“Fresh and full of soul”: the history of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

First published in 1868, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is the coming-of-age story of four sisters in 19th-century New England, beloved by generations of readers. Ahead of the latest adaptation for the big screen, Anne Boyd Rioux, a professor of English, explores how much of Alcott’s life really inspired her novels and why the popularity of the March girls’ story endures

American actresses Frances Dee, Jean Parker, Katharine Hepburn, and Joan Bennett playing the March girls in George Cukor's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women', 1933. (Photo by RKO Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images)

In 1867, Thomas Niles, a partner at publisher Roberts Brothers, wrote to Louisa May Alcott to ask her to write a book “for girls”. She didn’t think much of the idea. “Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters,” she wrote in her journal.

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But her family needed the money, so Alcott began work on a book she at first called The Pathetic Family. When it was published in September 1868, under the title Little Women or, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, it became an instant success. In December, it was published in England as Four Little Women.

Reviewers raved over it, calling it “fresh, sparkling, natural, and full of soul”. They were captivated by the book’s natural language and unaffected portrayal of four very real girls, so unlike many of the pious, preaching novels of the day. British reviewers, however, were less enamoured with the book’s colloquial American language, finding it rather “rough and uncouth”. As one reviewer wrote: “The language is sometimes not such as we should care to hear from the lips of English girls.”

American novelist Louisa May Alcott. (Photo by Getty Images)
American novelist Louisa May Alcott, author of ‘Little Women’. (Photo by Getty Images)

Nonetheless, the book sold rapidly in America and England, appealing to audiences of all ages and both genders. Letters came pouring in from young female readers, in particular, who wanted to know what happened to the March sisters. They especially wanted to know who the girls would marry – “as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life,” Alcott complained in her journal. But she was as eager herself to see how her characters turned out, and this time she welcomed Niles’s request for a second volume. Little Women or, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, Part Second was published in April 1869 in the USA, and a month later, as Little Women Wedded, in England.

The enduring popularity of Alcott’s story

Because Alcott was not on English soil to register her copyright when Little Women was first published there, she held no copyright in England, allowing other publishers to print their own versions under a variety of titles. While the first book was always called Little Women, the second was called Little Women Married, Little Wives, Nice Wives, and, most enduringly, Good Wives. Other changes were minor, including English spelling such as “colour” for “color.” And while the two parts were published in America in one volume from 1880 on, they continue to be published as two volumes in the UK and other countries around the world. Indeed, the novel has been translated into over 50 languages and has been a staple girls’ coming-of-age book for more than 150 years.

One reason for the novel’s enduring popularity is its realism. Based on Alcott’s own family, it was the most lifelike novel for children that many readers had yet encountered. Louisa herself was Jo, while her oldest sister, Anna, became Meg; and her younger sisters Lizzie and May became Beth and Amy, respectively. The Alcott girls called their mother “Marmee”, as the March sisters do in the book (probably pronouncing it ‘Mawmee’ in the New England accent). Alcott later reflected, “we really lived most of it”. Her own life echoes at other points in the story: the play the girls perform at home, Jo’s various adventures as an author, and poor Beth’s illnesses.

Many of the Alcott family’s real experiences were not portrayed in the book. Perhaps the most surprising difference – especially given the novel’s nostalgic associations with home and family – is that the Alcotts moved constantly within Boston and the vicinity, more than 30 times before Louisa was in her mid-twenties. The family was also in frequent danger of being broken up. The girls’ father, transcendentalist philosopher and educator Bronson Alcott, was notoriously unreliable, leaving their mother, Abigail, with the lion’s share of responsibility for the home and the family’s sustenance. When Louisa and Anna were still small, the Temple school, which their father had established in Boston, was forced to close. Bronson Alcott never again held steady employment, believing that God ‘would provide’ if he lived a Christ-like life. And so the family subsisted for many years on meagre food and the charity of others.

When Louisa was 10 years old, Bronson brought the family to a short-lived Utopian community called Fruitlands, in Massachusetts, that went terribly awry due to food shortages. While Bronson contemplated leaving to join the nearby Shakers, his family nearly starved. Abigail eventually packed up the entire family and found them a new home. In subsequent years, she often took in boarders and had to send one or more of the children away to be cared for by relatives. When Anna and Louisa were old enough, they left home to work so they could send money back to the family.

How Alcott defied tradition to write

However much Bronson might deserve our disdain, he did something for which we must be forever grateful: he encouraged his daughter to become a writer. This was no small thing in 19th-century America, when girls were discouraged from picking up the pen lest they develop that most unladylike attribute, ambition. While Bronson was encouraging each of his daughters to develop her God-given talent (Anna was interested in acting; Louisa in writing; Lizzie in music; and May in art), his Concord neighbour Nathaniel Hawthorne was likening women who published their writing to prostitutes. Nowhere in Little Women does Jo feel ashamed for her literary ambitions, and nor did Louisa Alcott, a most remarkable legacy bequeathed by her father and her mother, who told her she would “grow up a Shakespeare”.

Nonetheless, Alcott was deeply affected by the poverty and instability she experienced as a child. Although her father encouraged her to write without concern for worldly remuneration, she was eager to ease her mother’s burdens by earning money from her writing. Thus, like Jo, she spent many years writing blood-and-thunder tales about murder, drugs, and sexual desire that earned her more than the respectable poems and stories she published in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly. Her sensation stories appeared under a pseudonym (AM Barnard) and were not discovered until the mid-20th century.

Her mother’s experiences also made Alcott wary of marriage. She once wrote in her journal: “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.” She understood that marriage itself did not provide security, and her novels are full of warnings to young women not to marry hastily. Her first novel, Moods, published four years before Little Women, was a serious novel for adults that posed the question: what is a woman to do when she is unhappy in her marriage? The novel received mixed reviews (as does Jo’s unnamed novel in Little Women) – praised for its artistry but criticised for its taboo subject matter.

Marriage and Little Women

When the time came to write Little Women, Alcott included a scene where Marmee tells Meg and Jo that “to be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman,” but also that it is “better to be happy old maids than unhappy wives”. Alcott intended to have Meg and Amy marry but wanted Jo to be a “literary spinster” like herself. Her fans and her publisher had other ideas, however.

When Alcott wrote the second part of Little Women, she resented the pressure to marry Jo off: “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone,” she insisted. Instead, Alcott hatched a plan to give Jo “a funny match”. She was aware of the potential reaction to this decision, writing to a friend: “I expect vials of wrath to be poured out upon my head, but rather enjoy the prospect.” The funny match in question – to the older, rather prosaic Professor Friedrich Bhaer – has dumbfounded generations of readers. But Alcott was sending her young readers an important message. First, they shouldn’t feel compelled to marry the first eligible young man to propose. (Having Jo reject Laurie was a bold move in post-Civil-War America, where the numbers of marriageable men had plummeted.) And second, marriage was best when it allowed two people to work side-by-side as companionate equals, as Jo and Friedrich do running their Plumfield School.

1933: Katharine Hepburn starring as Jo in a production of Louisa May Alcott's novel 'Little Women'. (Photo by Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Actress Katharine Hepburn starring as Jo in a 1933 production. When Alcott wrote the second part of ‘Little Women’, she resented the pressure to marry Jo off: “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone,” she insisted. (Photo by Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The enduring popularity of Little Women has made it one of the most-adapted novels of all time. Five major films have appeared on the big screen: two early silent films, which have been lost, and three ‘talkies’: in 1933 with Katharine Hepburn; in 1949 with June Allyson; and in 1994 with Winona Ryder. In addition, numerous television movies and series have also been made in the USA, Britain, and all over the world. When the story is compressed into two hours or less, the March sisters tend to grow up rather fast and rush to the altar at the end. In the novel, however, Meg’s wedding (which takes place around the halfway point) makes it clear that marriage isn’t the end of a young woman’s story, but just the beginning of a new one. Meg still grows and changes, stumbling along the way, as she adapts to her new life as a wife and mother. Yet those parts of the book are, sadly, rarely portrayed on film. Likewise, there are other important moments in the book that are rarely portrayed on screen: Marmee’s struggles with her anger; Jo’s successes as a writer both before and after she meets Professor Bhaer; and Amy’s pursuit of art.

With a new adaptation set to appear on Boxing Day, it is time for a new generation’s Little Women. Screenwriter and director Greta Gerwig has chosen to focus the film on the second half of the book, where the girls face difficult choices as they grow into women. While previous adaptations have interpreted the novel nostalgically, highlighting its portrayal of home and family, Little Women has always been a deeply divided story with more modern themes than it is given credit for. Above all, it is a book about growing up and learning how to love and be loved without losing sight of who we are meant to be. No wonder its timeless and universal themes have resonated for so long with readers around the world.

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Anne Boyd Rioux is a professor of English in New Orleans and the author of Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters (Norton, 2018). You can find out more about her at anneboydrioux.com.