Iwas a little woman the last time I read children’s books, but this autumn, inching out of depression, I went back to the ones I loved as a girl (Ballet Shoes, A Little Princess) and read others (The Secret Garden, Little Women) for the first time. I am accidentally on trend: the Sunday Times recently declared ‘Civil War strumpet’ – high collars, low hems, frilly wrists at the bottom of full-length sleeves, as made by Dôen, Batsheva and the Vampire’s Wife – the look of the year, and on Boxing Day, Greta Gerwig brought out a new cinematic version of Louisa May Alcott’s novel. What I found surprising in these books, especially after an adulthood of reading novels with almost no plot in which people rarely improve, is that change is possible, for the better, and even expected. It would be ridiculous to imagine that children will stay sullen like Mary Lennox or angry like Jo March, and these books don’t: they gather up girls and lay out their characters and eventual fates as possibilities for the young, and not so young, reader. I sometimes think of pretty Meg, spirited Jo, saintly Beth and giddy Amy as Samantha, Carrie, Charlotte and Miranda in 1860s Massachusetts.
What were those possibilities, and what are they now? Marriage or death, a publisher suggests to Jo at the beginning of the Gerwig movie. Throughout the Alcott novel, each domestic incident is met by four distinctive reactions: ‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ Jo begins the story, Meg adds that it’s dreadful to be poor, Amy notes that it’s unfair that some girls have lots of lovely things and others none, and Beth completes the roundelay with a seasonal bromide: at least they have each other. (The first of many marvels in the Gerwig movie is the natural, chattering way she has the March sisters overlap their dialogue, which she drew exclusively from the novel or Alcott’s journals and letters, though it’s hard to be objective about a movie when you’ve cried through the last half-hour and gained inordinate amounts of pleasure from hearing swooningly handsome actors, Louis Garrel and Timothée Chalamet, crying out ‘Jo!’ – my nickname too – with thwarted desire.) The first effect of these quadrilateral reactions is to feel that there is no one way to be a woman – Beauvoir’s idea in miniature – and that’s also something you can see in the way the different movie versions of the book weight the girls’ stories. Of the eight film interpretations, George Cukor’s version in 1933 is crazy for Katharine Hepburn’s Jo; Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 take seemed to me to lean (weepily) towards Claire Danes’s Beth; only Gerwig’s has time and space for Amy, played by Florence Pugh. Though maybe I’m overdoing it: who comes away from Little Women wanting to be anyone other than Jo?
‘This is ours,’ was the drumbeat thought I had throughout the Gerwig version, but I might as well have been thinking ‘this is mine.’ Jo March, based on Alcott, is a whole set of possibilities in herself. I knew about Jo when I was younger, but was put off because she was described as a tomboy, rather than the ‘strong-minded and independent woman’ she is on the back cover of my Oxford World’s Classics grown-ups edition. But I didn’t understand: to pretend to independence as a girl or a woman in Civil War-era America was to be boyish. ‘I’m a businessman – girl, I mean,’ Jo says when she first meets her new neighbour, Laurie, explaining that she doesn’t go to school. Formal education wasn’t to be expected; marriage meant relinquishing money, children and name to your husband; work could be as a governess, teacher, actress or whore: and forget any of that if you’re not white. Feminine possibilities were circumscribed. Of the four Marches, two girls marry and one dies, which leaves Jo, whom Alcott wanted to leave unmarried and living by her pen (as she herself was and did). But Alcott’s publisher demanded a different ending for Jo. The book’s forced anti-romantic plot twist – Jo turns down a proposal of marriage from Laurie, the boy she’s spent her childhood with – makes much more sense when you consider what Jo could learn from the foreign, older and educated Friedrich Bhaer, who’s honest about the faults in Jo’s writing but believes she is capable of better, against the money and security Laurie offers. Must we still marry Jo off in 2020? When self-partnering is a thing? When all she wants is to be independent and earn the praise of those she loves? Gerwig slips the noose ingeniously in a way I won’t spoil.
I envy girls their literature. There’s no literature about getting old, staying in (or leaving) a marriage, raising (or not raising) children comparable with that about growing up. Little Women reads to this adult Jo like a compressed women’s canon, entirely ours: Meg goes to a Netherfield-style ball to hear Marmee maligned for trying to put her daughter in the way of an advantageous marriage; the March sisters’ Pickwick Club resembles the Brontë family’s collaboration; Amy’s throwing Jo’s novel on the fire in revenge recalls Hedda Gabler’s disposal of her ex’s manuscript. But there are still places it can’t go. Gerwig’s version, faithful in the violet dresses she puts on Meg, the plaster cast that Amy’s foot gets stuck in, is at its most loyal when it reminds the audience of its limits. Amy tells Laurie he risks nothing like she does in choosing someone to marry; Jo wails to Marmee that she’s sick of stories having to have happy wedding endings; Meg, Jo and Amy debate whether domestic life is interesting enough for literature or just isn’t written about; Amy’s fellow pupils trade insults about the Civil War in sentences that begin ‘my father says’. It’s in touching those limits that we can see the actual shapes women were allowed to take in the world, and the ghostly ones they might take. I also envy girls’ literature its strangeness: Little Women includes a dead canary, a croquet match inspired by the spirit of 1776, a carnivalesque disaster day when Marmee and Hannah (the maid) take a holiday and many quotations from The Pilgrim’s Progress, as well as the pickled lime craze, the excessively hot curling tongs and the fall through the frozen lake we all remember. One of its strangest moments comes when Marmee is talking to Meg and Jo about the Mrs Bennet-style plans she has for them. ‘I’d rather see you poor men’s wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.’ Meg says that poor girls don’t stand a chance; Jo adds that they will become old maids. ‘Right, Jo,’ Marmee adds, ‘better be happy old maids than unhappy wives, or unmaidenly girls, running about to have husbands.’ Could that be the 1868 way of imagining being happily self-partnered?