As a book that seems to give forevermore, it is perhaps apt that Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” standing stout at 150 years, should have a plot in which Christmas plays such a large part. To all who encounter the drama and relationships within its pages, it gives a lesson in fealty, and you can’t have too much of that.
It’s long been a favorite literary repast of mine, and one I tuck into again each December, sometimes after paying a visit to Alcott’s headstone nestled upon a hilltop in a pine forest in Concord, Massachusetts. It’s a good time of year to consider what this book gave to other authors and what it taught them about the work they might do.
If you’ve ever read the charming children’s literature of E. Nesbit, you might have noticed a connection between her work and “Little Women.” The E was for Edith, and our Ms. Nesbit was a formidable English writer of ghost stories, writing in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. In the early 20th century, she turned to children’s novels such as 1907’s “The Enchanted Castle” — which C.S. Lewis must have encountered when dreaming up Narnia — and 1906’s “The Railway Children.” These are books that encourage imagination, books in which the experiences of childhood inform the thoughts of the adults those children grow up to be, a very Alcottian conceit.
Nesbit understood that the March sisters were a unit, with Alcott’s genius being that she made you feel a part of that team. Rarely is fiction more inclusionary than in “Little Women” (or, for that matter, in Nesbit’s novels for young people). Alcott allowed real life to make sobering inroads into the youth unit some of us became so attached to, and so it went for Nesbit.
And also for Carolyn Keene, while we are talking of collectives. Carolyn Keene was the pseudonym of the legion of ghostwriters who penned the Nancy Drew mystery novels, which I don’t think would have happened without “Little Women.” Nancy Drew has a lot of Jo March in her; the way Katharine Hepburn plays the character in the 1933 George Cukor film could readily be transposed into the Nancy Drew universe, if you shaved off a few years. Jo is the March superwoman, just as Nancy fulfilled that role in her various arenas. She personifies courage and gives courage to others in need of it.
We can understand how people behind such works for children would have been touched by Alcott, but Henry James? His “psychological” novels might require a thermos of coffee and a vial of Advil, but James could be fun, and for that we must at least partially thank Alcott. Not that James wasn’t going to be gruff about all of this.
For he absolutely pasted Alcott in a review of her 1875 novel “Eight Cousins,” bemoaning all of this business with precocious little girls. But something must have happened to James, because 1898’s “The Turn of the Screw” has an awful lot of old Concord in it, with ghosts that might be ghosts or might not be ghosts, and its fulcrum is — what do you know? — precocious children, perhaps far too precocious, and the sibling bond. As a bonus, this is a warmer James in tone, even for the dark subject matter. It’s the kind of story Jo March would think up and put on as a Christmas play.
Alcott had a singular gift for creating what felt like a hermetic unit, where people were richly people, but also pulleys and levers, their individual actions influencing the other characters, and us as readers.
Alcott herself thought little of “Little Women” during its early stages, but Lillie Almy, her publisher’s niece, pronounced what she had read not rubbish at all, but something wonderful. Duly heartened by the girl, Alcott wrote on. And then she kept writing. If you’ve not read “Little Men” (1871) and “Jo’s Boys” (1886), the sequels to “Little Women,” you have two future friends awaiting you.
There are days when I even prefer “Jo’s Boys,” feeling that this author has walked stride for stride with me through generations. Jo is, of course, grown up now, and we see her brood partially through the lens of such times as that Christmas back in “Little Women.” I wonder often what Lillie Almy might have made of these successive efforts, and I thank her for helping us all be influenced to the good by a book that was very good at lending a helping hand.
By Louisa May Alcott
Little, Brown. 528 pages. $16.50.