Little Women: N M Browne

It must be forty years since I last read Little Women and its sequels. Perhaps it's longer. I have no

clear picture of where or when I first encountered Jo only that I did.  I cried over Beth, of course, and was briefly guilted by Marmee's virtue and ashamed that I had never given away my breakfast to someone else that needed it. But it was Jo that inspired me (along with every other female writer of my vintage that I have ever met.) I was a little bit worried that I lacked her spirit. I was never a tom boy and though, of course, I was in love with Laurie, there was no equivalent in my life. I was not Jo in any real way except in my awkwardness, but I wanted to do what she did: I wanted to write. Looking back I wonder if rather than that being a point of contact between us, the fictional Jo and the half invented Nicky, that I wanted to write because that was how I could be Jo. Surely I am not that shallow, on the other hand...
 I have often scoffed at the idea that to be something you have to see it first. I have always loved reading and I loved writing stories at school and making things up, but honestly don't know if I would have thought of writing as a serious, money earning thing without Jo's ambition. Watching the latest film version of the novel last night, brought home to me how much she mattered to me. I loved the final scene of the film in which her book is type set, printed and bound almost more than any other. I don't remember reading Jo's first response to criticism of her writing, but it is so like my own that I wonder if she was my secret model for that too.
The film, much as I enjoyed it, was not the book I read as a child. That book with its pious lessons (largely stripped from the film) and its attitude to womanhood was internalised long ago, as much a part of my childhood as roast dinners and hot doughnuts at the beach. I'm not saying its healthy to have nineteenth century mores running in your head, but it is perhaps unavoidable: Jo March was a woman of her time and her influence is not wholly benign, though a least I no longer say 'Christopher Columbus' even in my head.
Jo was not the only one, of course, other books featured women writers, Joey of the Chalet Girls who had a vast family and still wrote stories provided another subconscious model. I wanted to be Katy and Anne too: the one responsible for a phobia of swings, the other for my desire, (occasionally attained) for red hair.  We are what we read, especially what we read when we are young. It is perhaps truer than I thought that we need to see it to be it. For writers that is a disconcerting  responsibility. As we stand on the brink of a new and slightly terrifying decade, may we discharge it well.

Comments

misha said…
These were my formative books too. Brilliant to know someone shares my love of and admiration for Jo, Joey, Katy and Anne.
Griselda Heppel said…
I loved Little Women and Good Wives as a child and can't wait to see this new film (though it'll have to be very special to outdo the wonderful Winona Ryder film of 20 years ago). The other evening I challenged all the males in my family (who of course haven't read the book) what their image of the story might be - a sweet little tale of girls growing up together, making daisy chains? Yup, of course that's what they thought. So I told them about the terrible fights in which people nearly die, and about the canary that does die because Jo forgot to feed it and Marmee, teaching the girls a lesson about responsibility, didn't remind her (no surprises that that little episode has never made an adaptation I've seen yet, nor will it this one). A hard upbringing for 4 very different characters who struggle with each other to find themselves. Which I guess explains why, early in Elena Ferrante's extraordinary Neapolitan Quartet, My Brilliant Friend, Lenu and Lila pool the little money they have to buy a copy, which they read and reread until it falls apart.

Yes, I loved Katy too but couldn't get into Anne of Green Gables and missed out altogether on the Chalet Girls. Never too late though!
Enid Richemont said…
Trying to read to your children books you'd loved when young is interesting. Some I found unreadable, most especially "Black Beauty", which I tried on my horse-besotted young daughter, and upon which we both gave up (yet I'd once loved it.)
I also loved this book - read in an old copy which had belonged to my mother, and had spent a long time in a trunk in a damp shed, which gave it a special musty aroma! I also rather took to Jo as a role model, because she's not the Victorian equivalent of 'pink and spangly' and because I assumed she was based on the author, Louisa Alcott. I didn't 'write' back then but I did draw stories...
One thing though (in relation to a comment above), can anyone explain to me why crying is so necessary, in response to sad bits in books/films/plays? Is it perhaps a 'sisterhood' thing which we females must do? Any ideas? Are we thought not to be real women/girls if we don't?

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