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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. 

SPOTLIGHT: My List of Best Feminist Reads

Friday, March 10, 2017

I recently asked what people would like to see me blogging about on Facebook, and among some great suggestions was one asking me to list my favourite feminist literature.

So I spent some time quietly thinking about this and slowly began to put together a list of books which I felt had helped shape me as a feminist. 

After I posted my list, Stephanie Dowrick suggested that I should add a definition of what I mean by 'feminist literature' - and also quite rightly pointed out how many gaps there are in my reading. I agreed most humbly. My aim for this list was always that it would be an ongoing project, with me adding books as I read or remember them, and taking suggestions to widen my knowledge. I have already got compiled a long list of books I must read, and am hoping to add a new book or two every month. So please feel free to leave a suggestion for me in the comments section below. 

So what do I mean by 'feminist fiction'?

I was brought up by my mother - a brilliant, strong-willed and wise woman - to believe that women are entitled to the same rights and liberties as men, and have the same potential for intellectual and moral strength. I have always passionately believed in fighting to ensure the political, social, and economic quality of all humans, regardless of gender, race, spiritual beliefs or sexual orientation.   

I am proud that my books have been identified by many readers as being feminist. Most recently, Jack Zipes - the world's foremost fairy tale scholar - wrote of my work: "Kate Forsyth is one of the leading feminist writers of fairy tales in Australia. In recent years she has published a notable series of historical fairy-tale novels based on ‘Rapunzel’, ‘All-Fur’, and ‘Beauty and the Beast’. They include Bitter Greens (2012), The Wild Girl (2013), and The Beast’s Garden (2015). All of them are complex feminist adaptations that shed light on intrepid women in historical events that test their compassion and fortitude."

I love this endorsement so much because I feel it recognises something of what I am trying to do in my fiction. That is to celebrate and illuminate the lives of women, both in the past and today, to help my readers understand some of the costs and consequences of gender inequality, and to inspire them to strive harder for such basic rights as creative freedom, economic independence, political power, and universal respect. 

So - for me - this is a list of books which I feel have been important to me in my personal struggle for women's rights and liberties; and which I hope will help and inspire others. My intention is for the list to be - with your help - an ever-growing and evolving thing of beauty.

Most of these books are fiction, simply because that is my own great love, but I have decided to widen the scope of my list to include essays, poems, and non-fiction works as well. So please, help me! What should I be reading?

Five Go to Treasure Island – Enid Blyton
When I was a kid growing up, my sister and I wanted to be just like George – strong, fearless, truthful and just as good as a boy. There were not that many heroines like George all the way back then.

Emily of New Moon – L.M. Montgomery
My favourite L.M. Montgomery book, I loved it because the heroine wanted to be a writer. She was clever and determined and did not want to marry if it was going to stand in the way of her ambition.

I also love Anne of Green Gables, of course, and one of her lesser-known books, The Blue Castle, also has to be included on my list

Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
I loved the character of Jo so much. She seemed just like me – untidy, dreamy, and always scribbling away at a story. I also love Eight Cousins!

The Mists of Avalon – Marion Zimmer Bradley
This was the first fantasy book I ever read where it was the woman’s tale that was the focus. A touchstone book for me. 

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte
A powerful novel about domestic abuse in 19th century England, with a heartbreaking denouement. 

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte 
Still one of my all-time favourite books – I try and re-read it every few years. 

The Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
The story of ‘Jane Eyre’ retold from the point of view of the mad wife in the attic. So clever! 

Persuasion – Jane Austen
My favourite Jane Austen novel – the story of a young woman learning to speak out for herself. I would also include all of Jane Austen's other books, including - of course - Pride & Prejudice.

The Awakening - Kate Chopin
I read this in my first degree, and have never forgotten the effect it had on me. A landmark work of early feminism (published in 1899).

The Yellow Wallpaper - Charlotte Perkins Gilman
A 6,000 word short story published in 1892 that describes a woman's slow descent into madness after being confined to a room on a 'rest cure',  a common prescription for women in the 19th century. Unsettling and powerful. 

Precious Bane - Mary Webb
This is one of my all-time favourite books & am always pressing it upon my friends, insisting they read it. 

A Room of Her Own – Virginia Woolf
I carry this book in my heart. It had a profound influence on me and my determination to shape my own life.

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
The only novel written by the American poet, and published under a pseudonym in 1963. Sylvia Plath committed suicide a month after its UK publication. I also love her poetry, particularly Ariel.

Transformations - Anne Sexton
A dark and powerful collection of poems inspired by fairy tales. I also really love 'Her Kind':

The Color Purple - Alice Walker 
Another all-time favourite book! It never fails to dazzle and move me.

I Know Why A Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
A heart-rending memoir of the poet’s life.

Stravinsky’s Lunch – Drusilla Modjeska

A fascinating book on the lives of women’s artists. 

Women Who Run with the Wolves - Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Myths and Stories of the Archetypal Woman - a book I have dipped into again many times. 

The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the 19th Century Literary Imagination - Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar  
Hugely influential book of feminist re-readings of writers such as Charlotte Bronte, Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson. Fuelled my fascination with the Victorian era.  

Alias Grace - Margaret Atwood
My favourite book by Margaret Atwood, this tells the story of a young woman accused of murder.

Prodigal Summer – Barbara Kingsolver
Such a beautiful and wise book.

Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier

The story of Mary Anning, the young woman who discovered dinosaur fossils at Lyme Regis.

Possession – A.S. Byatt
The story of a love affair between Victorian poets.

Fingersmith - Sarah Waters

The contrasting lives of two young women in Victorian Britain - a tour-de-force!

The Signature of All Things - Elizabeth Gilbert

A tour de force! Tells the story of a brilliant, unconventional woman in the 19th century who studies lichen in order to understand the world.

There are, of course, many thousands more ... and as I read them or remember them, I will add them to my list!

Please feel free to make suggestions below!

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