Mary Kenny: Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy...
Published 150 years ago, Little Women is now being seen as a feminist text
Saoirse Ronan - probably the most famous Irish thespian in the world - is due to make an exciting new movie. On an exciting old theme. Saoirse is to take the role of Jo, in a new version of Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig: Louisa May Alcott's immortal story - never out of print since it was first published 150 years ago - for a feminist age.
Little Women has been called the most important novel ever written for American women - and not just Americans. It's sold millions of copies in over 50 languages: the Japanese have done a 76-part TV adaptation of it, and there have been numerous movies, plays, and radio adaptations. According to a recent essay by Joan Acocella in the highbrow New Yorker, the story has influenced female writers from Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood to Susan Sontag, Simone de Beauvoir, A.S. Byatt and Anne Tyler.
What makes Little Women so compelling? Like so many, I loved it when I first read it (and the sequels) as a youngster, but re-reading it now, it seems rather moralistic, even pious. The four March girls - Meg (16), Jo (15), Beth (13) and Amy (12) - and their mother, the angelic "Marmee", are poor but high-minded, living their lives in an all-female household while their father is away serving as a chaplain in the American Civil War.
They are poor because their father lost his property to some swindler, but never mind, they have each other, and they have The Pilgrim's Progress to guide them. The tone is the pursuit of Protestant virtue - being kind to those who are even poorer, understanding that love casts out fear, struggling with one's own imperfections: both Meg and Amy have great tussles with vanity and envy, for they can't afford any of the pretty things that richer teenagers possess, and even the saintly Marmee reveals that she struggles every day to repress her anger.
The values embedded in Little Women would surely seem outdated to young people today - after all, contemporary novels like Sally Rooney's Normal People depict school students having full sexual relationships. How can this Victorian tale of girls talking about the importance of gloves and boys talking about skates and young people saying prim things like, "We don't cheat in America" resonate?
Yet it does. And Little Women has been a template for so many novels and stories ever since. Just like the apparently very different Sex and the City, the four characters represent four types, and even four elements of our own personality. Meg is feminine and responsible; Jo is active and fearless; Beth is altruistic and sweet - always nursing a broken doll or caring for a kitten, and we just know that she is doomed to die young; Amy is pretty, selfish, good-natured and ambitious.
Alcott, who based the story on her family life among four girls, brings out character in every line of dialogue: you always know exactly who is speaking because each character vividly expresses her own personality in speech. And, moreover, even in an age of social media, Little Women is insightful about teenage anxieties - anxiety about not having the right clothes, about being bullied, or humiliated at school - and about the everyday squabbles of family life.
But the story is now, also, being seen by scholars as an early feminist text - Anne Boyde Rioux, an English professor in New Orleans, has just published a comprehensive study of the whole Little Women canon. Jo is Louisa May Alcott's own autobiographical character, and Louisa May was a committed feminist. Jo is depicted, at several reprises, as "the man of the family", and more than once says she wishes she was a boy. Alcott herself wrote something similar: "I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man's soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman's body… because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with a man."
Jo is clearly a key study for transgender politics - the authorial voice believing she is a man in a woman's body - and for 'queer theory' academics too: she's fallen in love with women, not men, so she's really gay.
Alcott - who had to publish her early writings under the gender-neutral pseudonym of 'A.M. Barnard' - initially wrote Little Women for money, and she was shrewd enough to know her market: while repelled by marriage herself, the shoals of letters she received from fans begged the author for a suitable match for Jo, and so the cuddly, overweight, older German Professor Bhaer appears, and, actually, seems an entirely plausible choice of spouse.
But you can know too much about the 'sub-text' and the 'dark hinterland' of a great work, and you can spoil an engaging story by over-analysing it. (I embarked on an English degree in mid-life and heard far too much academic nonsense about "Jane Eyre as the metaphor of the governess as Marxist proletariat".) The real secret of Little Women is that it is sincere. Louisa May started on it for commercial reasons, but what flowed from her pen was artistically truthful, and the reader "gets" that.
And Saoirse Ronan will surely bring a depth of interpretation to the character of Jo.