Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Little Women: When Inspiration Strikes

My first experience of Little Women came as I lifted out a small red soft leather-backed copy from my Grandma O’Brien’s book shelf. My nine year old self had climbed three flights of stairs to reach bookshelves where all the children’s novels were stored: well thumbed copies of favourites such as Treasure Island, Oliver Twist and The Happy Prince and Other Stories lived there.

Visiting my grandparents’ house in Birkenhead, Liverpool as a child always held such promise. These Sunday lunches with my extended family on high days and holidays included special coffee containing liqueur of our choosing (mine was always an orange liqueur, Grand Marnier, but all my cousins had their personal favourites), washing dishes afterwards under the watchful eye of Pope John Paul II and mass games such as hide and seek in that big old house.

One of my favourite treats was borrowing a book from these hidden bookshelves. I’d start reading straight away and then by torch light on an otherwise arduous long journey home.

Little Women was a favourite of mine before I’d finished that first chapter and Josephine March was my hero by the end of the book, having affected my life in one way or another ever since. I’ve read the book too many times to count.

I’ve seen many adaptations on film and stage yet, despite their differences, have loved them all for bringing those girls and their extraordinary lives in to the light.

The latest adaptation directed by Greta Gerwig (Ladybird) stars a stellar cast: Meryl Streep’s Aunt March and Laura Dern’s Marmee are incredibly insightful. The script is sensitive to the novel and draws out those nuances that Alcott hinted at in relationships between the girls, between Jo and Aunt March, between Jo and Laurie, and yet I felt the novel come to life more powerfully than in any film adaptation or play I’ve seen.

Amy’s vanity, her insecurity and anxiety about her family’s fate, Beth’s health and musical prowess, Meg’s desire for a family and Jo’s ambition to be independent, a teacher and a writer were all delicately handled as their stories were woven together.

Played by Saoirse Ronan (pronounced Sershay Ronan) with fire, wit and passion, Jo is all I imagined as that child sat on my Grandma’s stairs and her need to be her own person and feeling isolated in her individuality was so effortlessly played. Alcott’s words are lifted out of the book and new life is breathed in to them.

I’ve been a teacher and I’ve been writing for as long as I remember, so Jo March affected me deeply and informed many choices I’ve made over the years, however subconsciously. My challenges 150 years later may have been different yet this young girl had a real impact and I feel blessed to have found a role model that spoke to me so early on during my formative years pushing me ever forward. Over time, I've seen Louisa May Alcott more readily in the character of Jo March and have read all i could on her life and works.

That same copy of Little Women sits on my bookshelf now along with many other reprints I’ve collected over the years. Visiting Alcott's home, Orchard House, in Massachussetts, USA, where she wrote Little Women, was a long held ambition and I felt privileged to see where she was inspired as a young writer. A replica of her home was created for the Little Women house and key points in the film were shot there - such a lovely touch.

Alcott found her inspiration where she was, she wrote of the life she lived and the lives she saw around her while sharing her views and valuable guidance with the world at a time when female writers were often not taken seriously. Yet, Louisa May Alcott has lived on as a 19th-century American literary icon and despite dying from a stroke at a young 55, she has remained relevant to girls and young women to this day. She was a nurse during the Civil War and was involved in the Women's suffrage movement, becoming the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts, living the life she hoped for her contemporaries and forging a bright way ahead. She wrote to show her readers what was possible if a girl was to push forward in to the life she hoped to live.

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