I can’t remember what age I was when I read Little Women but I remember the edition. It was a hardback, part of a children’s classics set that included The Secret Garden. It had an oval frame of colour on the front with a picture of the opening scene and every so often inside there were four colour illustrations. I loved it, the book and the story.
It’s one of those stories that really rewards a reader who returns to it over and over again: there’s always something different to find or another way of looking at the characters and events – and who you identify with, I think, changes a little as well. When I first read it I wanted to be Jo – confident, self-assured and outgoing. The brilliant writer (I also holed up in ‘the attic’, which really was the small office space on the landing upstairs, and wrote books). I also, very secretly, admitted to myself that Meg was also appealing – I wanted her romance rather than Jo’s, someone who was adoring and wanted the security and homeliness of a family, too. I loved the 1994 film with Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon, and always found it a joyful watch. Watching the new film by Greta Gerwig, it was still Jo and Meg. Beth’s never done it for me, too good and bland even before her illness strikes. And Amy’s selfish nastiness was too much for me. Jo, with her hot angry outbursts and instant regret, was more my teenage style.
I taught March a few years ago, by Gwendolyn Brooks, which tells the story of Mr March – who’s always conspicuously absent even after his return from the civil war – and Marmee. Marmee’s character is one that’s fascinated me more as I’ve grown up and become more empathetic. Laura Derne’s characterisation in Gerwig’s film is fabulous. I agree with this article that Marmee is a really interesting feminist character, and I was pleased how much the film brought out feminist issues. That Marmee has to suppress her anger, and is constantly trying to build a better world for her girls despite her inability to affect the society around them, is one of her strongest points. Although sometimes her goodness and community contributions might seem cloying, they’re also a representation of how hard she works to fulfil meaning in her life in the only ways afforded to her.
There’s so much of importance that’s discussed within its couple of hours. Although it’s possible to play the romances as froth and light, Gerwig doesn’t. She emphasises, repeatedly and explicitly (her dialogue is not faithful to the novel but is, somehow, extraordinarily faithful to the spirit of the novel), the economic principles that bound women in marriage for much of western history, and the bargain that women make either to enter into a form of prostitution or poverty. It’s a rare woman who manages to either make her own living or fall in love with a rich man. While Gerwig’s lines don’t always come directly from the novel, the idea of money and marriage runs throughout the novel. In Gerwig’s version, Jo negotiates hard for her copyright just as Alcott did and although the film appears to end with Jo and the Professor agreeing to marry, it also points out the romantic expectations that audiences expect to be fulfilled, even at the end of a story about such an independent woman.
The other thing that might, perhaps, make this even more feminine in its representation is the way Gerwig’s family scenes and dialogue are so realistic. From a family of five (four girls, one boy), I recognised the quick-fire, overlapping ‘jam sessions’ of conversation that take place in living rooms, dining rooms, and the street, where the girls jump from one conversation to another and back again. iI’s brave, and adult, and real, to expect the audience to keep up: both me and my husband came out thinking that we hadn’t seen many films willing to treat dialogue in that realistic fashion, and for me it’s something particularly female in its overlapping and multi-faceted nature.
Yet Jo is also, in some ways, an androgynous figure – in that she refuses to be pinned into traditional female roles in romance, even when Laurie tries his best, and she constantly behaves in a way other characters condemn as tomboyish or unladylike. She’s such a modern character in her passionate enthusiasm, her determination to run (Alcott ran regularly and encouraged readers of her articles to do the same), and her refusal to allow her intellectual passions to be dimmed by relationships: she wants both and she’s forceful and self-confident enough to hold out until she gets what she wants. but the other beauty of the story is that other characters, too, get what they want. Meg in the film says to Jo on marrying John, “Just because my dreams are different than yours, it doesn’t mean they’re unimportant,” and though she struggles with poverty, doesn’t waver in her belief that this is the life she chooses for herself. And that’s feminism, right there, the ability to choose and make decisions freely.