Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home
shadow
Margaret Ann Spence > BLOG > 2018 > September

Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters

By Anne Boyd Rioux

W.W. Norton, 2018

This month is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Louisa May Alcott’s classic, Little Women. Over the years, Jo, the fictional March family’s second, rebellious daughter, has been seen by adventurous girls as a role model. Apparently Jo was based on Alcott herself, and the other three March sisters in the book mirror Alcott’s own three siblings.

When it first appeared, Alcott’s book was ground-breaking because it was written in a realist style. While Marmee’s admonitions to her girls are sometimes preachy, the book lacks the deadly sermon-like style of most Victorian- era children’s books.

Still, Alcott’s book sends a mixed message. Alcott, who famously said, “I’d rather paddle my own canoe,” than be dependent on a man for financial support, never married. And in her book Meg marries a man who is poor, Beth dies, Amy is regarded as frivolous because she aspires to wealth and beauty, and Jo, after an early start as a writer, ends up marrying a man old enough to be her father, and running a school.

To my childish understanding, this sent the same message that I saw at my all-girls’ school, where all the teachers were what used to be called spinsters: that being a writer – or a teacher – means giving up the idea of a joyful, companionate marriage of equals. For boring Professor Bhaer, whom Jo chooses as her husband is anything but sexy, and he talks down to her. So for reasons described further in my article, How Childhood Reading Shapes Identity, which appeared this week in the online magazine Women Writers, Women’s Books, I identified with both Jo and her older sister Meg, my namesake. I wanted it all.

As time went on, generation after generation of girls identified with the March sisters, and more intellectual girls identified with Jo. As Anne Boyd Rioux points out in her new book, in the middle of the twentieth century feminist scholars began to dissect Little Women with new intensity. They brought to light Alcott’s darker theme. Jo, who fought against conventional behavior for women, is eventually controlled by her older husband, and Beth, the perfect, submissive adolescent, dies. Rioux suggests that Beth died of anorexia, a symptom of girls who resist the physical and mental changes puberty brings.

Rioux is concerned that Alcott is no longer taught in American schools. Apparently teachers feel boys won’t read books about girls, while girls are expected to devour classics about boys. Huck Finn is in, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy are out.

In a telling paragraph, Rioux notes: “The main obstacle to Little Women’s continued popularity, though, is that young readers are interested in a fundamentally different kind of literature. Girls want adventure, not domestic drama, and they are much more interested in fantasy than realism.”

To my mind, this demonstrates that not much has changed. If girls like heroines who are “witches, warrior princesses or hunters”, then the idea that a girl on the cusp of puberty can truly aspire to the same life choices that are held out to boys, is still far from being the norm.

Read my article in Women Writers, Women’s Books here:
http://booksbywomen.org/how-childhood-reading-shapes-identity-by-margaret-ann-spence/

The Pumpkin Eater & The Bell Jar

The Pumpkin Eater
By Penelope Mortimer

NYRB Classic, The New York Review of Books, 2011
Originally published, 1962

The Bell Jar
By Sylvia Plath
Harper, Reprint Edition 2015
Originally published, 1963

The sixties seem to be having a moment. After all, it is fifty years since that fatal year of 1968, when students all over the world rebelled. They’d had it up to here with call-ups for The Vietnam War, with parents who seemed to live in the dark ages, with college parietal rules, with laws that acted like scolds. The right to use contraception was not recognized by the US Supreme Court until 1965 – and then only for married couples. Women could not apply for a credit card without a male guarantor. Abortion was illegal.

When I told a young man I know about these restrictions, particularly on women, he was aghast. “It sounds like Saudi Arabia,” he said. Indeed. The times, they needed a-changin’. My work in progress begins in that energetic, crazy, and hopeful time. I’ve been reading a lot to research the period. I’m not up to that era quite yet. The books I have been reading lately are about the first half of the sixties. It was an entirely different time, it seems, from the public turmoil of the second half.

But the turmoil was there, seething away inside, for women. This is the take-away from each of these books. When I saw the 1964 movie, The Pumpkin Eater I was shocked, absolutely astonished, at the subject matter. The movie starred Anne Bancroft, who played a woman who, pregnant again for the umpteenth time, was persuaded by her husband and her mother to have an abortion. This was apparently legal at the time in England, where the movie was set, but illegal elsewhere, and the mere word was unmentionable in polite discourse. The movie followed the book almost exactly, and the book, according to its author, followed her own life almost exactly. The events “are all true…all real”, she said in her afterword. Tellingly, the number of children the author/writer had is never exactly spelled out, and only one, Dinah, is given a name. This is a portrait of a woman in the midst of what used to be called a nervous breakdown. And most interestingly, everyone, including her husband, her mother and her psychiatrist, blames “Mrs. Armitage”, the protagonist, for her pregnancies. As if she created them on her own.

The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical novel by the Boston-born poet, Sylvia Plath. The story starts with the protagonist Esther Greenwood’s internship at a New York women’s magazine. If it has the ring of truth, that’s because Sylvia Plath began her literary career here. The first half of the book is lively and very funny. The second is darker, chronicling the protagonist’s descent into depression, the suffocating bell jar of the title. It’s tragic in that one knows Plath’s ending. She took her own life in 1963, when she was the mother of toddlers, felt trapped, and was resentful of her estranged poet husband. The extraordinary gift of this novel is its immediacy, allowing the reader to actually feel how it is to become suicidal. While the book was published in January 1963 (Plath died a month after its publication) it is set ten years earlier. There is a prescient paragraph in the early part of the book when the editor of the magazine to which Esther is apprenticed laments the difficulty that faces her when she must have lunch with two writers. The magazine had bought six stories from the man, only one from the woman. The implication is that the nineteen-year-old Esther knew that both were equally talented.

The theme uniting these two books is that both authors were professionally very successful, with Sylvia Plath achieving world-wide fame. But both were defined in their own minds and the minds of others as mired in domestic difficulties, difficulties their husbands, who were also writers, did not recognize, let alone acknowledge.

I leave political commentary to others. But these two books made me realize that the efforts of our very slightly later generation to enhance the rights of women did reach fruition, even if many obstacles to equality remain. The societal changes of the sixties and later enabled so many of us to lead more fulfilling lives.

In this present moment, we must not let these gains slip away.