When I was 10, I didn’t want to wear a skirt, comb my hair or learn to keep house. I wanted to run around outside and to write. I felt alone, like an alien dropped into GirlLand: the other girls were so different from me. Until I read “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott. When I met Jo March, the novel’s gender-bending sister, I no longer felt alone.
“Little Women” has been adapted numerous times for the stage, screen and TV. Who can forget Katharine Hepburn as Jo March in the 1933 movie of the novel directed by George Cukor? A movie adaptation of “Little Women,” directed by Clare Niederpruem, will be released nationally on Sept. 28. Another movie of the novel, directed by Greta Gerwig of “Lady Bird,” will be out in 2019.
Even if you live in a cave, you’ve likely heard of “Little Women” published 150 years ago this month. Set during and after the Civil War, the novel tells the story of Meg, Jo (short for Josephine), Beth and Amy – the four sisters of the March family. The family is poor. Meg and Jo have to work. Their father is largely absent: he’s away as a chaplain in the war, and a figure in the background when he comes home. Their mother (“Marmee”), as a single parent, holds the family together. Lawrence, a.k.a., Laurie, a rich teenager, lives next door with his grandfather.
This would be a boring, unremarkable, outdated story if not for some surprising twists. Meg wants what every girl in the 19th century is expected to aspire to: she hopes to find a man, marry, set up house and have children. Beth, like other fictional 19th century invalids, is practically an angel. She’s too otherworldly to think of marriage and kids. But, Amy, girly, likable, though shallow, is a bit unusual for girls of her time. She’s not only a fashion plate and social butterfly, she loves art and devotes herself to her drawing.
Jo’s gender-bending practically leaps off the page. Jo doesn’t want to be the least bit girly, to marry or to be mired in domesticity. “I hate to think I’ve got to…wear long gowns…,” Jo says, “…I like boys’ games and work and manners! I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy.”
More surprising, at a time when women were discouraged from pursuing careers and being authors, Jo is a writer. Alone in her garret, eating apples, Jo in her “vortex” writes stories. She uses the money that she earns from her stories to help her struggling family. As Anne Boyd Rioux, author of the new book “Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of ‘Little Women’ and Why It Still Matters,” says, Alcott’s novel has inspired writers from bell hooks to Barbara Kingsolver to Susan Sontag to John Green to Anne Tyler to Jhumpa Lahiri.
“I was able to tell myself that I too was like her [Jo],” said Simone de Beauvoir, “I too would be superior and find my place.”
I wouldn’t have written any poems if I hadn’t read “Little Women” in the attic as a kid.
The genderbending isn’t limited to the girls in “Little Women.” Laurie goes against the conventional view of masculinity. While his grandfather wants him to go into business, he’s intent on becoming a musician.
In its 150th year, “Little Women” still resonates for queer people. “Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: A Graphic Novel: A Modern Retelling of Little Women” written by Ray Terciero and illustrated by Bre Indigo will be out in February. In this retelling the March family is blended, multiracial and LGBTQ inclusive. Terchiero, who is queer said in a statement, “…Bre and I wanted to see ourselves in the characters…which is why we made the family diverse and one of the characters LGBTQ.”
From your fans, Happy anniversary, “Little Women!”
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.