Okay, here is a confession: I expected not to like Little Women on reread. My memories of it are as somewhat preachy, pious, and sentimental, which I liked when I was ten because I too was somewhat preachy, pious, and sentimental. I mean, hopefully I am still pious in its original sense, but not in combination with the other two. Even then, though, it was never a true favourite with me the way it is with lots of small bookish children. I agreed to read it mostly because it was a buddy read with Melanie (and Biscuit), and I always enjoy our conversation irrespective of whether I like the book itself. Sometimes it’s more interesting if I didn’t like the book, actually, because then there’s more to talk about! So, were my expectations met? Well, yes and no. A cautionary note: this book contains some spoilers for Little Women/Good Wives, which you have probably all either read, watched, or decided you have no interest in.

I doubt there’s anyone reading this post who doesn’t have at least some knowledge of the premise, but just in case: four sisters, ranging in age from 12 to 17, are living with their “Marmee” and their cook, Hannah. Their father has just gone away to be a chaplain for Union soldiers in the American Civil War, and they miss him terribly. The novel follows them in a more-or-less episodic fashion over the course of about a year. All four girls have strengths and flaws – Meg is pretty and gentle, but always longing after the Before Days when her father was rich; Jo is kind and generous, but a bit wild with a hot temper; Beth is sweetness itself, but intensely shy; Amy is charming, but selfish and impetuous. At the very start of the novel, they become friends with boy-next-door Laurie. He and Jo quickly become inseparable. The novel advertises itself in the first few chapters as being about the girls working to overcome their flaws, loosely informed by the story of A Pilgrim’s Progress – but, for my money, it’s by far at its strongest when Alcott forgets that and writes about the girls’ various adventures with Laurie.

Little Women is as moralistic as I’d remembered. Much is made of the fact that they are trying to do good works despite being poor, but I found it difficult to make sense of this when the novel opens with a neighbouring family almost starving to death for want of money. The Marches, in contrast, have a nice house, a cook-housekeeper, and money for the doctor. This was irritating (though of course poverty is relative; it’s implied that they have lost a great deal of money through a bad investment, and are now much poorer than all their social circle). I also got annoyed on several occasions with Alcott’s preaching – she and I have some important theological differences, most notably in this book to do with the role of both work and works within salvation. Alcott has a tendency to present a specifically US-American version of Christianity as The Gospel Entire. I think I would have found this annoying even if I agreed with it, but I do not.

I was tempted to do a whole post all about Alcott’s theology and my problems with it, but I don’t think anyone would find that interesting, so I’ll confine myself to a single example. At one point, the girls have a holiday from work – a week off, where they do not do any of their jobs or chores unless they want to. And, of course, the moral of this episode is that they hate it, because Work is Always Good and also if you aren’t working then Do You Have a Purpose Even? After all, only selfish people want holidays, ergo being on holiday turns you selfish. Bleugh. This is very Puritan, which is why it’s so prominent in contemporary American evangelicalism, but it’s by no means common to all denominations and families of churches. There are plenty of churches outside the US, and probably plenty within, that have a healthier view of work and rest. The stuff about work ethic, and especially working for salvation, is so integral to Little Women and so contrary to my own beliefs that I really struggled with it this time around.

Good Wives is different. It opens with Meg’s wedding, and stretches over a few years when the March sisters are in their late teens to mid twenties. I have always liked the three sequels to Little Women more than the first volume, and I like each one more than the previous: I like Good Wives, I really like Little Men, and I absolutely love Jo’s Boys. I think Alcott manages to tone her preaching down a lot in these books, and when she does preach it at least tends to be on topics where we are more in agreement. See, for example, her comments about old maids (and try to forgive her for laying so much emphasis on the “oldness” of people who are maybe 45):

Gentlemen, which means boys, be courteous to the old maids[…] Just recollect the good aunts who have not only lectured and fussed, but nursed and petted, too often without thanks, the scrapes they have helped you out of, the tips they have given you from their small store, the stitches the patient old fingers have set for you, the steps the willing old feet have taken […] if death, almost the only power that can part mother and son, should rob you of yours, you will be sure to find a tender welcome and maternal cherishing from some Aunt Priscilla, who has kept the warmest corner of her lonely old heart for ‘the best nevvy in the world’.

Now. I do have issues with this – the implication that unmarried and childless women are lonely by default, and the assertion that all women are inherently maternal, just for a start – but Alcott apologises for her “little homily” in the next sentence, so at least she’s aware it went on a bit. Knowing a little bit of her biography, it’s clear that she is basically describing herself here, which makes me feel fonder towards the passage. This is what I mean about the preaching being less annoying (for me) in the second book. This is more-or-less how I feel about children and the prospect of motherhood. I love children, but am unlikely to have any of my own for a variety of medical, temperamental, and social reasons. Irrespective of this, my godchildren (plus any nieces or nephews I may eventually acquire) have an extremely important place in my heart and always will. So Alcott is still preaching, but because this is something I agree with, it’s less annoying. Even though I believe it in a less saccharine way. And with fewer references to “old” and “lonely”, if you please.

In short, Good Wives feels more authentic and believable to me than Little Women. Alcott is no longer actively trying to tie the story to A Pilgrim’s Progress, and it unfolds more naturally – I think that’s why there’s so much less preaching. On the flipside, there were things that I found much harder to read this time around. For instance, Laurie is clearly in love with Jo, who obviously loves him deeply in return but without the same romantic attraction. It’s apparent that he’s on course for a nasty heartbreak in the early part of the book, and I wanted to step into the story and give him a hug. I don’t remember being as moved by that when I was thirteen! I’m immensely glad, though, that she doesn’t marry Laurie – I think this is one of the strongest points of the whole series. I think that Alcott’s decision to keep them as best friends who survive a difficult estrangement is rare and lovely. This is especially true because they then both end up with people who are neither a threat to nor threatened by their friendship, and there’s not a hint of pining. They have to resolve the fact that they love each other dearly, but differently, which is something that happens in real life but is not much addressed in books.

Overall, I’m very glad I reread this. I enjoyed my conversation with Melanie and Biscuit a lot. We talked a lot about the differences in work culture between the UK and the US – the UK tends towards a more European relationship with paid leave, for example, though over the past few years (and especially during the pandemic) there has been an expectation that people won’t take leave. Frankly, the American managers who have been bringing their weird work norms over here can leave any time they please. I’ll keep taking all my contractually entitled leave even if it costs me promotions. (I went searching for a non-Reddit link to add as supporting information for that statement about American managers – but the first thing I found was an American manager complaining about how “disloyal” British employees are to their bosses because we actually take our leave. I do not wish to link to him, but it was so dispiriting that I gave up the search before I could find anything else). Anyway, the reread led to a great conversation, and I enjoyed revisiting Good Wives. I’ve reread Little Men and Jo’s Boys a couple of times over the years, and I dare say I will continue to do so. I might even add Good Wives into the mix sometimes following this reread. I doubt I’ll pick up Little Women again, though!