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BOOK REVIEW: Little Women By Louisa May Alcott

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and her Mother - Eva La Plante

When I was thirteen years old, I bought a battered old copy of ‘Little Women’ from a school fete because it had a picture of a dark-haired girl reading a book on the cover. 

From the first line, I was captivated. I devoured the story of the four March girls in an afternoon. Like hundreds of other girls, I saw myself reflected in the character of Jo – wild, harum-scarum, and bookish. It is one of the few books that tells the story of a young woman wanting to be a writer and so it has always been very important to me.  

When my daughter turned thirteen a few months ago, I bought her a beautiful illustrated hardback edition of the book as part of her birthday present. Telling her why I had loved Little Women so much when I was her age made me want to read it again, and so I’m ashamed to admit I took the book back from her the moment she opened her present. It is now back on her bedside table, waiting for her to discover this classic tale of four sisters growing up poor in the time of the American Civil War. 

Then, in June, I was in the US for a conference and made a pilgrimage to Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott wrote her beloved novels at a tiny desk in her bedroom. 

Louisa May Alcott was one of the most successful authors of her day, earning more than any of her male contemporaries. Her classic Little Women has been a favourite with many (including me) since it was first published nearly 150 years ago.

In preparation to visiting her house, I decided to read a little more about her life. I chose Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother because the author, Eva LaPlante was a descendant of Abigail May, Louisa’s mother and the inspiration for Marmee, the famous mother of the Little Women. In writing this biography, she drew upon the family’s letters and journals and other private papers, some of which had only recently been discovered in an attic.

Louisa’s father has long been credited with being the primary shaping influence on her, but this biography shakes that assumption and examines the key role her mother had in her life. 

Abigail May was certainly a fascinating woman, who fought for women’s suffrage and an end to slavery. Her life, and the life of her four daughters, is brought to vivid life and really helps to illuminate Little Women and Louisa May Alcott’s other wonderful books. 

Another of my favourite books by Louisa May Alcott is Eight Cousins, and I was amazed to realise that there was a sequel called Rose in Bloom. I bought a battered old copy in Powell's, the world's largest bookstore, in Portland, Oregon, while I was there. I can't wait to read it!

Meanwhile, I loved my literary pilgrimage to Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts. It was just so fascinating to see the tiny grey silk dress Louisa's sister Anna wore at her wedding (she was the inspiration for Meg in the book and her wedding is described at the end of Little Women), and the paintings on the walls by her sister May (Amy in the book). Her writing desk was so small, and it was easy to imagine Louisa crouched there, scribbling away with her ink-stained fingers. 

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