"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Little Women and Good Wives by Louisa May Alcott

Just a quick note before I begin - if your copy of Little Women contains two volumes, the second volume is simply Good Wives so don’t buy a separate copy of Good Wives if this is the case - the books are normally published together under the one title of Little Women with two volumes contained between the covers. I only mention this here because I was really confused after I read my two volume copy and it took me a while after trawling websites to find out that I had in fact already read Good Wives. Furthermore I should mention that this review contains one major spoiler, but it’s part of the plot that is generally well known about, particularly if you have seen a certain Friends episode featuring both The Shining and Little Women, but I will forewarn you when I am about to reveal it.

Little Women and Good Wives, published in 1868 and 1869 respectively, is a story following the four March sisters and their friend Theodore “Laurie” Lawrence in Massachusetts in the 1800’s. The four girls each exhibit individual flaws and much of the plot is concerned with their journey to correct themselves, always supporting each other in the end despite their numerous squabbles. Margaret “Meg” March is the eldest sister and at the beginning of the tale is very preoccupied with materialistic possessions, Josephine “Jo” March is a tomboy with a fiery temper, Elizabeth “Beth” March is shy and gentle and Amy, being the youngest March sister, is spoilt and therefore prone to temper tantrums. Little Women follows the sisters for about a year, but Good Wives skips forward in time regularly so that by the end they are all of adult age.

I found these two books to be so delightful and charming that I felt genuinely sad when they came to an end. Each chapter tends to be about an event a particular sister goes through, and what she learns at the end of it. Considering the books were originally aimed at a younger audience, I think this works well, although I know many people have complained that the books are too preachy - which is possibly true for a modern audience. However I didn’t find it bothersome and I didn’t think that the moral lessons were so overt as to ruin my enjoyment of the book. In fact if anything this aspect of the novel did me some good; I can be very impatient and reading these books made me feel bad for getting annoyed at little things and to generally be nicer and calmer.  

The sisters are well drawn and believable as real people - except for Beth, but I will discuss her in more detail a little later. The four girls are so different from one another, with their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses, and this is one of the aspects of the story that keeps it interesting and it means that almost any reader will be able to relate to at least one of them. It would have been very easy for Alcott to have fallen into the trap of painting them as a single homologous entity, but she avoided this entirely by making their characters so diverse.

Jo was by far my favourite sister. I loved everything about her character - her energy and drive, her boyishness, her love of books and writing. I really did not like how these characteristics were generally seen as faults by her family, and she was constantly being urged to act more like a lady. The reason this bothered me so much because she was such a refreshing female character compared not only to her prim and proper sisters but most female characters written in the Victorian era. Jo was portrayed as the sister with the most flaws, when I thought she was the most honest and wholesome, but I suppose this reflects the notions of how a young girl should conduct herself in the nineteenth century.  

From the feisty and energetic Jo, I come to her complete antithesis: the quiet and painfully timid Beth. I am about to reveal that spoiler I warned you about at the beginning of the review, so if you don’t want to know, skip this part.

In the latter part of Good Wives Beth dies. I only bring this spoiler into the review because it is supposed to upset the reader, but I was not moved by her death at all, in fact I was relieved when it finally happened after all the plentiful foreshadowing:

“There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.”

The reason I didn’t care was because in comparison with her sisters Beth’s character was plain and she had absolutely no personality. She was the only one of the quartet who failed to grow or develop in any way throughout the entire plot; she was just as perfect when she died as she was at the beginning:

‘“You’re a dear, and nothing else,’ answered Meg warmly, and no one contradicted her, for the ‘Mouse’ was the pet of the family.”

Beth was therefore not very believable as a person. No-one is perfect, and in a novel a realistic character should develop in some way to reflect how real people learn from their lives. I would have been upset if any of the other girls had died, and I can’t help but feel that her existence in the book was merely to act as a model for her sisters - nothing more. She is very sickly sweet as well, and is often surrounded by little fluffy kittens; her image is very much one of girlish perfection.

Out of the two books, Little Women is superior to Good Wives. In the former work, the events are constant and it is thoroughly enchanting and a delight to read. Good Wives drags a little towards the end and in some ways feels more rushed since so many years pass. If you’re looking for a really exciting thriller then you won’t find it here; this is a novel about growing up, learning, and the importance of relationships in both family and love. Having said this, I enjoy horror novels more than any other genre yet I adore these books. I think it is important to bear in mind that they were originally intended for younger girls when reading them in order to fully appreciate their messages and their overall charm.

Rating: 9/10

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