Little Women has always been a book that has mattered to me. Last week I finally managed to see the Greta Gerwig adaptation of this classic loved by generations of readers and it made me realise once more why it matters so much. It is a story full of love, understanding and ultimately of tolerance too. As I write this the new Empathy Lab collections have been announced in preparation for Empathy Day in June. These books are titles that offer children a way to understand people different to themselves, to respect and value others and to develop empathy skills. It occurred to me that had such a list existed in the 1800s perhaps Little Women should have been included!
When I was about ten or eleven, my Mum said that she thought I might be ready to read one of her own favourites from childhood. It had been a present from her older sister who coincidentally had given me my much loved copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Mum then handed me a fat, rather battered looking hardback book with slightly discoloured pages. It had, I thought, a rather ‘grown up’ look to it. The book was Little Women by Louisa M Alcott. I tentatively took the book, honestly not sure what to expect. Although very different to anything I had read before, I became engrossed. The language and content bore little resemblance to my own life but something about it touched me. I think it was partly that I knew my Mum had loved it. The handing on of this story about a mother and her daughters felt a little like a rite of passage. I wanted so much to be like Jo, thought that my Mum probably liked Meg best and we both agreed that Amy was infuriating. We talked about the book together and I went on to read the rest of the series. This was a story shared and loved together. I know that I am not alone in this experience. Little Women is a book that is recommended and handed on to the next generation and sometimes it is the sharing that makes it special. When we recommend a book we are really recommending what is important to us. Little Women is the type of book that is shared as we grow into adolescence therefore we grow alongside the characters so it feels even more relevant.
Some have said that they found the non linear narrative of the new film a bit confusing but I think it gave it added poignancy. Greta Gerwig has captured in her adaptation the way in which the four adult sisters retain the core essence of themselves as children. As my own sister who I watched the film with commented, “They’re the same, just a little more weary.” We laughed as we recognised ourselves in that description and just like the March sisters we reflected on our shared childhoods and teen years and how little we have changed really. That is one of the key themes of the book and the film and the reason I think it matters. The sisters are very different characters with different hopes and dreams so inevitably their lives will follow different paths. As the story unfolds they learn to respect each other’s hopes and dreams. Just because their dreams are different does not mean they are not equally important. Yet throughout all their experiences Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy are still, deep down, the same people they have always been.
Throughout the book the impetuous Jo tries to learn to control her temper with mixed results. She is famously tested by Amy’s wilful and selfish actions at one point. Yet the two sisters do learn to forgive each other and mature into a trusting and loving relationship. A wonderful example of understanding and developing empathy. The book itself opens with Jo bemoaning the fact that they will not be receiving many Christmas presents because they are “poor”. A little later in the book the girls are asked by their mother to donate their Christmas breakfast to the Hummel family who are in dire need. The girls oblige and troop off together to help. As a child I remember being impressed with this act of generosity and wondered if I could manage to be so kind. Now as an adult I think it shows great empathy with others in difficult situations.
The new film version portrays these episodes as childhood memories looked back upon by the young women they have become. We witness how experience shapes us and this, I think, gives the story a different feel to the original. The actors caught the defining characteristics of the sisters beautifully and in a couple of cases gave them a little extra. Emma Watson’s Meg had a little more joy about her than some previous versions had and for the first time Amy, as portrayed by Florence Pugh, developed a dignity as she grew up and I found her a much more sympathetic character.
As many critics have already commented upon, the ending as written by Gerwig is thoughtful, ambiguous and clever. Personally I loved it. The idea of a book within the book and the merging of Jo’s character with that of the author appeals to the book lover in me. A story about the ordinary, the everyday and the seemingly unimportant has become a book that is cherished many, many years after it was written. There has to be a good reason for that. Perhaps that reason is that we all need a little kindness, hope and empathy.