Peering into the secrets of Louisa May Alcott’s real life sheds light on her treasured coming-of-age tale.
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.