|About this Recording
NA319412 - ALCOTT, L.: Little Women (Abridged)
Louisa May Alcott
Louisa May Alcott was born in Pennsylvania in 1832, and died in 1888. Her father was the impractically idealistic Bronson Alcott, member of a New England ‘consociate’ Christian community, which attempted to live by high moral standards involving deliberate self-sacrifice for the common good.
While Alcott was running a school, he insisted on allowing a black child to share in its educational benefits: as a result, the school was forced to close. Admirable and advanced as his moral standards undoubtedly were, the eventual result was that he and his family were plunged into debt. Louisa, one of four daughters, took it upon herself to mend the family’s fortunes and in September 1867 she agreed, at a publisher’s request, to write ‘a girl’s book’ — rather against her will. She had been writing since her childhood and had already been published, but Little Women was to be her first success — a runaway success, in fact, and in spite of both her and her publisher’s initial reservations.
Those already familiar with the novel will by now have recognized Louisa as the model for Jo, the tomboyish, imaginative second sister of the story. In fact, Alcott set out quite deliberately to base Little Women on her own memories of family life, something which in part accounts for the extraordinary warmth and truth of the writing. She changed some of the names, and made her father into the more heroic — but conveniently absent — figure we find in the novel. Alcott said that Mrs. March, modeled after her mother, was ‘not half good enough’. Given the extraordinary virtue of Mrs. March, this is praise indeed. One of Alcott’s sisters was actually called Beth, and she too became seriously ill with scarlet fever: an entry from Alcott’s journal of the time notes that ‘she sews, reads, sings softly, and lies looking at the fire.’ And again: ‘Last week she put her work away, saying that the needle was too heavy.’ Listeners to this edition of Little Women will have to wait for the sequel to discover Beth’s eventual fate, but meanwhile few will fail to be moved by the chapter in which the crisis of her illness arrives in the early hours of the morning, as the family awaits the urgent return of Mrs. March.
Alcott’s capacity to arouse a variety of emotion in her readers (or listeners) is one of her greatest strengths as a writer: not only does she write with remarkable ease and intelligence, she also conveys absolute sincerity and truth to life. The squabbles and the reconciliation, jealousies, generosities and absurdities of family life are wonderfully described. This is perhaps the more remarkable given the strong, at times almost cloying, weight of religious and moral emphasis: chapters are typically concluded by a miniature sermon from Mrs. March, explaining the recent errors of the girls. Indeed, the whole novel is loosely based on the idea in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress of life as an experiential journey leading (if we keep on the path) towards the Celestial City. Stronger than all this, however, is that sense of truth to life which was, fortunately, Alcott’s abiding virtue. Humor is never far away — especially in the form of Laurie, the boy next door whose kindly vivacity occasionally leads him into scrapes. But what all the characters have in common is the capacity to learn from their mistakes — and if this sounds too good to be true, rest assured that it is not. It’s interesting that the book has been filmed several times, and with some success, most recently in 1994: unless children become quite radically unlike the creatures we know today, the novel will never date.
Generations of children — boys as well as girls — have come to love Little Women and its sequels with a passion, which few other books for younger readers can arouse.
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
Liza Ross has appeared on stage in the West End and in repertory across Great Britain, including Wings and The Front Page at the Royal National Theatre. She has made many television appearances including After the War, Poor Little Rich Girl, Two’s Company and The Month of the Doctors. Her film work includes Batman and The Shadowchasers. She has also worked extensively as a voice artist.
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