~ By Hope Ramsay
Little Women, is not exactly contemporary literature, since it was published in 1868, although it was contemporaneously written. It’s not even a romance, exactly. It’s more of a YA novel with strong romantic elements.
It’s also a classic. And I’ll surmise that a hefty majority of contemporary romance authors have read this book. I wouldn’t be surprised if an equally large number of us bonded with Jo March, the main character of Louisa Alcott’s masterpiece of American children’s literature.
I certainly connected with this character when I first read the book at age twelve. Jo was a real girl who wasn’t at all comfortable with her femininity. She wanted to be a writer so bad that she didn’t worry about what other girls did. She just wrote. And wrote. And wrote. I understood that feeling even at the age of twelve. Especially this passage:
Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and fall into a vortex, as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace.
However, at age twelve I had yet to experience the world of publishing so all of Jo’s trials and tribulations on her road to success didn’t make a lasting impression on me.
But when I recently re-read the book, I discovered a few gems about the life of a commercially successful author that I just have to share. Alcott, who was herself commercially successful, slipped this stuff in almost between the lines. But I was struck by how contemporary her comments about the professional writing life seemed to be.
Here’s Jo on the joy of being a commercial success:
Jo fell to work with a cheery spirit, bent on earning more of those delightful checks. She did earn several that year, and began to feel herself a power in the house, for by the magic of a pen, her ‘rubbish’ turned into comforts for them all. The Duke’s Daughter paid the butcher’s bill, A Phantom Hand put down a new carpet, and the Curse of the Coventrys proved the blessing of the Marches in the way of groceries and gowns.
Or this one where Jo is trying to explain her editor’s revision letter to her family:
“But Mr. Allen says, ‘Leave out the explanations, make it brief and dramatic, and let the characters tell the story’,” interrupted Jo, turning to the publisher’s note.
Or this one, where the family turns into the critique group from hell:
So, with Spartan firmness, the young authoress laid her first-born on her table, and chopped it up as ruthlessly as any ogre. In the hope of pleasing everyone, she took everyone’s advice, and like the old man and his donkey in the fable suited nobody.
Or this one, where she’s bewildered by both her commercial success and those pesky negative reviews:
Then, to complicate the ruin, she cut it down one third, and confidingly sent the poor little romance, like a picked robin, out into the big, busy world to try its fate. Well, it was printed, and she got three hundred dollars for it, likewise plenty of praise and blame, both so much greater than she expected that she was thrown into a state of bewilderment from which it took her some time to recover.
Of course we all know that Jo eventually learns not to listen to the critiques or the marketplace. She digs deep and writes a story that is true. A story like Little Women- filled with characters who are so flawed and so loveable that they have become like real, living, breathing people. Alcott’s has written a timeless story because she didn’t follow any of the rules. She let one of her main characters die. And she gave her heroine a wonderful love story with a bumbling professor, instead of the handsome, young, rich, and desirable boy next door.
This book has many levels. It inspired us as kids who wanted to be writers. But it has something important to say to us as mature writers, too.
My latest book, Last Chance Knit & Stitch, is an adaptation of Little Women. And no, it’s not a retelling. I wouldn’t ever try to do that. But I do have a tomboy heroine, older hero, and a boy next door. The book club the small town that’s the setting of my novels, is reading Little Women. And there are lots of parallels. I spend a lot of time exploring gender stereotypes and parental expectations – themes you’ll find in spades when you go back and re-read Little Women as an adult.
Which I heartily suggest that you do. You’ll be stunned by the things you missed the first time around.