Reading this book again after an interval of some forty years was much like returning to a place known well in childhood, but not seen since. Memory distorts the landscape and the size and the shape of things contained within it. The place is both totally familiar and completely unknown at the same time.
Little Women is one of the first novels that I remember reading. I can still see the book – a red hardback with small print, the dust jacket long gone. It took me to a time and a place that was completely foreign to me. I knew nothing about 1860s Concord, Massachusetts, about the American Civil War, about what it would be like to have an absent clergyman father, about having to earn a living at a young age. Indeed, when I first read this book, all of the March sisters seemed very grown up to me. What I related to was not the specific circumstances of their lives, but being a girl, growing up, wanting something more than I had and not knowing what the future would bring. I read Little Women and its sequels several times between the ages of 9 and 14 and the experiences of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy became part of my life.
Re-reading the novel forty years on, the first thing I noticed was how very young the March girls are. The next thing I noticed was the pervasiveness of the moralising. Marmee is, of course, the chief proponent of right and proper behaviour, with every negative experience turned into a teaching moment. This was not something I noticed at all when I was a child, so the moral lessons worked either subliminally or not at all. Another thing I noticed was how time flew by, particularly in the second part of the book (that section which I knew previously as Good Wives). I also noticed the emphasis on gender roles. Even though Jo wants to be a writer and Amy an artist and both girls engage in those activities, the proper role for girls of being a good wife and a good mother is emphasised again and again. Given the period in which the novel was written this is not surprising, but it is not what I remember of the book from my childhood.
Coming back to Little Women after all of this time has reminded me what I loved about the book when as a child. It has also given me a different perspective on the novel. For example, I’ve spent forty years not liking Amy March (and thinking that Laurie made a mistake in marrying her). I don’t feel that way anymore. I used to think that Marmee was the ideal mother. Now I think that I would have been driven crazy if my mother had had a moral lesson for every occasion.
I’m very glad to have re-read this novel. I’m also glad to have done so as a buddy read with my friend Lynn. I don’t know that I would give the book four stars if it was not a childhood favourite, as there is no doubt that it is very dated. However, the fact that it has been a treasured literary experience for more than forty years keeps it firmly in four star territory.