (sandwiched inbetween Roald Dahl’s The Twits and a premature peek at Judy Blume’s Forever), I had no real idea what was really at the heart of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
To me, it was about sisterly love and very four different girls getting along together under the one roof, with a lad next door sort of in love with all of them. Later on in the book, romance finds the March girls in very different ways; each of them is drawn to, or pushes against, domesticity. At 10, you don’t really understand that girls can and do struggle trying to find their place in the world.
It was only a few years later, when I revisited the book as a teenager, that I understood that Little Women is primarily about how women can, should and want to be. Later again, the book revealed yet more subtext: one woman’s version of an ideal life is no greater or smaller than anyone else’s. Leaving the cosiness of the family you grew up in is often hard. And ambition comes in many different shades.
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And the book is likely to be retold in a fresh light thanks to Greta Gerwig’s forthcoming adaptation. After the success of Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird, she was always going to take on a formidable and significant follow-up project. And a 21st century rinse of Alcott’s post-Civil War classic was always going to turn heads.
Happily for Gerwig, she didn’t have to tamper too much with the original, as those themes are as resonant now as they’ve ever been.
The Marches are dealing with financial austerity of their own, and the uncertainty looms large over everyone in the house. Jo is our formidable heroine (played by Saoirse Ronan in Gerwig’s adaptation), bursting with creativity and fiery opinions; the one most female readers likely feel a kinship with.
Meg (Emma Watson), working as a governess, eventually marries penniless John, and would-be artist Amy (Florence Pugh) gets a schooling from her elderly Aunt March (Meryl Streep) on why she needs to marry well. And poor Beth (Eliza Scanlan)… well, after lagging “behind” for so long as a homebird, she finds herself the one forging ahead, in a way.
There are so many ideas about femininity and growing up in Little Women, and so many questions posed, it’s hard to know where to begin. Now, as then, they are all still worthy of being asked. Can you marry someone who asked your sister first? Does marrying ‘well’ involve money or feelings? If you don’t become a wife, what becomes of you? Is forging a living as a writer harder if you’re a woman? Why do you need to marry someone, anyway? Does being ambitious and making something of yourself make you happier? Does a good book have to end on a positive note?
In some ways, it’s strange how we are still asking some of these questions, particularly around marriage. Little Women does present an alternative to settling down, but in the main, the March sisters are still obsessed with the idea of wifely duty and homemaking arts. Centuries on, unmarried women are still tainted with ‘otherness’, and marriage is, for better or worse, still seen as some kind of societal ideal for women.
Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since Alcott’s times, and had Jo March existed today, she’d probably be the toast of New York along with Sally Rooney and Phoebe Waller-Bridge (revisiting the book even more recently, it’s Aunt March, the caustic spinster, who turned my head for the first time).
There’s a lot of eating, drinking and chewing in Little Women, some of it too tough or rich to swallow. Ultimately though, there’s a cosy and comfortable veneer to the waxing and waning of the March sisters’ varying fortunes. They always have each other, which is the sweetest, though most potent, message of all.
Timothee Chalamet aside, the Instagram generation will probably find plenty to like and relate to in Gerwig’s retelling of Little Women.
Yet how striking, and maybe odd, that we women are still on the same page, all these years later.