Early in the recent BBC/PBS miniseries Little Women, the first significant adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel in 24 years, Laurie (played by Jonah Hauer-King) tells Jo (Maya Hawke)—the first March sister he falls in love with—how much he enjoys watching her family from his nearby window. “It always looks so idyllic, when I look down and see you through the parlor window in the evenings,” he says. “It’s like the window is a frame and you’re all part of a perfect picture.”
“You must cherish your illusions if they make you happy,” Jo replies.
The scene nods to an awkward truth: Little Women is the window tableau and we, its readers, are Laurie, peering in and savoring its sham perfection, or at any rate its virtuous uplift. During the 150 years since the novel’s publication, fans have worshipped Alcott’s story of the four March sisters and their indomitable mother, Marmee, who navigate genteel poverty with valiant acceptance and who strive—always—to be better. Detractors (notably fewer in number) have generally fastened on some version of that saga of gritty goodness too, irritated rather than awed.
But Alcott herself took a more skeptical view of her enterprise. She was reluctant to try her hand at a book for girls, a kind of writing she described later in life as “moral pap for the young.” Working on it meant exploring the minds and desires of youthful females, a dismal prospect. (“Never liked girls or knew many,” she wrote in her diary, “except my sisters.”) While writing Little Women, Alcott gave the fictional Marches the same nickname she used for her own tribe: “the Pathetic Family.” By the final chapter of Jo’s Boys, the second of two novels that followed Little Women, Alcott didn’t try to hide her fatigue with her characters, and with her readers’ insatiable curiosity about them. In a blunt authorial intrusion, she declared that she was tempted to conclude with an earthquake that would engulf Jo’s school “and its environs so deeply in the bowels of the earth that no [archaeologist] could ever find a vestige of it.”