Some books have a sort of timeless aura to them. They are both entirely of their time – reflecting what contemporary readers would have enjoyed –and of the other times – being appreciated by generations of readers, centuries after they have been written. Some however don't and Little women is part of this little society for me. As much as I enjoy children classics, some seem to have done their duty years ago and dried up their enjoyability for future readers. The wind in the willows, The princess and the goblin, Peter Pan do not seem to have aged a second since they have been laid on paper. They universally speak to children all around the world with simple, but not simplistic, words, but also to older readers.
I will not venture to write a thesis as to why Little women seems to miss the mark now, but I feel that some points can be put forward. If it's somewhat easy to accept and understand the motherly concern of Mrs March in Little women, it is however harder to bear the same attitude in Good wives. The title hinting directly to the heart of the matter. After reading an almost perfectly regular children book dealing with mischiefs, and grief, and pranks, one is offered a sort of etiquette book. A textbook on how to tame your feelings and accept the rule of a husband and be content with it.
One of the features that can also annoy the reader are the long and numerous paragraphs where Alcott's basically preach. It's of course understandable in the context of the book, but there should be a kind of self-control in these matters and a lighter way to phrase it.
Fortunately as books are not two-dimensional objects, there are as much interesting things as annoying ones in them.
Famous introductory chapters have their own kind of melody. A melody that one feels like having known for years even if they had not read the book before. Try and not think you already know Pride and Prejudice when you have heard “It's a truth universally acknowledged that...” a hundred of times before. It's the case with Alcott and Jo's famous line “Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents”. The chapter then seems flawless. A perfect little scene where no words nor sentences need to be remove to improve the balance of the whole. All the main characters are described in a few effective words; Alcott shows that she will not be content with a uniform writing and ironical comments timidly flourish; and the atmosphere is as cozy as can be.
Each chapter is then centered on a little adventure with its own lovely (religious) moral. In the pure Slovenly Peter style, every little fault has to be punished in the psychopath fashion. You don't do your chores? Your bird will starve to death. Oh you thought you could amuse yourself during the holidays? Your sister will nearly die. You write light horror stories for some newspapers? You will go to hell and loose all your friends. Well, that's cheering.
What interested me the most – apart from Jo, who could be my spirit animal to a certain extent – were the faint echoes of other stories inside the book. One can certainly feel a distinct Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë's vibe. We have the four sisters, each embodying a certain type: the ridiculous one, the pious one, the wild one, the pretty one. The scenes of sisterly affection remind one of Jane and Elizabeth or Elinor and Marianne. Aunt March is the perfect lady Catherine de Bourgh, even if she is not as flatly mean as her aristocratic counterpart.
I also greatly enjoyed discovering the American society of the time through the eyes of a family that has lost its status. This enables us to learn how girls were educate at the time; how the family held on to society through social calls, or how the Civil War affected the rest of the population.
Some scenes, most of them in Little women – though there are a few in Good wives – are what could be described as satisfyingly sweet. I could not help but contently smile while reading Alcott's accounts of some pastoral scenes or Jo's bluntness. And I wished that the entire book had been thus designed.
As ever when reading classics, I'm pleased to now understand more literary references and relish the fact I can use all this new knowledge to boast at dinners. But this book will not be a solar bookish memory for me.
eBook Little Women & Good Wives (Little Women #1 & #1.5)